Training: Will I lose weight when I start running?

 Training: Will I lose weight when I start running?

Coach Joe English

It seems that I have the same conversation about ten times a month. A new runner says: “I decided to start running so that I could lose weight, but I haven’t lost any. Is that normal?”

Yes, in fact, it is quiet common for new runners not to lose weight when they start running. In fact, a lot of them gain weight. Here’s why.

A running program will provide a number of great benefits to you. It will increase your cardio-vascular efficiency, making your heart stronger and more efficient. It will also increase your basal metabolic rate, helping you burn more calories when you’re at rest. And running itself burns calories at a rate of about 115 calories per mile. But all of this together does not automatically lead to weight loss.

The reasons are four-fold:
First, your weight is directly related to your diet - The foods you consume will either be burned by your activities during your day or they will be stored as fat for you to use later. There is no other option for those calories – they have to go somewhere. Generally speaking, when people are over-weight they are eating too many calories, or more specifically, too many calories from food types that are not useful to them for the activities they pursue in their daily lives.

Second, new runners often have a greater appetite than before they started running- With the body burning more calories, it is normal to be more hungry and craving more food. The problem is that new runners may not have figured out which foods to increase in their diet and which to avoid. This often means they may just eat more of the foods that they don’t need, which works against their desire to see weight loss from their running.

I often hear runners say things like, “hey, the reason I run is so that I can eat whatever I want!” Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Runners still need to eat sensibly to avoid gaining weight. They may be burning more calories, but they are not gaining a license to eat whatever they want.

Third, new runners often gain muscle when they begin their running program- Since muscle tissue weighs more than fat, some new runners may actually gain weight when they initially start a running program. But the flip-side of this is that as their bodies start to respond to the training, they often feel stronger and have more energy.

I’ve noticed with my female runners that they often put on new muscle in their legs, in particular their quads (the large muscle in the front of your legs). They often tell me that their jeans are snugger than they have been in the past — again, I think this is normally the result of larger muscles in their legs — and that their bathing suit bottoms don’t fit particularly well. (As you can imagine this doesn’t make me that popular around the start of Summer!)

Fourth, new runners often run too many slow miles that are not maximized to burning calories and losing weight. Higher intensity runs burn more calories than lower intensity runs, by boosting the amount of calories burned for a longer period of time after the workout. You can read more about this topic in a related post, by clicking here.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is that for new marathon runners as the distance of their weekend long runs increase, most runners will tend to lean out in their mid-sections. This is simply because of the greater number of calories that are being burned by these long runs slow runs. So when new marathon runners start hitting about 15 miles in their weekend runs, they start burning enough calories and even if they aren’t eating particularly well, things start to balance themselves out. Their stomachs start to get flatter and their pants fit more loosely around the waist.

Do I need to go on a diet?
It isn’t always necessary to “go on a diet” to lose weight when starting a running plan, but if you want to lose weight you need to consider what you’re eating as you start running. Most important is the idea of shifting your eating toward foods that you need and away from foods that you don’t. For some easy recommendations on changing your diet to help with weight loss, click here.

You’ll notice that many athletes eat a ton of food, yet they are what you’d consider thin. This simply means that they are eating the foods that they need to fuel their exercise and leaving out those foods they don’t.

The bottom line is this: running will not automatically shed pounds. Running burns calories, primarily those coming from complex carbohydrates (grain, rice, potatoes, pasta). The key is to understand your dietary needs and develop a nutrition plan that supports both running and weight loss. You will burn abou 115 calories for each mile you run, depending on your weight and the intensity (speed) at which you run them. Running with greater intensity burns more calories both during the run and for a longer period of time afterward.

As a rule, look carefully at what you’re eating, trying to get enough carbohydrate for the energy that you’ll need, but cutting down on fats, oils and sweets that will keep you from losing weight. Aim to eat the right foods, in the right quantities, and you can manage your weight effectively.

If you’d like more information on this topic, there are many great books available. Two of my favorites are available at Amazon.com. These two books are by Nancy Clark, who is considered on the top sports nutritionists in the field. Her two books are Nancy Clark’s Food Guide for Marathon Runners Training: Will I lose weight when I start running? and Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook Training: Will I lose weight when I start running?. The Food Guide for Marathoners is a short and concise book that sums up a great deal of good information. The Sports Nutrition Guidebook includes much more information and many great recipies.

Related Articles:
Weight loss suggestions for runners

Accelerating the Impact of Running on Weight Loss

Food as fuel; your diet, weight loss and running (part I)

What should I eat for breakdast before a long run?

Ten things you need to know about hydration

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA
Running Advice and News
www.running-advice.com

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22 responses so far, want to say something?

  1. 1. Tracy July 9th, 2007 at 7:32 am

    Coach Joe,

    Good blog! Sometimes as things start shifting around, things are lost that you wish would stay, such as butt and boobs! hehe!

    I will have to check out the book…thanks for the head’s up. I know I have run for a while, but I realize I can stand to eat better to maximize my runner’s potential.

    Have a great day!

    Tracy

  2. 2. dabigleap July 9th, 2007 at 7:53 am

    Can’t agree with you more, Coach. When I started running again, I expected to lose weight and I did. Just not nearly as dramatically as I thought I would. Instead, I kind of “deflated”. The scale still read the same, but my pants were falling off and gathered at the top under my belt. Eventually, the weight did come off (50 pounds so far!) but that was over more than a year of consistent running and changing my eating habits. It may take me another year or more to get that last 20 pounds off. But now that I’m completely hooked on running again, I know it will eventually go away. I think changing my lifestyle and eating habits has had far more of an impact on my weight than running has. The running has just redistributed the weight to the proper areas and built up muscle. Thanks Joe!

  3. 3. coachdeanhebert July 9th, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    Joe,
    Right on. And Nancy Clark is definitely the best authority/source out there. Keep people away from all those fads. I’ll add one other phenomenon that I’ve observed. Many people who workout (not just runners) get into the mindset that because they did a workout, they “earned” a dessert or sweet or extra helping of whatever. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard comments like that. This of course only leads to increased calories and defeats any efforts in losing weight.
    Coach Dean

  4. 4. david July 17th, 2007 at 5:29 am

    I’m glad to read this when I did. I lost 40 pounds a few years ago. I then put on some weight and lost it last summer training for a 10 miler, but that weight didn’t come off until the very end. Same thing happened this past winter training for a 1/2 marathon. Now I feel like I’m eating less, running more, but gaining weight, yet my clothes still feel the same.

  5. 5. iamsamiam November 17th, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    Running seems to help with water-weight more than anything in my female body! I feel trimmer, happier and healthier and that’s all the motivation I need.

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  10. 10. coachjoeenglish August 12th, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Leslie,

    This is a great question and one that I plan to write more about. You're seeing something that I call the "Sophomore 10" (I know it doesn't rhyme like the "Freshman 15" that you've heard of when people go to college. Here's the thing, after the initial changes to your body due to the start of exercise, things may sort of balance out after about a season. Your body gets more efficient at running and may be burning less calories per workout. Also, if you've been doing the same workouts over and over for the past year, your body may have done all that it can in terms of adaptation to the workload — this is what we call a plateau — and in this case, the runs aren't as requiring as much of you as they once were. In these cases, the best advice is to mix up your workout patterns and increase the amount of higher-intensity workouts (such as speed work, spinning for cross-training, or intense hill training). These workouts will require more of the body and start to get a response again.

    There is also another potential cause to this. If you are doing heavy and intense training, the weight gain could be the result of the stress created by your workouts. Weight gain is a response to times of heavy stress. Although we mostly know this in terms of stress from work or social situations, it also applies to the physical stress you are placing on yourself in your workouts. If this is the case, then your focus needs to be on increasing your recovery time between your workouts and potentially improving your nutrition to reduce the stress on the body and allow it to properly deal with the training load.

    Either of these might apply to you, so it will depend on your situation. If you need further consultation, drop me a note as I would be happy to help.

    Coach Joe

  11. 11. Heidi February 2nd, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    I only run a mile a day. I started out running/ walking for 20 to 25 minutes. I have now worked up to 1 mile in 10:30 minutes. I know this is not awesome but I started last August and lost about 10 lbs.

    I run 5 times a week. So many people say the 1 mile a day is not good enough. I have to disagree. I chose the 1 mile a day because it is something I will do for the rest of my life. I may work up to more but I will never let myself drop below that for I feel icky on the days I do not run.

    I mean physically not well. I get body aches and feel tired. So running is the answer for me.

  12. 12. DAJ March 10th, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    Life and Path
    This is such a great post. Dietary changes help (think BETTER calories, not just lower calories), but some weight gain from water will happen. Your body knows it needs to be able to use glycogen stores and needs water to do that. Omega 3’s will help reduce inflammation related gains.

    Happy Running Everyone!

  13. 13. Angela March 9th, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Great! Very informative. I have gained 5 pounds since i started running months ago and have worked my way up to a half marathon. I am confident the extra lbs (approx 15) will come off eventually. The shape of my body has absolutely transitioned into something I am totally loving. I LOVE running. THanks for the great article!

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  15. 15. Moe March 28th, 2011 at 5:48 am

    I Agreed with everything you said !

    Thanks Joe

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  17. 17. Jenny P. June 6th, 2011 at 2:03 am

    When I first started running I was always focused on the scale. I have learned through the years that it doesn’t count. Especially now that I’m training for my first marathon. I had ended up gaining 3 lbs since I started training, but my close fit loser and I feel amazing. I have quit watching my weight so closly and focus on eating healthy to fuel my runs and life.

  18. 18. Heather June 16th, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Hello,
    I was looking up running and came across this article. I weighed 115 and I quit smoking and gained weight now I’m at 150 and I feel horrible. Inside and out. I want to be healthy and stay inshape as well. I guess I dont have motivation to workout so I thought I would run. What is the best way to start so I don’t over do myself. Any suggestions?

  19. 19. Dotcom July 24th, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    ^ 1/2 walks = 1/2 hour walks.

  20. 20. Dotcom July 25th, 2011 at 12:00 am

    One other thing – if your goal is to get back to 115 (losing 35 pounds), it may take 6 months to a year. You can lose faster than that, but if you want to become healthier and the weight to stay off it’s going to take time. So make sure to be patient with yourself.

  21. 21. ElaineMonkey September 27th, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    I’ve been running all along, but when I started marathon training, I found that I gained 2-3 pounds according to the scale, but my clothes are looser, especially in the waistband, yay! I made the mistake of cutting down calories, while increasing mileage. I couldn’t figure out why I was so tired, and having such a hard time getting through my runs. I was just tired all the time. When I added a nice little carb snack in the middle of the afternoon, all became right. It did not make me gain any more weight, and I was happily able to complete my runs without being so exhausted. So, my 2 cents is, be sensible about trying to both lose weight and increasing your runs at the same time. And definitely cut out the sweets and add more of the good stuff, brown rice, pasta, green leafy veggies, milk, almonds.

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