Credit: Brian Negin
So it's a new year and you've made the resolution to shape up and lose weight. To get started you've made the decision that the best way to do this is to start jogging. 30 minutes of running, 3-5 times a week should work, or maybe you sign up for a marathon program. You'll be fit, leaner, and healthier than ever, right? Maybe not.
Long distance running (continuous running for 20+ minutes over several miles) is the most common activity among all exercisers. Everywhere you go, you see joggers on the road or on the treadmills. Running can be on of the best ways to workout because it can be done virtually anywhere and anytime, and it doesn't appear to require any special training on technique to do. No gym or personal trainer required. A properly structured running program can help you lose weight and get in shape, but improperly applied it can quickly lead you to injury and even make you gain fat.
The sad truth is that it happens everyday that good exercise intentions become counterproductive and prevent people from reaching their fitness goals. In this article, we'll look at the issues that occur when trying to use long distance running to lose fat.
Losing weight is probably the most common reason people start running. The common logic is that running will help to burn more calories. If you can burn a few more calories a day, the weight will start melting away, right? This appears to make sense, but fat loss is more complex than simply getting off the couch. With 30 minutes of running at a 8-10 min per mile pace, the average person will burn 350 - 425 calories. However the devil is in the details. Your body has evolved over time to regulate your energy and protect your fat stores in case of crisis. So naturally you get hungry, to replenish the energy you have just spent. If you've ever participated in a Turkey Bowl or Thanksgiving run to "work up an appetite" for dinner, then you understand this phenomenon. Thus, after you exercise you may find yourself very hungry. Sometimes it's subtle like having a Gatorade and few extra mouthfuls of pasta, or having dessert instead of skipping it. However sometimes it can be disastrous, if your so hungry that you gorge yourself on food after a workout. Based on the 30 minute running workout, if you eat the equivalent of 2-3 extra slices of bread you will have effectively negated the caloric deficit you created by exercising. This can occur with any kind of exercise, but it is especially pronounced with running and low intensity cardiovascular exercise, because it will make your body crave sugars to replace the energy stores that have been depleted from your muscles. Sugars and carbohydrates can be easiest to overeat because they are calorie dense and don't quickly fill you up during or after a meal.
Most people have the goal of losing weight, but our real goal is to lose unsightly fat. Muscle is what gives your body an aesthetically pleasing physique that looks strong or "toned". What's the point in losing fat if there is nothing underneath it that's worth looking at?
Muscle, especially fast-twitch muscle fiber, is the tissue that is most effected by exercise. Fast twitch muscles grow and shrink with demand and energy supplies. If you've got to move something that is heavy or move your body quickly, your fast twitch muscles will be involved. If you work hard enough, they will grow in size and energy capacity after you recover from the effort. However, fast twitch muscles respond very little to low power activities like long distance running. In fact, if done often enough your fast twitch muscle fibers will begin to atrophy and eventually disappear. Long distance running tends t0 atrophy the largest deposits of fast twitch muscles in your body, your legs and glutes. You can often see this bylooking at the physiques of long distance runners vs sprinters.
Credit: Jonathan Chun
Losing muscle takes away your best engine for fat loss and growth. Without muscles you can't burn calories and lose fat. Its that simple.
Competitive long distance runners may weigh very little, from running dozens of miles a week, but it comes at an extreme cost to their muscle tissue. An average person would run themselves into the ground quickly and find themselves with greater reduced muscle mass and much weaker fat burning engine.
Few things are more detrimental to health than injury. Not only does an injury prevent you from exercising, but it also severely restricts all of your other activities as well. Injuries from long distance running are especially common, some studies have sited injury rates of more than 90% per year but the mode rate is probably somewhere over 50% in a year for all runners. Being injured will more than likely lead you to a sedentary lifestyle, and compounded with your now muscle-depleted body, your now more susceptible to gaining fat and putting on weight. If you don't take the time to heal properly, the injury could become chronic and severely hamper you activity and health for life. This is a fact for many runners who suffer from arthritic knees, stress fractures, IT band syndrome, shin splits, and plantar fasciitis.
Is All Running Bad?
Despite all of the bad news above, this article is not to say that all running is bad. Running is one of the fundamental functional human movements, and can be a powerful tool in developing fitness and losing body fat. The key, as with all exercises and movements, is how you utilize it. There is no need to run continuously for miles and hours on end, and as shown above it is likely counterproductive to your fitness goals. Instead learn how to train using intervals and sprints. Sprinting has the ability to avoid all of the issues described above and tends to be much less time intensive. You can complete a sprint workout in the range of 5 to 15 minutes. There are risks that come with sprinting and intervals as well, but studies have shown that high intensity, short duration exercise is even more efficient more fat lose than steady state activity.
Long distance running and jogging can be a fun activities and challenging as a sport. However its important to understand the risks, and realize it will probably not be a fast way for you to lose fat.