Is Running Really Best for Weight Loss?

Running is one of the most popular fitness activities in the world—in fact, in 2016, more than 64 million people went running or jogging in the U.S. alone. As popularity has increased, so too have the variety of activities designed to attract new runners to the sport. Running clubs continue popping up in cities big and small as running has evolved into a social activity. Events such as The Color Run, mud runs and even a run where you're chased by zombies have changed the perception of running to become less about work and more about fun.

As a result, running has developed a reputation for being the "go-to" exercise for people wanting to lose weight and get fit. Want quads of steel? Run. Want to lose fat quickly? Run. Want to become the fitness envy of your friends and family? Run. But is running really the best way to go about reaching your goals? If running isn't an option because of physical limitations or it's just not your idea of fun, do you have to become a runner in order to be successful?

The short answer is "no." If the only running you ever do is when you're chased by your kids in a game of tag, you can still reach your goals. If you've been a runner in the past but never saw the results you were hoping for, changing to activities other than running could be the key to your progress.

Full disclosure: I've been a runner for the past 16 years and I'm also a certified running coach. I love running, but frankly, it's not for everyone—and that's okay. If you don't want to or can't run, there are plenty of other activities out there to try. Depending on how much you're running and your weight-loss goals, running could actually be hindering your progress more than helping. Don't be fooled into thinking that running is the magic answer to all of your health and fitness dilemmas.

Why Running Might Not Be Your Best Option

Running is a high-impact activity that puts strain on your muscles, joints and cardiovascular system. There's nothing wrong with slowly progressing into a running program if you have a solid fitness base first. If you're new to exercise or have been inactive for quite some time, though, jumping into running feet first (no pun intended) could be setting you up for injury or physical burnout.

Keith Stafford, a certified personal trainer and owner of Nashville's Fit Body Bootcamp, believes that running doesn't necessarily make a person stronger. "In fact, a lot of people that focus on running don't develop strength in other areas of the body," he explains. "I have worked with a lot of clients that have come to me after running injuries (typically feet and knees) and weight gain due decreased physical activity." Stafford's solution typically includes HIIT workouts. "This is done in a manner that doesn't aggravate their previous running injuries, yet allows them to work at high bursts of intensity for short amounts of time, burning body fat and increasing overall health with the minimum amount of time commitment," he says.

In addition to the risk of injury, if you are an experienced runner with a weight-loss goal, it's easy to assume that more is better. "I'll train for a marathon!" you think. "That's a great way to shed pounds!" The reality is that distance running can make weight loss more difficult. "Many of us make the mistake of assuming that if we run the way professional runners do, we will lean out to look like them," explains Iris Lami, personal trainer and co-manager of Gingerhill Farm Retreat. "But professional runners don't end up as lean as they do because they are professional runners; they are professional runners because they are naturally lean, giving them an advantage in the sport."

When you're training for distance events such as half and full marathons, it's very important to balance the demands of training with your food intake. If you cut calories too much, you won't have the energy to complete your longer runs. If you don't cut calories enough, weight loss becomes difficult. The balance of calories in versus calories out becomes very tricky, which is why lots of running isn't the answer to your weight-loss goals.

A Better Exercise Plan for Weight Loss

Just because running alone isn't the ideal activity for weight loss doesn't mean there isn't a place for it in a well-rounded exercise routine. Certified strength and conditioning specialist Ivana Chapman says her clients have seen better results when they incorporate other activities into their routine. "Since there is a strong public perception that you need to run to lose weight or get fit, many clients come to me because they're not getting the results they want with running or they don't want to run anymore since they never really enjoyed it," she explains. "Running may make you a slighter smaller version of yourself, but it's muscle that gives your body the strong, athletic shape that many people want."

Ivana sees more success when clients incorporate weight training into their routines. "My clients find that they're able to get the shape they want and they develop [the] more 'toned' appearance that comes from building muscle and losing fat," she shares. "Many clients also notice that their posture gets better when they add a balanced weight training program to their routines. Those clients who continue running in conjunction with weight training feel like stronger runners with more resistance to fatigue and the ability to push harder in the latter half of their runs."

Dr. Jason Way, founder of NexGen Natural Medicine, believes the type of runs you're doing are key to seeing results. "If you really like running, sprints can do much more due to the explosive nature of the activity that actually stimulates the growth of muscle and increases metabolism for hours after you're finished," he says. Way also recommends combining sprints with high-intensity interval training to increase your excess postexercise oxygen consumption (commonly referred to as EPOC) which is the calories you continue burning after the workout is over. "Resistance training is another great option which will focus on building more muscle mass, which in turn increases the basal metabolic rate to translate into faster and more effective weight loss," he explains. 

SparkPeople Members Find Balance

When RUCIRANANA was almost 40, she began to notice that cardio exercise was not as effective as it had been previously. "I could run miles and miles but could not lose weight. My body had become very efficient at doing the same activities," she remembers. "I was continuing to run at my 'happy pace' and slowly gaining weight." RUCIRANANA was also teaching group fitness classes and circuit-style strength training, but says it was likely too much cardio and overtraining that contributed to her lack of results.

"What made the most changes to my body composition and overall progress was when I incorporated heavy compound lifting into my routine," she describes. "Of course, this was coupled with returning to SparkPeople and tracking my food. I had great success last summer, losing 10 pounds and gaining a ton of strength."

"I used to run for weight loss but had to stop because of narrowing in two of my discs," HAPPYCPA1965 shares. Now he exclusively uses weight-lifting and diet for weight loss. "This might sound strange, but I'm actually losing more fat since I had to give up running. When I ran I always felt hungry so even though I was burning more calories, I was also consuming more. Once I stopped distance running, I was able to control my eating better [and] I have actually lost more fat."

ZANTONK is 55 years old and took up running in her 30's to train for a marathon. "I didn't like running, but loved the way I felt after. Now I mostly do yoga, a little barre and a little weight training," she describes. A few times a year she signs up to do a 10K or half marathon and feels so much stronger and balanced during the training because of her other activities. "Running is now an 'extra' thing I do for fun and [a] 'goal' challenge, not my main movement."

Nothing should discourage you from becoming a runner or continuing your running career if that's what you enjoy. If you like running and it's giving you the fitness and weight-loss results you desire, then keep it up! If you've always wanted to try it and feel physically ready for the demands of a regular running routine, go for it! Keep in mind that variety is important, though, so don't get stuck in the same routine day after day. And if you've never tried and don't want to start, or you've tried and just don't want to continue, remember that running isn't the holy grail exercise—you can still reach your goals to become a healthier and fitter you through a variety of other physical activities.

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints

Member Comments

thanks Report
Excellent share...Thanks! Report
I wish I could run. Report
I was a runner for many years. I also used to do triathlons so swimming and biking were also competed in. I am a competitive person and of all the sports I have been involved in, I miss running more than anything. When I ran I could think and plan my day ahead. Running helped relieve stress for me too. I am now full of arthritis and cannot no longer run. I can walk, but not very far. I've now had two total knees the latest one was in June of 2018. Great article. Thanks for posting. Report
I was never a runner, and have no desire to be a runner. I have arthritis in my back and bad knees - and seasonal allergies - so running is not a good choice for me. But, like diets, there are countless choices for exercise.

What works for one person doesn't have to work for everyone. Personally, I like variety. I do Zumba, walking workouts, resistance workouts, Pilates, and Yoga - all without leaving my home. I also go to the gym to use the weights and machines and swim. That's enough for one 66-year old woman. Report
Running? Pass.... Report
Not able to run but this is good info. Thanks. Report
thanks Report
I wish I could run more! Report
Great article, Coach Jen! Well said.
I fall under the category "Running - not my idea of fun".
There are so many other ways to stay active and lose or maintain weight. Report
Great article. I always preferred walking, especially in the country. It helps relieve my stress and I enjoy the beauty of the scenery around me. Report
Find an exercise you love. Report
I too am happy to finally read this--- Report
Good article. Report
Interesting article, cleared up some things for me. Report


About The Author

Jen Mueller
Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist, behavior change specialist and functional training specialist. She is also a RRCA-certified running coach. See all of Jen's articles.