Many runners start training because they want to lose weight. The good news is that, when it comes to losing weight, it’s hard to beat running — alongside a smart eating plan. After all, exercise is important, but what you put on your plate is even more so. “Just because you’re a runner doesn’t mean the sky’s the limit with calories, carb loading and happy hours,” says Lisa Dorfman, RD, aka The Running Nutritionist®, author of Legally Lean.
If you still have doubts, Jason Machowsky, RD, CSCS, a board certified sports dietitian and exercise physiologist at Hospital for Special Surgery, reinforces: “Running is a great way to burn calories and build up cardiovascular function. However, if your goal is fat loss, nutrition is just as important.”
Follow these seven simple tips for running-fueled weight loss:
1. VARIETY IS KEY
If you want to lose weight, you need to avoid doing the same workouts every day. Sandra Gallagher-Mohler, CEO and run coach at iRunTons, explains that exclusively doing steady-state cardio won’t build the necessary muscle mass to fire up your metabolism. “A mix of very easy runs some days, faster tempo runs other days and intervals on days in between is the way to build muscle and burn calories,” she says.
2. DON’T OVERDO IT
Excessive intense workouts equal burnout and injuries. Running faster doesn’t mean stronger, if you don’t give yourself a break. “Doing five days a week of fast intervals is a sure-fire way to end up burned out and injured,” says Gallagher-Mohler.
3. RUNNING MORE SHOULDN’T MEAN EATING MORE
“Sometimes when people start running, they feel like they can eat more because they earned the calories from running. When the goal is weight loss, however, we want those extra calories to go toward building a deficit where the body pulls from the calorie reserves in our body (i.e. fat)”, says Machowsky. If you find yourself naturally very hungry after running, he suggests to running just before meal time so you’re not eating extra calories.
4. THINK AGAIN ABOUT CARB LOADING
Dorfman notes that most runners overestimate their calorie expenditure for running and over-consume calories. “Figure the average 150-pound runner requires 1,500–2,000 calories a day, 1,500–1,700 if trying to lose a few pounds, and expends between 300–600 calories a run for the average-paced, 30–60 minute session. If you have a tennis ball of cereal at breakfast, sandwich at lunch and just a mere cup of pasta at dinner, you’ve already consumed 750 calories more than expended on the run.”
5. SLOW DOWN AT HAPPY HOUR
“Each beer or glass of wine has an average of 120–150 calories, just a few can really max out calorie limits,” says Dorfman, adding that “alcohol is metabolized to fat in the body. Try a glass of water between drinks or dilute the wine with a small amount of seltzer.” She also recommends limiting happy hour to once a week, with a two-drink maximum.
6. OPT FOR HEALTHY FAT
Our bodies need dietary fat to lose weight and function properly, but many runners are overdoing the healthy fats these days — eating nuts, whole avocados or so-called healthier oils like coconut and flax. “Each thumb full of oil is about 150 calories/15 grams fat,” says Dorfman. “This can really add up when nuts are the go-to snack. Figure on a 2,000 calorie diet, about 44–66 grams fat is the maximum recommendation. Those handfuls of nuts, oils on salad, avocado slices on sandwiches or salads can really top the fat quotient.”
The nutritionists recommend limiting the extra fat to 6 tablespoons or 30 grams maximum. That way, when foods are already prepared with fat, or include natural fats, you won’t go over the calorie edge.
7. FOCUS ON FUELING YOUR LONG RUNS
If you are performing a short run (less than 60 minutes), you don’t need anything but water during your workout. However, longer runs, especially those in hot or humid weather, can benefit from added electrolytes and possibly even a bit of carbs to keep performance up. A few sips of a sports drink or an energy chew with water can go a long way. Bonus tip: you don’t necessarily need to drink a whole bottle, unless you are going for a long time (more than 90 minutes).