Why Running to Lose Weight is a Bad Idea

Why do people run? It’s a question that continues to fascinate scientists, from psychologists to exercise physiologists.

Surveys continually site the reasons “maintaining fitness”, “stress relief, “a new challenge” and “competition” as why people choose to run. Then you have psychologists studying ultra-marathon runners who believe that one of their main sources is attaining the state of mind known as “flow”.

However, the biggest reason that keeps coming up time and time again as to why people run is weight loss. They run for the sole purpose of losing weight. Over 40% each time.

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That to me is both sad and frightening at the same time. Sad because they’re missing the bigger picture in terms of well-being, mental health, and enjoyment. Frightening because it shows a clear lack of understanding in the process of how to lose weight.

Before I continue as to why running to lose weight is a bad idea, you must understand I am a runner. I love running. To be precise, trail running. I love the feeling of being free in the mountains and getting into the flow-like mindset the psychologists talk about.

Growing up in the mountains of Wales, I’ve had the pleasure of running and doing lots of it without actually going on planned runs or jogs. It was a part of the sports that I loved to do. I simply took my ability to run for granted.

However, during my mid-twenties and early thirties, life, injuries and work commitments meant I spent less time playing sports, so I focused on strength training.

It wasn’t until I returned to running seven long years later that I realized my ability to run had simply disappeared. I was mortified. Embarrassed. It was a major wake-up call. I had become a beginner at running again.

Fast-forward five years, and I am no longer a running novice. I regularly run 2–3 times each week in addition to my strength training, playing cricket, and snowboarding.

Jogging and sprinting make up a large part of my weekly diet of fitness.

I loved running but took it for granted. I was someone who lost that ability and had to re-learn this skill again, with a beginner’s mindset, all while having a passion for lifting weights and playing team sports.

I think the experience has stood me in good stead. It has enabled me to relate to our clients better because I understand what they’re going through, which in turn allows me to be a better coach.

It also allows me to share this opinion from a neutral standpoint because all too often when it comes to running, you have the two extremes: the running junkies who run daily and the strength community who say running ruins your hard-earned “gainzzzz.”

So, let me share with you the 3 reasons why running is a bad idea for weight loss.

Over 40% of runners run for the sole purpose of losing weight! That's a worrying statistic!Click To Tweet

#1 Jogging is Statistically the Most Harmful Exercise that Modern Humans Can Perform

Up to 70% of recreational and competitive runners sustain overuse injuries during any 12 months.

That is a frightening statistic.

Jogging should be an enjoyable pastime, not something that has you living on the edge, fearful of being injured.

The knee is the body part that is most often injured. Other common lower extremity diagnoses include patellofemoral pain, shin splints, Achilles tendinopathy, IT band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, and stress fractures of the metatarsals and tibia.

It doesn’t just stop there, however. A significant number of men and women report ongoing hip and/or lower back pain.

Among marathon runners, men report significantly more hamstring and calf problems than women, whereas women report more hip complaints.

The problem is that people fail to recognize the root of the cause of these injuries. The real enemy is not jogging. It is how well prepared their body is for running

In my humble opinion, the #1 reason that runners get hurt is that when they get into running, they’re simply not ready, and when they start, they jump in at an intensity that far exceeds their capabilities. In short, their bodies are not conditioned for such a strenuous task.

Every single step you take while running severely impacts the body.

The problem is not running itself but landing hard with each physical step. Every time your foot hits the ground when running, you create a force of 1.5–3.5 times your body weight.  This increases up to a staggering 5.5 times your body weight when sprinting.

That is a whole lot of force your body has to absorb.

Now let’s compare the body to that of a car. I want you to imagine that you’re taking a road trip from New York to San Diego. East to West Coast.

The car you’re going to use is 20 years old. It has zero maintenance history. It has rust in every corner and billows out black smoke every time you change gear.

What are the chances of making it across the country doing that kind of mileage? What are the chances of the car breaking down at least once or twice along the way?

I would suggest pretty darn high.

Now, that is essentially what most people over thirty are doing to their bodies when they take up running in their later years of life.

They’re taking a clapped-out automobile of a body out on the road and hoping it holds together long enough to get the desired result. Is it any wonder that they become injured?

It’s a car crash waiting to happen.

70% of recreational and competitive runners sustain overuse injuries during any 12 months.Click To Tweet

So how do we determine if your body is ready to run to lose weight? Well, there are many ways to establish this, but the simplest and fastest way we do this is by using the waist-height ratio test.

The waist-height ratio test is a litmus test to see if it is safe to go running based on the force and impact going through the body.

For those unfamiliar with this measurement, your waist-to-height ratio is calculated by dividing waist size by height. If your waist measurement is less than half your height, you’re likely not at risk for obesity-related disease.

This test is a reliable source of information to determine if the body is ready and able to cope with the weight and forces going through it when running.

The simple fact of the matter is the heavier you are, the more force your body has to absorb, and the more force your body absorbs over a prolonged period of time, the greater the risk of long-term injury and wear and tear on the body.

If anyone has a waist/height ratio over 0.5 we see this as a significant risk factor to long-term health and performance. It does not mean we don’t want to see this individual running ever; it is merely a safety measure so that this individual can enjoy years of pain-free running ahead.

If the score is greater than 0.5, our first goal for this individual would be to lose weight, and instead of running, we’d prescribe walking or alternative cardio as the main workout.

Building up the volume on their joints and ligaments so that they can better withstand force is important for someone who is in this phase of their training cycle. While losing weight, they can build up a significant amount of aerobic capacity, so that when they do start to run, it’s an enjoyable experience and not an arduous one.

I can’t overstate the importance of this. Most people start jogging to lose weight. Yet, very few have walked a mile, let alone run one.

Have you heard the expression “Walk before you can run”? There are too many people who don’t take this advice, and it’s to their detriment.

With a waist/height ratio of =< than 0.5, we believe it’s a good time to look at running, depending on the individual’s training age, ability, and experience. Sometimes, even at this ratio, it’s better to walk first.

I know this will be a hard pill for many to swallow. I understand why jogging can be seen as a great way to lose weight; however, if it’s a long-term solution you’re after and you plan on being injury-free, I highly recommend applying this advice about your waist/height ratio.

#2 I Want People to Fall in Love with the Running Experience

Have You Ever Seen a Runner Enjoying Themselves While Jogging? I’m going to challenge you. Next time you’re out and about, casually have a look around at the joggers you see running past you.

Most likely, you will see a scrunched up, anguish-filled face, sweat dripping off it, as red as a lobster and limping heavily.

Does this sound familiar? Maybe you have even experienced this yourself?

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. Most joggers are not strong enough, fit enough, mobile enough, or slim enough to run. And when they do go out for their weekly jog, they do so at an intensity that far exceeds their physical capabilities.

Running should be an enjoyable and pleasurable experience. Yet for most, they see it as a badge of honor to go out, push as hard as they can even hobble through injuries, and come back and collapse in a heap on the floor.

Sadly, the human body does not cope well with this level of stress. It has the opposite desired effect to what you want to achieve. The brain has one primary function – keeping the body alive. If it hits a threshold of too much stress, it wants to shut down.

This is when an injury can occur. It can be seen as the body saying STOP!

Most joggers are not strong enough, fit enough, mobile enough, or slim enough to run. And when they do go out for their weekly jog, they do so at an intensity that far exceeds their physical capabilities.Click To Tweet

The #1 reason runners get hurt is that when they get into running, they’re simply not ready, and when they start, they jump in at an intensity that far exceeds their capabilities with a body that is not conditioned for such a strenuous task.

Running should be a lifetime experience that can positively influence your health and well-being. A lifetime of adventures. That’s what being an everyday athlete is all about.

The most common running goal we get here at Strength Matters is for people who want to lose weight is:

“I’d like to run my first 5km race.”

My first response is always “Awesome!” I love working with people to help them complete this goal. It’s tangible, it’s meaningful, and I know the positive effect it will have on their health and well-being.

My follow-up questions are: 

  1. When was the last time you walked 5km in one go?
  2. What’s your average daily step count?
  3. What type of footwear do you wear daily?

The answer to question #1 is usually “Never.” 

For the most part, many of these individuals have never actually walked 1km.

We need to condition and train our body to withstand the pressures and forces of running and we need to build up our aerobic capacity by walking more and for longer times, and at the same time strengthening our feet.

Cardio is hard, very hard for beginners.

So usually when people say they “hate” running they found that they were in terrible shape and it hurt (probably because they were overweight and weren’t ready to run).

So, they give up. Likely they’d give up on anything, but in terms of running, they will likely never return. They will always associate running with this bad experience, and who wants to do stuff they hate?

But what if there was a better way? What if we conditioned their body, built up an aerobic base, and then eased them into the running experience? Rather than just jump in with two feet.

I’d argue more people would stick to running and you’d have less of the “bro-science” telling people running will “Kill their gainz”. This is pretty much nonsense but it’s out there.

#3 Running Alone is a Bad Idea for Weight Loss

The benefits of running are real. The stories about people who have lost a tremendous amount of weight by running are plentiful. But the bulk of the evidence tells a less than impressive story.

Highly controlled studies have shown, that when diets and lifestyle habits are kept constant, the effects of running alone on weight loss are modest at best. Exercise energy expenditure does not correlate with weight loss.

Just from your own experience, or what you’ve seen with others, how many times have you seen yourself increase your weekly exercise habits, to only see the scales move more in the opposite direction?

Think about all the people who train for marathons each year and do not lose a single pound of weight?

Running can be part of a weight-loss plan, however, it is just the tip of the iceberg.

Researchers have shown time and time again that people who have had success losing weight have a few things in common:

  1. They weigh themselves at least once a week.
  2. They restrict their calorie intake
  3. They also exercise regularly.

They don’t exercise to lose weight alone, they use physical activity in addition to calorie control and other behavioral changes.

As a rule of thumb, running alone is the worst idea for losing weight. Great for your overall health and well-being. Terrible for weight loss.

Running is best used as a stand-alone tool for weight maintenance and overall well-being.

However, if you want to lose weight faster, combining diet with strength training and cardio is a more optimal solution (which could include running if your body is ready for it).

Running can help with weight loss, however, as with the weight-loss issue itself, there are lots of moving parts and you have to consider everything.

Running Alone is a Bad Idea for Weight LossClick To Tweet

Final Thoughts

I know for a fact people will disagree with me on this and talk about the thousands of stories for the success of the Couch to 5k program.

I want to be clear, I love running, I love being in the flow-like state and the freedom of being in the mountains and running downhill. I want to help people experience this feeling and do it for as long as possible.

All I’m asking of you is to think differently about running for weight loss. Let’s think about the bigger picture here, let’s think long-term and how you can lose weight once and for all, remain injury-free, and feel on top of the world.

Think less of running for weight loss and more about running for your mental well-being. Prepare your body to run, focus on slowly building up your aerobic capacity and you will start to enjoy running that much more. That’s the key, enjoyment.

There are better ways to lose weight, and it doesn’t start with running.

Until next time,

James

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Why Running to Lose Weight is a Bad Idea
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One of the biggest reasons why people run is weight loss. They run for the sole purpose of losing weight. This is both sad and frightening at the same time. Sad because they’re missing the bigger picture in terms of well-being, mental health, and enjoyment. Frightening because it shows a clear lack of understanding in the process of how to lose weight. In this article I explain why running to lose weight is a bad idea
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