Running for weight loss or weight loss for running? My approach to getting back after a break

Most people think that running as an endurance sport is great for losing weight – after all almost all runners are extremely lean with BMI index below average. In fact, this is a little bit more difficult than this. Most good runners are lean because of genetic predispositions, and they tend to keep low weight regardless of the sport they do, while there is a growing number of amateur runners who desperately try to lose weight by running and get frustrated with unsatisfactory results.

Is running the best way for weight loss? I don’t think so. Running is an endurance sport which burns a lot of calories and as such should influence weight loss in a substantial way, but there are two main factors that prevent people from losing weight by running:

  • The main problem is that running is difficult for overweight people. While a skilled runner can easily run for two hours, such training is impossible to be executed for most amateur runners on a daily basis, because running creates an enormous stress especially for overweight people. This leads to injuries and gaining even more weight or to short workouts that do little for the goal of weight loss.
  • Another thing is the character of easy endurance effort. Not everyone is aware of the fact that it is easier to burn calories by high-effort workouts that increase metabolism than by low-effort workouts that burn energy only while they last. Unless someone includes strides, running strength sessions or speed workouts in own running routines, easy running burns calories as long as the effort lasts and when it ends there is no significant change in metabolism rates.

Those two factors create a vicious circle as people can’t burn more calories because they don’t do high-effort running drills and they can’t do those drills because they create too much stress for them, so they stick to slow running which does not burn enough calories to lose weight and to start doing high-effort running drills, and this is why so many people quit running as it is impossible for them to get lean and start drawing pleasure from this beautiful activity.

I don’t suppose to have all the answers or but I will tell you what is my approach to this problem, and those are not just my theories, but that is what really works for me and what I do just now. For the last year I did almost no running at all, I have been practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and weight training with little aerobic training. In effect, I gained about 10 kilograms of excessive weight (from 86-87kg (190lbs) to almost 98kg (216lbs)). Few months ago I decided to get back to running again and I must tell you it was a real drag for me. In the beginning I felt like an old rhino. I was barely able to run 5k at all, and just over a year ago I run HM below 1:29:00 – sad reality…

My initial goal was to get back to my previous fitness and then (in autumn – I hope) to move forward with my personal records.

To achieve this my first priority was loosing a majority of overweight, second was engaging into good balanced running plan so I would be able to get new PRs during spring starts in the following year.

Why did I want to lose weight before engaging into serious running? I listed my reasons in the beginning of this post, it was virtually impossible for me to do good workouts with 10k of overweight.

I started to limit my meals to reasonable portions and restricted the usage of most unhealthy products. I don’t want to write about exact menus as it is of secondary importance, anyway my views on running nutrition you can read here. What matters is a restriction of calories to reasonable amounts. In the same time I didn’t want to reduce my metabolism, so I haven’t engaged into a steady low calorie diet – I just ate reasonably (without even counting my calories). In order to lose more weight I did periodic fasting – once a week I did 24h fasting periods starting from supper to supper on the following day. I found this type of fasting the easiest, least demanding on my organism and with little influence on my body metabolism. On Fridays I didn’t practice, so I was starting my fasting periods after my Thursdays’ suppers until my Fridays’ suppers, when I ate a healthy meal consisting of baked fish and veggies. On Saturdays I was ready for serious workouts, felt fresh and full of energy. This way, doing few short running workouts and one BJJ training I lost around 7 kilograms in a month. There is one more thing I did to boost my metabolism during this time – 2-3 Tabata workouts per week. What is Tabata? To keep it simple it is a workout consisting of 8 20s max efforts with 10s rests. I usually do it on my stationary bike. First I warm up for 15-30min and then I increase resistance and try to spin as hard as I can for 20s, then I rest for 10s and I repeat this sequence to achieve 8 cycles, afterwards I cool down for 5 minutes and do some stretching. Why should anyone do such workouts? They boost metabolism, they are reasonably easy on joints on a bike, they don’t take much time – you can squeeze such workout in half an hour and it’s benefits will last even for several days. If you already feel strong on your running workouts you can do a series of 20s strides which will do exactly the same as Tabata intervals on the bike, but for overweight people and for unexperienced runners it is a lot easier and safer to do such drills on a bike.

So where am I now? …well I had a short break due to summer vacation and now I am starting my running program which is suppose to prepare me for the spring starting season, which means a half marathon in march and a marathon in April. When I write this article (mid August) I weigh around 90kg, my BMI is just below 25 and I am starting to build my weekly mileage. With my current weight I think I can run pretty safely up to some 50-60km/week. Hopefully when I reach this mileage my weight will drop further and I will be able to gradually get to some 80-100km/week – such mileage should be sufficient for my starting goals.

Anyway, for the next 8 – 12 weeks I will be mostly doing easy running with strides every other workout, some running strength/drills workouts and general strength sessions. This will prepare me for serious work during autumn and winter. As to my diet, I continue paying attention to the size of my meals and avoiding unnecessary calories. After initial stage of building mileage I think I will get back to periodic fasting, but in a cautious way as I don’t want to overstress my organism. After all, the most important is to listen to your own body and to stay healthy.

To sum it up, if you want to either lose weight or get back to running, start with a healthy diet, high intensity low impact training (like Tabata on stationary bike) and if you are healthy and have no contraindications – periodic fasting. Then add some low intensity running and slowly gain on mileage. Than change Tabata for fast running workouts (strides, uphills, drills) to lose even more weight and hopefully reach your optimal starting weight.

With this approach you have low chances of discouraging yourself by low running performance, continuous pains and what is worst – injuries that prevent a large number of runners from getting back on their running tracks and from reaching their weight goals. This is surely not the only possible way, but it is reasonable approach and it works great for me.

If you have your own efficient ways of getting back to serious running – let me know about them – see you on running paths!

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