How To Make Running An Effective Part Of A Weight Loss Program

RB72: How To Make Running An Effective Part Of A Weight Loss Program


If you would like to watch the full HD video replay of the clinic so you can view the presentation slides as well, you can access it here.

You know, the majority of people who get into running never have the intention of running a 5K or a half-marathon, but rather their intention is to get back in shape. It's how I got started and so many others I know. Yet some in the fitness industry would tell you that running is an inefficient way to lose weight. And you may have even experienced that yourself, weight gain while running. With an ever-growing obesity crisis on the rise, I wanted to go all myth busters on this concept that cardio is bad for you. So we're going to dig into that.

We're going to look into it and we're going to see how to apply weight loss or fat loss to your own situation. You're going to have a better understanding and clarity around the fundamentals of running and weight loss. You're going to significantly increase your chances of being successful at it because you're gonna be able to filter out some of the noise that comes with this type of topic in the fitness industry.

In other words, we'll help you make running an effective part of a weight loss program and reach your fitness goals.

Find a Strong Reason to Work on Yourself


My first question for you to think about tonight is whether you have a strong reason that's gonna make you feel ready and compelled to do something that normally you would not feel like doing. If you don't have a really strong reason to do any of this, it's gonna be a tough road for you. 

You're going to see periods of short term success, but you're also going to see a lot of failures because it's so easy to take the eye off the prize and regress those 25 to 30 pounds. I had some notable epic failure attempts in the past. I failed multiple times but when I finally got into that running routine, when my running became system-consistent, I noticed that my eating habits started to improve.

And looking back, I feel strongly that both running and better dietary habits can complement each other because when our habits start to change or we see a shift in a positive direction and one of them, the results and the other one start to shift as well. 

In one year of running and healthy dieting, I completely turned around my health. At around the age of 38, I was probably in the best shape of my life.

The point is, it's easy to say you want to make a lifestyle change like running or weight loss, whatever it is, but if you truly aren't ready and willing or you struggle to sustain it, you know, it's gonna be tough. So think about what that means to you, and if you can find a strong enough  reason that's going to get you past the wanting and more to the willing and able.

Stay Focused on Your Weightloss Goals

When I got an injury that took me 18 months to recover. That was enough to set me back. One of the best ways to avoid those “setbacks” is to keep that focus going and keep that momentum going, because no matter what happens, there gonna be things that are going to jump up and try to derail us. But if we're aware of it, if we avoid complacency, we can help battle it.

And here is a quick story of how complacency can prevent you from your fitness-related goals. 

I was in the grocery store with my 16-year-old daughter. She picked up 10-pound bags of potatoes and handed them to me. 

I said “I'm not buying them. These are vegetable versions of a soft drink. And if you don't know, potatoes are very high in carbohydrates and basically convert straight to sugar when you digest them. So your body doesn't know any better. It thinks it's sugar”.

But anyway, she insisted that I grab them. And so reluctantly, I agreed and I said, “OK, what's the point?”

And then she kind of had this grin on her face or smirk and a little bit smart-alecky. She says, “Look at how heavy these bags are, that's equivalent to you carrying those 20 pounds of extra weight on your body”.

So, guys, this is a very good demonstration done in a very practical way that can show us what complacency can do to us. I was basically carrying around two potato bags all day long, as well as when I started back running, not to mention just my daily activities. And so we may be carrying one of these. We may be carrying two of these. Some of us may be carrying seven, eight, nine, ten of these.


Having this kind of form of visualization can help show us the impact of carrying around that extra weight. 

Understand the Difference between Body Weight and Body Composition

Also, I just want to clear up some terminology so we don't confuse intentions, like when you hear the word weight loss or losing weight. When we go through this session, what I'm really referring to is fat loss, the fat that is stored in your body. I'm not referring to your weight as indicated by stepping on a scale. Yes, in theory, if you lose fat, you should be losing weight as well.

Physical weight isn't that important in and of itself, I can show you pictures of two people who weigh the same, even though they have the same height. Yet, they have completely different body compositions. One is going to be significantly healthier than the other.


Counting Calories Doesn’t Work

There are reasons why calorie counting is not efficient and why calorie restriction or dieting as we use it in the verb sense of the form is a vast oversimplification to what really contributes to long term sustained weight loss. 

When we track what we eat and we plug into things like apps like MyFitnessPal, the numbers are not likely to be accurate. Studies have shown that our estimation is likely inaccurate when it comes to our serving sizes. The accuracy of the labels themselves can be not accurate because the USDA allows a 20 percent variability rate, and calories in and of themselves do not address why we overeat.


  • Counting doesn't address nutrient partitioning or how we balance our macros, things like fats, proteins, and carbohydrates in a way that helps us based on our activity level and the different things we're trying to do.
  • Calorie counting and restriction also don't address triggers that impact us like hunger triggers, physical triggers, emotional triggers, psychological triggers that not only contribute to hunger but also how we use the energy we need.
  • Cutting calories and losing weight in the short term can't happen, it can be a long term struggle, if you're not addressing these other things. It tends to make calorie restriction a very negative connotation as far as how we enjoy life because it's restricting us from enjoying things.
  • If you follow strict calorie-restrictive dieting, not only will you potentially lose muscle mass, you can also lower your body's immune system as well as suffer the performance things, which makes running and other activities really, really hard. 

Create a Healthy Eating Philosophy 


Effective fat loss is going to require changing how you eat when it comes to your diet. You have to come up with a philosophy on a way of eating that best matches your own research and how you feel about that way of eating. And it's one that you're going to have to be able to sustain because sustainability is the key.

There are numerous ways out there that will work depending on where you struggle. If you struggle with hunger cravings and never feel full, then diets that are higher in fat with low or no carbs when you become more fat-adapted could work for you. Some people choose the vegan plant-based lifestyle. Others can control weight based on just cleaning up their diet. And usually, that works best for people who just have a messy diet to start with. So there's a lot of ways to approach it. 

What we have to avoid is this preconceived notion that this way of eating or that way of eating is better than another because it isn't. Some people, especially some online Facebook or Reddit groups, can even get a little cultish about the way they eat. In other words, it's their way or everything you're doing is wrong. And we have to avoid those people because while it's great to be passionate about your way, it doesn't mean that's the best for someone else.

And for most people who fail at a particular eating style, the factors of failure usually come down to not that the way of eating is wrong, but that the execution or other factors come into play.

Fat is a Vital Component of a Healthy Diet

I also want to distinguish that dietary fat, the fat you're eating is not the same as body fat. The fat that's accumulated around your body, body fat gets manufactured in the body when we eat, whenever you're eating carbs, proteins, fats, some of them get used, some get discarded as waste and some get stored as body fat. Body fat isn't even a bad thing unless you have too much of it. 

If not in excessive amounts, fats can be useful:

  • It helps with vitamin absorption to get the vitamins into our cells.
  • Body fat helps cushion our organs. It's been indicated in studies that it plays a small part in injury prevention because it acts as a shock absorber in some ways. So if our body fat gets too low, there's a strong correlation to increased injury risk.
  • Body fat is also an important component of cell structure, and it helps ensure the production of hormones, and support fertility. 

Factors That May Influence Our Running and Weight Loss Goals


Most of our energy when we run comes from fat stores. We know we talk about glycogen all the time. Some comes from stored sugars as a result of eating carbohydrates. That's when I refer to glycogen, I'm talking about the stored form of that.

And to a much smaller degree, energy comes from other sources like protein, although protein is a very inefficient source of energy and it's really the body's last resort. Some energy even comes from converting from things like cellular waste, like lactate or other substances that can be converted to fuel. So the last thing I want to cover really before we get into running a bit is to review these five pillars that I base all my programs around running nutrition, cross-training, mindset, and lifestyle. 

  • Stress management
  • Sleep
  • Having a support system
  • Being self-aware
  • Having balanced eating habits

People often come to me with a running problem only to find out that it's not a running problem. It's an outcome of some of these other things that they aren't doing well. So the point is successful running doesn't occur in a vacuum. Failures in each of these areas, such as in running and nutrition and cross-training and mindset and lifestyle, all these things can derail your progress or make it harder to overcome. And to a large degree, our ability to lose fat can also be impacted by many of the same things, like poor sleep, stress, and so on. So now let's get into the running side a bit and then we're going to tie the two areas together towards the end.

The underlying cause of your problems with losing and maintaining a healthy weight can be absolutely different. That's why it's vital to analyze your lifestyle and focus not only on diet but your quality of sleep and stress management.

Cortisol, Running, and Weight Loss

Running without proper recovery, especially things like high-intensity runs or your very long runs, your long-distance runs can create spikes in cortisol levels.

Cortisol is a stress hormone, produced by the adrenal gland and it's controlled by the hypothalamus in our brains, which is one of the central controllers of metabolism. It was originally designed to trigger a fight or flight reaction. So when the cortisol is released, it spikes our adrenaline, which then increases our blood glucose concentrations, so that we can get that fast-acting energy, so we can respond to whatever that threat is. 

But the problem comes into play when stress becomes chronic. This can be physical stress or everyday family lifestyle, work stress. Studies have repeatedly linked the sustained increase in cortisol to fat gain, cognitive decline or foggy brain, and compromised immune system. So there are indications that cortisol contributes to fat gain and fat gain can happen or cortisol increase can happen through running.

Another problem with this is that it spikes insulin up and down as the blood glucose tends to lead to increased appetite. So you probably noticed that after eating a large carbohydrate-based lunch you get this rush of energy in the short term but a few hours later you just wanna fall asleep and crash cause your energy levels are dropping. Then you experience hunger again. 

If we take any type of exercise, it is a form of stress. However if not to overtrain, it’s a source of positive stress, even if it elevates cortisol temporarily.  The thing is that all exercises lead to the release of cortisol but in the short or medium-term it's not a big deal. 

Running and Proper Recovery


Running without proper recovery, especially high-intensity runs or long distance runs create cortisol spikes and inflammation 

This is true in running, it's true in every physical activity again, some of this inflammation is from wear and tear caused by regular runnings, some inflammation is caused by that cortisol release we just talked about or a combination of the foods we tend to eat.

Some inflammation that comes from wear and tear is needed because it's what triggers the healing process and adaptation process. However, what's a good level of inflammation versus a bad level of inflammation?

So we lift up weight, we run, we break down our muscle fibers, it creates inflammation, healing is triggered and then more muscles are created. This is a cycle of applying stress, recovering and adapting, and doing it repetitively makes us stronger and makes us feel run farther. This kind of inflammation is a good thing, but when running becomes too much then we reach a state of continual overtraining.

Repetitive overtraining results in:

  • Elevated cortisol levels
  • Inflammation
  • Muscles sore
  • Joint pain 

If we become chronically inflamed or we eat crappy food and nurture some other bad habits, all this can aggravate the situation and create a vicious cycle of health issues.

Also, before blaming running for an increase of cortisol levels, consider family stress, work stress that you might suffer from every day. If you don’t manage work and family stresses, your cortisol levels will be high anyways. 

Don’t worry about running an extra hour, but try to detect the real sources of constant stress in your life and figure out how you could reduce it. 

How to Lose Weight through Running

Enhance your Sleeping Cycle 


So first of all, sleep helps. It's one of the biggest things that you can do if you're concerned about how to address those extra few hours of cortisol release and how to deal with the stress and the insulin release and all the different things. Sleep helps rebalance your hormones and helps you regulate everything back to normal.

Don't Be an Obsessive Runner


You know, don't run obsessively. And certainly, you don't need to run every single day. If you're a long-distance runner, cycle your training in peak distances as you need for events, then lower your distance back down in between competitions. You don't have to stay at that high level of mileage or distance year-round. 

It's OK to cut back. If you're a runner who is consistently pushing yourself hard with running, cross-training, plus you have lots of family and work stress, then you could be in a chronic condition that's impacting your weight loss.

There are times when more running is OK, but more is not always better. Keep it relative and train smart. As you go through training each week, monitor your fatigue levels, and take an extra rest day.

Clean up Your Diet

Clean up Your Diet

Let's clean up your diet first, not by calorie restriction, but by just cleaning up the quality of food. You don't have to worry about portion control at this point. You just want to clean up the quality of food and get into the habit of eating good stuff. It's going to make that transition to eating healthy much smoother.

Then you can go on a low carb eating style or moderate carb eating style or go ketogenic, whatever you think you can realistically sustain over a long time. Because, again, if you can't sustain it, it doesn't even matter, you're just going to bounce around all over the place and you're going to go down, then you're going to creep up and gain more. 

Add HIIT Workouts as a Cross-Training


HIIT workout does have a place as an effective source of cross-training, as a tool for building strength that helps give you that extra metabolic burn. It can be fun, it can be a chance to challenge yourself, it can also be a great confidence builder. If you're getting bored with running, you can diversify your fitness routine with one or two HIIT workouts a week.

You will see great results if you're using high-intensity interval training, especially if you're mixing it with the cardio and good eating because it targets a different energy system. It can help you run faster because it's helping elevate your lactate threshold levels and stuff. So it can also be great for one of those days when you just want a shorter workout.

Don't Jump Around


If you go back to the 80s, the Mediterranean diet was quite popular, then whole 30. Now, all the rage is around the ketogenic diet. It's OK to test a few of these things out, but really try to stick to the plan that you set up, at least for some time. Try these things out and stick with them for a while.

We just have short attention spans and we just want to jump around from thing to thing, but it can actually cause problems for us because we're metabolically just messing with ourselves. Therefore, for better results, it’s good to choose the diet that fits your needs and stick to it.

Find Ways to Minimize Stress


We probably can’t quit our job, even though that would be awesome. Yet, there is always a solution, we can look for ways to decrease our overall stress levels.

These are just a few examples of how you could manage your stress:

  • Yoga and meditation
  • Breathing techniques and meditation
  • Face-to-face conversations with your friends or psychologist

And if we can reduce the times that stress becomes elevated, you know, that time where we really feel it getting our blood boiling, then we're reducing the amount of stress hormones being released into the body. And that is always a good thing.

Don’t Fully Rely on Tools and Apps


Many apps and calculators can be extremely helpful. I actually use MyFitnessPal, probably not as regular as I should, but I go through periods of time where I use it religiously and I think it's a great app.You may try some apps to manage your eating habits and make sure you're not out of line. However, don’t get addicted to the counting calorie feature, because the numbers could be still inaccurate.

The problem is that most of the apps oversimplify everything. For instance, when it comes to calculating your calorie needs, in most cases, you just put in your height and your weight and it spits out how many calories a day you should be using. And then, of course, what do we do? We track our calories to that number, even though that number is not based on anything else.  

Also, when you put your exercise on it, then it's calculating and estimating how much you exercise, how many calories you burn. And it's unlikely those numbers are accurate either.

Choose Accountability Partner Carefully


Be cautious of accountability partners. We talk all the time about having running partners and people to work out with, and that is great, but let me tell you a story. When I was in my last year in college, my roommate Mike and I thought it'd be a great idea to join a gym. Well, mostly it was me who wanted to join the gym. He didn't really want to, but I needed him to join.

I talked him into it because there was this bring a friend promotion and I suckered him into it. So anyways, we go we work out the first week and it's kind of cool having that workout partner. The problem is, is I chose the wrong guy. The gym was situated next to a Chinese buffet, and one day we were walking into the gym and we walked past the Chinese buffet.

He managed to talk me into grabbing lunch and maybe working out later. And I was hungry. And so I said, OK, after that, we never made it back to the gym ever. So make sure that if you do have somebody that they understand your goals and they also know what their boundaries are.


Wrapping up here, you don't have to be perfect, but you have to be consistent. And that is the key. It's the key to running, it's the key to eating habits.

With lifestyle change in general, you're going to have moments of weakness and eat that whole gallon of ice cream, like all 10000 calories worth. Not all that's going to turn to fat. You're going to basically flush most of it out. It's only when you eat 10000 calories of ice cream on a regular basis, it becomes a problem. So don't worry about that.

Certainly, we want to avoid those moments, but we're going to have them. What’s important is to focus on consistency and action particularly around those five pillars: running, nutrition, cross-training, mindset, and lifestyle, and all the different things that make up those components.

If you need some help, we are here to assist you by providing monthly coaching where we can look at your unique situation and create an effective weight loss program, applying various strategies and frameworks around that can help you reach your goal.

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About the Author Steve Carmichael

Steve is a RRCA / USA Track and Field Certified Running Coach who has helped thousands of runners since 2010. He coaches online as well as locally in the Columbus, Ohio area. He is host of RunBuzz Running a top rated running podcast with 150+ episodes available for free on all major podcast apps. Steve resides in Lewis Center, Ohio with his wife, kids, and dog.

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