From how many calories you can expect to burn, to the foods you need to fuel your training.
Medically reviewed by Dr Louise Wiseman MBBS, BSc (Hons), DRCOG, MRCGP and words by Annie Hayes
To help you set out on the right track, we asked personal trainer Hayley Balls, master trainer on evidence-based exercise prescription app EXi, to share her tips for running for weight loss – and getting results:
How many calories does running burn?
When taking up running for weight loss, the effectiveness of the exercise depends almost entirely on whether you’re in a calorie deficit. ‘That means you are burning more calories than you are consuming,’ says Balls. ‘You could run every day, but if you are binge eating or eating unhealthy, high-calorie foods then you will never lose weight.’
How many calories you burn running depends on many factors, including your weight, running speed, distance and elevation, and how frequently you run. ‘The heavier you are, and the faster and further you run, the more calories you will burn,’ says Balls. ‘The fitter you get and the more weight you lose, the fewer calories you will burn by running the same distance.’
While the words ‘jog’ and ‘run’ are sometimes used interchangeably, a jogging pace is between 4 and 6 mph, and a running pace is faster than 6 mph. According to Harvard Health:
- A person weighing 57kg (125 lbs) will burn 300 calories running at a speed of 6 mph (10 min/mile) for 30 minutes.
- A person weighing 70kg (155 lbs) will burn 372 calories running the same pace and distance, while a person weighing 84kg (185 llbs) will burn 444 calories.
How often should you run for weight loss?
When you’re running for weight loss, the more challenging your workout, the more calories you’ll burn. If you’re new to running, Balls recommends starting with one or two short runs every week. ‘Work on building up the intensity of each run, either by increasing the distance, speed, or time you run for,’ she says.
The more frequently you run, the more important it is to have slow recovery runs in-between, Balls continues. ‘These runs will still burn calories, but they will give your body the opportunity for much-needed active recovery,’ she says. If you work up to four or five runs per week, she says, at least two or three of these runs should be gentle.
What to eat if you’re running for weight loss
Generally speaking, your diet should be low in processed foods and refined sugars, contain a large variety of fruits, vegetables, pulses and legumes, and be rich in complex carbohydrates and protein sources, says Balls.
‘A diet high in good quality carbohydrates and protein is essential to help repair muscle fibres, and refill muscle glycogen stores,’ she says.
Should you eat before a run?
‘A meal of carbohydrates before exercise will help provide energy for the run. A meal high in protein and carbohydrates afterwards will help proper recovery.’
If you prefer to lace-up before breakfast – known as ‘fasted cardio’ – that’s fine, too. ‘Eating before running is not essential, just ensure to have a good meal high in carbs and protein once you return,’ Ball adds.
Running for weight loss tips
Even the best training schedule in the world requires lifestyle tweaks to truly thrive. Follow our running for weight loss tips to keep plateaus at bay.
- Add strength workouts
Regular strength training won’t just make you a stronger, faster runner – it’ll significantly decrease your risk of injury while pounding the pavements. A stronger core will improve your running form, and stronger leg muscles will make your runs feel easier.
‘Strength training can help improve your running speed and endurance, helping you to push harder and therefore burn more calories,’ says Balls. Adding lean muscle mass will also boost your metabolism, which translates into a greater calorie burn both at rest and during workouts.
- Switch things up
When you’re running for weight loss, repeating the same workout day-in, day-out will fast-track you towards a plateau. Use health apps or trackers to continually monitor your progress, Balls suggests, and change up your distance, time, speed, or frequency to keep seeing progress.
‘As you get fitter and your body becomes used to certain movements, your body will burn less calories to achieve the same goal,’ she says. ‘By keeping your workout the same, you may end up burning fewer calories – to the point where you are no longer in a calorie deficit. This means you will no longer be losing any more weight.’
- Run in the morning
For the feel-good factor, lace up first thing. ‘Getting your run completed in the morning means your exercise is done for the day,’ says Balls. ‘No need to pull yourself off the sofa at 7pm to run – you can enjoy your evening in peace knowing you completed your own challenge first thing in the morning. No matter how stressful or long your day ends up becoming, you have already done your exercise, which is always an accomplishment.’
Furthermore, completing your workout in the morning could have a healthful knock-on effect for the rest of your day. Completing 45 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise in the morning both reduces your motivation for food and increases your total physical activity throughout the day, a study by Brigham Young University found.
- Run harder, not longer
When running for weight loss, prioritise intensity over endurance to maximise your total calorie burn for the workout. ‘As you increase your running distance, typically speed reduces,’ says Balls. ‘You may burn more calories running at a higher speed than a longer distance, depending on how long and fast you run. Using a fitness tracker will help monitor what is the optimal speed and distance for you to run to maximise calorie burn.’
‘Using a fitness tracker will help monitor what is the optimal speed and distance for you to run to maximise calorie burn.’
- Get enough sleep
Sleep is essential for maximising the recovery process – priming your body for your next run – and also helping you make better food choices. ‘When we’re tired our motivation is low, so we’re less likely to exercise,’ says Balls. ‘We are also much more likely to eat high sugar snacks and processed treats. If you are trying to lose weight, this is a bad combination. Sleeping well will help you recover from runs, both mentally and physically.’
- Fuel your body
While a small calorie deficit is essential for weight loss, chronically under-fuelling your body will prevent you from performing at your peak – and can also cause muscle wastage. ‘Inadequate nutrition can reduce your energy levels, meaning you perform worse, and it can also cause your muscles to burn themselves as energy,’ says Balls. ‘When in a calorie deficit, keeping a high protein intake has been proven to maximise muscle retention.’
- Monitor your intake
Many people underestimate how many calories they eat and over-estimate how many they burn, says Balls. Tracking your food intake and energy expenditure using diary apps and heart rate monitors can be a useful tool for understanding workout intensity and portion sizes. ‘If you are gaining weight, chances are you are eating too much,’ says Balls. ‘Weight training will cause a slight increase in weight over time, but muscle gain is fairly slow.’
- Don’t over-exercise
Aside from exhausting your body, over-exercising raises your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Chronically high cortisol levels are known to cause weight gain by several mechanisms, including by increasing insulin levels, which signals your body to store fat around your abdomen.
Cortisol also increases your appetite and stimulates cravings for sweet, high-fat foods. Getting enough sleep and nailing your nutrition will help to mitigate this, says Balls. ‘Having small breaks like rest periods in exercise, or the odd ‘cheat meal’ can definitely help psychologically,’ she says.
How to get started
One of the most alluring aspects of running is its accessibility. While other forms of cardiovascular exercise – like cycling, for example – offer a greater calorie burn since they recruit more muscle groups, they also require specific kit, says Balls.
‘You don’t need any equipment, you can do it anywhere and it is easy to vary the difficulty.’
To start running, meanwhile, all you really need is a comfortable pair of trainers. ‘Running is a great form of exercise for weight loss,’ she says. ‘It’s great because you don’t need any equipment, you can do it anywhere and it is easy to vary the difficulty.’
With that said, running is a high-impact form of cardio, ‘so it can stress the ankles, knees and lower back,’ says Balls. For this reason, it might not be suitable for those new to fitness. ‘To work up to it, it is recommended to start fast walking and progressing to jogging first,’ she says.
When starting out, try walking for 30 minutes, four times a week. Once you’re comfortable with this level of exercise, start introduce jogging intervals – for example, jog for one minute, walk for four minutes. Gradually reduce the walking intervals and increase your jogging speed as your fitness progresses. Listening to your body will mean you achieve more in the long term.