6 Running Weight Loss Tips To Burn Calories And Build Muscle

A few things that might entice you to run: Seeing race pics your friend posted on IG. Watching videos of exciting Olympic Track & Field finals on YouTube. The fact that Lululemon makes (super cute) running shoes. Or, perhaps, a weight loss goal.

If that last one in particular got your attention, you’re in the right place. Running is a form of movement that you can use to help you lose weight. It’s a cardiovascular exercise, so it gets the heart pumping, and that burns calories, says Lauren Wentz, PT, DPT, CSCS, an RRCA- and USATF-certified running coach based in Pittsburgh. (You can learn more about estimating your calorie deficit for weight loss here, BTW.)

But there are a few things to know before you lace up and hit the pavement. Below, you’ll find six tips for running to lose weight, all according to Wentz. Just remember: As with any new exercise regimen, be sure to consult with a trusted health care pro before you get started.

Meet the expert: Lauren Wentz, PT, DPT, CSCS, is an RRCA- and USATF-certified running coach based in Pittsburgh.

6 Tips For Running To Lose Weight

1. Don’t default to long distances.

Yes, training for and finishing a marathon can be a totally rewarding experience. But if your goal is to lose weight, it may not be your *best* option, says Wentz. When you run for over three hours (or, over 16 miles), your body breaks down muscle, she explains.

Here’s why that matters: If you’re losing muscle, you have a lower basal metabolic rate, she says. ICYMI, your BMR is the amount of calories you burn performing basic life-sustaining functions, or, in other words, the minimum number of calories you need to maintain your current weight, WH previously reported. So, Wentz suggests prioritizing shorter runs (think: an hour or less) for those with weight loss goals.

2. Stick with a strength training regimen too.

While you might feel compelled to head outside for a run or hop on the treadmill day after day, building muscle mass helps you boost that basal metabolic rate, Wentz notes. Plus, she says, “if you’re continuing to break down muscle mass with too much cardio, you can [end up with] injuries because you don’t have enough strength.”

Where this might get confusing is on the scale. Muscle weighs more than fat, Wentz says, so if you see your weight ticking up (or notice your clothes fitting differently), you might feel discouraged, even if your muscle to fat ratio is changing.

In terms of how many times you should strength train versus run each week, Wentz’s general rec is to maintain a 50-50 split—three days of each. But she notes that if you really love strength training, you can go for a fourth day in lieu of one of your runs.

3. Mix up your running workouts to keep your body guessing.

When you think “running,” you might automatically picture long, slow jogs. And Wentz does recommend incorporating those in your regimen (for 30 to 60 minutes each). But if you’re constantly logging conversational-pace miles, she says, your body will adapt and burn fewer calories because it’s learning how to successfully complete the task. On the flip side, varying your speed can tax your body in different ways (think: anaerobically rather than aerobically), per Wentz.

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Your move? Try an interval workout for one of your runs every week. Wentz suggests heading to a track (or use a watch that measures distance) and warming up for an easy mile and a half to two miles, depending on your typical mileage, along with some dynamic stretches and glute activations.

If you’re a newer runner, start with four to five 400-meter sprints with a 400-meter recovery (read: *super* slow jog) in between each one. Over time, you can build up to doing 12 to 15 sprints, she says, by adding one or two every other week.

As for what constitutes a sprint? Think a six, seven, or eight on a scale from one to 10, Wentz says. “A 400 sounds really, really short,” she says. “But when you’re going around that track, it seems [like] forever.” For that reason, Wentz suggests starting out at a six for the first quarter of the lap, then easing into a seven. For the back half, you can hit an eight.

For your recovery 400, she says you can walk, but there’s a bigger cardiovascular benefit to continuing with an easy jog. (Pro tip: If you feel the urge to walk, jog for 15 seconds first to see how you’re really doing. Once you catch your breath a bit, you might find that you can keep going.)

4. Take at least one full day of rest every week.

It’s crucial to give your body time to repair and get stronger, according to Wentz. But she adds that you can do active recovery on that day, like yoga (she just cautions against choosing a yoga class with more of a “workout component,” like hot yoga).

Another option, Wentz says, is to take two rest days per week (keeping a minimum of two strength training days in your schedule). If you go this route, she suggests taking one full rest day and doing some low-impact cross training on the other. For instance, you might swim, do a (slow) spin class, ride a bike outside, or row. You can even choose an activity like pickleball. “You just don’t want to go hard,” Wentz says.

5. Know when not to run.

Sometimes, runners will experience a bit of achiness or tightness, Wentz says, adding that it’s normal and typically OK to run through. But you don’t want to be running through sharp pains that are a five out of 10 or higher, she says.

She also advises against running if you’re experiencing stomach or respiratory issues—or, more generally, any concern from the neck down. (Unsure if the pain or ailment you’re experiencing constitutes changing your exercise plans? Talk to your doc for guidance.)

Be mindful of air quality, too. It may get risky to run outdoors once the AQI, or air quality index, exceeds 150, NBC News recently reported.

6. Consider your diet.

It’s not uncommon to feel like you can eat allll the pizza and donuts when you start running, Wentz notes, but if weight loss is your goal, you’ll still need to be mindful of the calories you’re consuming versus burning. A 155-pound person running for 30 minutes at a 12-minute mile pace burns 288 calories, according to Harvard Health—so it’s pretty easy to consume what you’ve burned.

If you find yourself feeling *starving* as you start running more, Wentz has a few pieces of advice: First, ask yourself if you’ve had enough to drink, because sometimes dehydration manifests as hunger, she says. Second, consider the types of foods you’re eating. Things like chips and crackers have calories, of course, but not so much nutritional value. On the other hand, foods with fiber can help you actually feel full.

Remember this, too: “Diet culture has taught us to stop doing a lot of things that we actually need as runners to sustain that effort,” Wentz says. Runners do need carbs for fuel, the coach explains. That doesn’t mean you have to carb-load all day long, she notes, but it is important to consume them before your run to help get the work done as well as afterwards (along with protein) to heal the muscles that were torn down during your run. In other words, timing is key.

If you have questions about your unique dietary needs while trying to safely meet a weight loss goal, chat with your doc or a registered dietitian for personalized guidance.

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Erin Warwood is a San Francisco-based writer, runner, and sparkling water enthusiast. She holds a B.B.A. from the University of Notre Dame and an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University. In her free time, you can find her watching Survivor, trying new Peloton workouts, and reading Emily Giffin novels. Her ultimate goal: become a morning person.