How to run to lose weight

Everything you need to know about how to run to lose weight

Male runner looking at watch on wrist.
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Want to know how to run to lose weight? In this step-by-step guide, we explain how to build up a running program and introduce gentle exercise to your weekly routine. We cover the benefits of gradually building your distance, incorporating harder sessions, and the importance of rest days. 

Running is a great way to get fit and have some 'me time' which has the added benefit of clearing your mind whilst you shed calories. But it is important to remember that running is not a magic solution and lifestyle changes are just as important for optimal, and sustained weight loss.

To avoid injury make sure you have the best running shoes for women or the best running shoes for men to ensure your running program gets off to a great start. Finding the right footwear will give you comfort and confidence when tackling longer and faster runs, which are a vital component of running to lose weight.

Running to lose weight: what you need to know

Three senior women running together.

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First of all, can running actually help you lose weight? The short answer is yes, running can help people lose weight. A six-year study in the US published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found a 90% greater weight loss for people that ran, compared to those that walked.

Running, which is particularly good for raising the heart rate, burns more calories per hour than other cardiovascular exercises such as cycling or swimming. So introducing running into a weight loss plan will help you to burn more calories, ultimately creating a calorie deficit.

But the impact of other factors shouldn’t be underestimated and running to lose weight should be incorporated into a lifestyle change. UK Athletics running coach Caroline Richardson of Run Train Repeat says the relationship between what you eat, exercise, and weight loss is complex with age, diet, genetics, and gender all having an impact.

"The quality of the food you consume as much as the quantity is hugely important. So, while running can help you lose weight, diet plays a huge factor – you can’t outrun a bad diet," says Richardson.

If you start to increase your food intake because you feel hungrier as you exercise more, or you like to reward yourself with an extra slice of pizza or a brownie after a run, you are not going to see a reduction in weight.

"People generally tend to overestimate how many calories they burn during running which then reduces the calorie deficit," adds Richardson.

Running builds muscle whilst also reducing fat so measuring your weight on scales may not be the best measure of the positive impact running can have on the body.

Two people running along a road.

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How can interval running help you lose weight?

Intervals are a great way to improve fitness and boost weight loss. Running repetitions at a faster pace or up a hill increases the effort needed to run and also the amount of fat and calories you burn.

Intervals are a very time-efficient way to improve speed and endurance and introducing these to your running schedule once a week is enough to gain the benefits, says Richardson.

Studies show that fast interval training is a time-efficient strategy for decreasing body fat in women which also has the added benefit of increasing lung capacity and running speed. But research also concludes that moderate-intensity training has the same effect as high-intensity exercise but is more time-consuming as the sessions need to be longer.

An ideal running program will have a mixture of longer, slower runs and short fast intervals. As a rule of thumb, 80% of training should be easy or moderate and just 20% high intensity.

The body initially burns carbohydrates from glycogen stores in your muscles so in order to train your body to burn fat a running program needs variation in distance, speed, and duration. This will prevent your body from becoming too efficient and limiting calorie burn.

Running to lose weight program

Richardson recommends this weight loss training plan.

If you are a complete beginner, starting with three 30-minute sessions a week will allow you to build your running gradually. To start with, don’t run two days in a row but rest or exercise gently for recovery by swimming, cycling or doing some yoga on these rest days.

Start with a walk/run program, or if you are overweight and new to exercise, start by walking and build this up until you can comfortably walk for the full 30 minutes, three times a week. You can then start to introduce running gradually into your walks. 

As you progress, increase the amount of time you spend running and decrease the time you walk.

A gradual build-up will decrease the risk of injury, as will introducing strength training and stretching after each run. When you can comfortably run for 30 minutes a week, you can then start to increase the distance or time you run or work on getting faster. 

Man running along a path in the sunshine.

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This is where a weekly longer run and introducing intervals can take your running to the next level. Intervals are short bursts of fast running with a rest or two or three minutes in between. For example, try running 400m fast and then resting for three minutes. Repeat this three times. Build up the number of repetitions gradually over many weeks.

At this stage, you could even work towards your first race such as a 10k building up the distance over four or five months.

The most important thing is to enjoy yourself and then you are more likely to stick to running and maintain any weight loss. Run alone, run with a friend, join a club, take to the trails – running offers so much variety and can be easily fitted into your life.

For more on this subject, take a look at our feature covering does running build leg muscle?

Lily Canter

Lily Canter is a freelance money, health and lifestyle journalist with more than 20 years' experience. She writes about fitness for Runner's World and Trail Running magazines and focuses on personal finance for Yahoo! Finance UK, Metro, The Guardian, and the Mail on Sunday. In her spare time she is an ultra-runner, canicrosser and running coach. She also co-hosts the award-winning podcast Freelancing for Journalists.