Running for Weight Loss

man running on a paved path in wooded area

Verywell / Ryan Kelly

If you're trying to lose weight, you might wonder whether running is the solution. Many people start running to slim down. You can expect to burn calories and excess fat with a smart running program. But there are a few other factors that will determine your level of success on a running weight loss program.

How to Run to Lose Weight

In order to lose weight, you need to create a substantial calorie deficit. Most experts recommend that you shoot for a weekly calorie deficit of 3,500 to 7,000 calories to lose 1-2 pounds per week.

You can achieve this deficit by eating fewer calories or burning more calories with physical activity, such as running. You can also combine the two methods to reach your target.

The Importance of a Healthy Diet

Runners have special nutrition needs, but the basic principles for healthy eating still apply. Try choosing smaller portions of high-fat and high-calorie foods and eating more whole grains and whole fruits and vegetables.

One common eating mistake among runners is that they overcompensate for the calories burned with extra calories from more food and beverages. Some runners even find that they gain weight or hit a weight loss wall, despite their regular training.

The first step to hitting your goal is knowing just how much you're eating. Use this calculator to learn how many calories you need for weight loss.

One way to prevent overeating or mindless eating is to write everything you're eating in a journal for a few weeks. Reviewing a record of your food intake will help you see where your diet needs improvement.

And, because you know that you'll need to log it later, it may also prompt you to think twice before eating that chocolate-covered donut, helping you stay on track. Runners often find that they constantly feel hungry, so you'll want to try to plan your snacks and meals to avoid going overboard.

Nutrition Tips for Running for Weight Loss

Here are more tips to keep your diet on track include:

  • Eat smaller meals: Spread your calories over five or six smaller meals instead of the usual three. This can help stabilize your metabolism and energy levels and prevent the hunger pangs that may drive you to overeat.
  • Watch liquid calories: Though you may be running a lot, you don't need to constantly drink sports drinks to hydrate yourself. The same applies to fruit juices, coffee drinks, and soda. Plain water is enough to stay well hydrated.
  • Trim carbs: Generally speaking, the average adult should consume around 225–325 grams of carbohydrates per day on a 2,000 calorie diet (or roughly 45–65% of the total daily calories). If you are exceeding this—or are within the range but are still unable to lose weight—trim the carbs slightly and replace with lean protein.

Using Running as Exercise for Weight Loss

Running is an effective way to burn calories in a relatively short period of time. The number of calories you burn while running will vary based on your body size, your pace, and the running duration. But as a very general guideline, many runners of average size estimate that they burn about 100 calories per mile.

Individuals who successfully lose weight and keep it off burn about 2,800 calories a week through planned exercise, according to statistics from the National Weight Control Registry. Assuming an average of 100 calories per mile, that's about 28 miles per week.

It's important to note that this is more than the average runner completes in a week and is especially a lot for a new runner out of the gates. You should ease into your mileage and work up to a number that works for you, as overtraining poses an injury risk.

If running is your only form of exercise for weight loss, it is possible to reach that goal. Don't worry about your pace or the intensity of your run, just focus on getting the miles with a consistent weekly schedule.

Plan your runs in advance and schedule them like you'd schedule any other important event. Eventually, you will burn the calories you need to lose weight with running.

Running Workouts for Weight Loss

The type of running workouts you do can play a role in the time it takes to lose weight. While there is no "best" running workout to lose weight, but you can maximize your weight loss potential by combining different types of training.

High-Intensity vs. Low-Intensity Running Workouts

When you exercise, the ratio of carbs and fat your body uses for fuel can change depending on the speed, duration, and intensity of the workout. Think of it in this way:

  • High-intensity running: The body relies more on carbs simply because they're a quicker source of energy. They provide your body with the burst of energy it needs when launching something like a sprint. It's like putting a match to paper: it burns hotter and faster but then is quickly over.
  • Lower-intensity runs: With these longer, lower intensity runs your body gradually shifts from carbs to fat. While fats may not be as immediate a fuel source, they are more sustainable. In this sense, burning fat is more like lighting a candle: it burns steadier and longer.

If your goal is to burn fat, it would seem reasonable to work out at a slower but steady pace, right? Not necessarily. While exercising at a lower intensity will allow you to burn a greater proportion of calories from fat, working out at a higher intensity means that you're burning more calories overall.

Interval Running Workouts

To burn more calories when running, you would need to run at a higher intensity pace, roughly 80 percent or 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. At this speed, you're not doing an all-out sprint, but you're working hard enough so that you're not able to carry on a conversation.

Start by doing a 20-minute run at around 80 percent to 90 percent intensity. Alternately, you can do interval training where you alternate between high- and low-intensity workouts. As you progress and become more fit, you can extend the time of the intervals as well as the repetitions.

Of course, you shouldn't run at this pace all of the time. After strenuous activity of any sort, you need to give your body a chance to recover and rebuild itself. It is reasonable to complete one or two high-intensity runs per week.

On the other days of the week, complete longer runs that are less intense. These runs will feel more sustainable so that you can put in more miles and burn more calories. Lastly, to bust boredom and build strength, consider doing hill repeats or indoor treadmill runs.

Strength Training

An important part of your running training involves no running at all. Runners who lose weight and keep it off make strength training part of their regular routine.Not only will you burn calories while you're strength training, but your increased lean muscle mass will improve your running performance. You'll be able to run faster and longer, and burn more calories when running.

Having lean muscle mass also helps you burn more calories in a day overall, even while at rest. Strength training also helps prevent running injuries, so you'll be able to maintain your commitment to exercise by staying injury-free.

Try doing resistance or weight training every week. Set aside time in your training routine for 2–3 sessions of 20–30 minutes of strength training each week. You don't have to lift heavy weights to make a difference. Simple body weight exercises can be effective.

How to Start Running for Weight Loss

If the different types of workouts and running styles sound confusing, don't worry. It's not necessary to do all of the planning on your own. There are plenty of training plans available online. Consider any of these programs or combine a few of them according to your schedule and your needs.

Starting with a short distance is the best strategy if you are new to running. Get training schedules, learn proper running form, safety tips, rules for running etiquette, and more. This is also a smart starting place for runners who have taken a break and are now returning to the sport.

Get a step by step plan organized into a weekly training plan that will have you running a steady two miles in a matter of weeks. This plan incorporates cross-training and rest days to keep your body healthy.

If you're ready to set a goal to run a 5K, try this month-long program. Get specific workouts along with tips for race day and other advice.

Already a runner? Use this program to incorporate speed training and enhance weight loss. Get a complete training schedule that lasts eight weeks and gets you race-ready to run a 10K. Complete descriptions of each workout are provided.

Tips for Running and Weight Loss

Here are some tips for losing weight by combining a running program with a healthy, low-calorie diet.

  • Make small dietary changes: Focus on making small changes to your diet, such as cutting out regular soda and adding more fruits and veggies.
  • Avoid processed foods: The ingredients in packaged goods and snack foods are often loaded with trans fats, added sugar, and added salt, all of which can make it difficult to lose weight.
  • Practice portion control: Watch your portion sizes, especially after running, when you might feel tempted to eat a little extra because of all the calories you burned during your run. Have pre-made balanced 100-calorie snacks ready at home, so you have healthy options readily available and are not tempted to go overboard. When eating out, share meals—or eat half your meal and take the rest home.
  • Check nutrition labels: Just because a food is low in fat doesn't mean it isn't high in other things, like carbs and sugar. Sometimes sugar will be added to make up for the loss of flavor from the fat. Foods such as salad dressings, marinades, mayonnaise, and sauces often contain hidden fat and lots of calories.
  • Aim for satisfaction: Rather than eating until you're full, learn to recognize when you feel satisfied. This prevents you from eating calories you don't need.
  • Slow down: Focusing on your food and savoring the flavor and texture can help you eat more slowly and really enjoy what you're eating. Make a conscious effort to take smaller bites and chew them thoroughly to feel satisfied more quickly.
  • Lose the distractions: Eating when you're watching TV or trying to multitask usually results in eating more than you meant to because you weren't paying attention. When you eat, make it a point to only eat so you're aware of what and how much food is going in your mouth.

A Word From Verywell

Running can be an effective form of exercise when you are trying to lose weight. Running not only burns calories effectively, but it also builds strength and endurance. Combine a consistent running plan with strength training and healthy eating to slim down and increase your level of fitness. Then use running to keep the pounds from coming back.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should I eat after every run?

    Refueling after a run is important, but the way that you refuel is key if your goal is weight loss. The very act of exercise will increase your appetite as your body demands more calories to keep it running. If you are not careful and eat too much of the wrong foods, you may end up exceeding your energy demands.

    Studies suggest that muscles are most receptive to rebuilding glycogen stores within the first 30 minutes after exercise. The theory is if you eat soon after a long run or intense workout, you can minimize muscle soreness.

    Choose a portion-controlled snack after your run, such as a glass of chocolate milk, a banana and a cup of yogurt, or a post-run smoothie. At meal-time, focus on fiber and protein-rich foods to help keep you feeling full and satisfied.

  • Why aren't I losing weight while running?

    A safe and reasonable rate of weight loss is about one to two pounds per week. If you are running consistently and adding strength training you may be losing weight, but you're probably also gaining muscle at the same time.

    The result is that your body is getting fitter, stronger, and leaner, but the scale may indicate a change. In fact, sometimes you may even see a weight increase. Consider using a different method to track your progress. Measure your body fat percentage, or simply notice the difference in the way that your clothes fit.

  • Should I run on an empty stomach?

    You can burn fat more readily if you are in a fasted state simply because there are fewer carbs in your system. But this doesn't mean that you should work out on an empty stomach. In fact, running on an empty stomach may lead to shorter and less effective workouts.

    Instead, start your morning with a 100- to 200-calorie snack packed with protein and carbs. This will give you ample fuel for a workout and may even act as an appetite suppressant once you're finished.

  • Can I do fewer runs and get results?

    Consistency is key to any successful weight loss program, especially one that involves running. Running is a vigorous sport. It may be too vigorous for some to run every day or even every other day. But if you exercise only occasionally you won't reap the benefits.

    Try combining running with other activities such as weight training, rowing, cycling, or hiking. Try to do some type of physical activity on most days of the week. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, those who are most effective at weight loss participate in 250 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise per week.

  • Does the time of day matter?

    There is quite a bit of controversy about the best time to exercise. According to research, your exercise benefits are maximized when your body temperature is at its highest. For most people, that is between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., though some studies extend this time to 7 p.m.

    However, the best time workout time for you depends on when you feel most motivated. Schedule your runs at a time when you know that you will complete them.

    Many experts recommend morning runs because other activities are less likely to get in the way when you get out the door early. However, morning workouts don't work for everyone. If you're not sure, try experimenting with different schedules to see which works best for you.

  • Will running reduce my abdominal fat?

    Spot reduction will not occur with running (or with any specific kind of exercise). A very common area of concern for some runners is abdominal fat. While many people are concerned about the look of extra fat in the stomach area, there are health reasons to worry about fat in this area of the body.

    Abdominal fat isn't just underneath your skin, it's also deep inside your body, around your vital organs. This is called visceral fat and the more you have of it, the higher your risk of developing serious diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and breathing issues.

    For women, a waist size of under 35 inches helps reduce the risk of serious health problems associated with visceral fat. For men, the target waist size is under 40 inches.

    The good news is that studies show that moderate- to high-intensity aerobic exercise such as running can help reduce visceral fat, even without changing your diet.

    However, combining aerobic exercise with a healthy, low-calorie diet is most effective for both overall weight loss and visceral fat loss, though exercise seems to be more effective than diet when it comes to targeting visceral fat.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine. 8 Ways to Lose Belly Fat and Live a Healthier Life. The Johns Hopkins University, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Johns Hopkins Health System.

By Christine Luff, ACE-CPT
Christine Many Luff is a personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and Road Runners Club of America Certified Coach.