Summer time is here, and you might be thinking the best way to get in shape and shed some extra pounds is to go out for a nice early morning run. Makes sense, right? It’s simple, it’s easy, you don’t have to drive to the gym, it burns calories… it’s the perfect form of exercise to get that great summer body you’ve always wanted… Right!? Well maybe…
In this blog I want to talk about running as a form of exercise in general. I also want to talk about what you can expect to achieve from low, moderate, and higher volume running programs. If you’re running right now (have it be 5 or 50 miles per week), or you’re considering taking up running – read on, I’ve got some interesting insight for you.
What Are The Benefits of Running?
First off, we need to establish what running is intended for on an adaptational level. If we’re going to operate from the premise that everyone exercises for a reason or a goal (fat loss, fitness, health, etc.) then we need to define what the true physiological benefits of running are.
Primarily, benefits of running are focused on the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems of the body. Running helps the heart pump better, it helps the blood vessels transport blood more effectively, and it allows for the lungs to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide more efficiently. The heart, lungs, and blood vessels comprise the primary life sustaining system of the body (what we’ll call the cardiopulmonary system), so obviously a strong and healthy cardiopulmonary system is important and exercise should absolutely be done to strengthen it. Although there are other adaptations that occur as a result of running (changes at the level of the muscle, brain biochemistry, and so on), the primary system of change in the body is the cardiopulmonary system.
Now that we’ve established what the physiological response to running is, we can examine the different types of running programs and types of runners. Essentially, we can divide running programs into three types: low, moderate, and high volume. We’ll define anything less than 10 miles per week as low volume, 11-25 miles per week as moderate volume, and anything more than 26 miles as high volume (although true “high volume” distance runners will run 50+ miles per week).
The 3 Types of Runners
1. The less than 10 mile per week runner tends to be the runner who picks it up for fitness, health and weight loss. Of all the types of runners and running programs, this one can actually be the most potentially dangerous in terms of injury. This type of runner generally cycles on and off of their running program and has the tendency to do a little too much, a little too quickly, which can result in an overuse injury.
2. The 11-25 mile per week runner is the runner who runs for “fun,” and is usually pretty consistent at it. They might do the occasional 5k, 10k, or even half marathon, but they run for enjoyment mostly.
3. The 25+ per week runner tends to be the more serious marathoner or half marathoner. This type of runner will usually have a time goal and has thoughts of improving their performance from season-to-season, and race-to-race.
Beginners Listen Up!
The rest of this article will certainly speak to all runners, but mostly I want to talk to that first group I mentioned; the low-volume, just getting started runner. In doing so, I’d like to dispel two myths about running and its benefits (and detriments).
Myth #1 – Running is the “Best” Way to Lose Fat
Although this would seem to be true, it’s actually not. First and foremost, fat loss has very little to do with exercise in and of itself. Fat loss comes by way of creating a calorie deficit (expending more calories than what you consume). If you don’t reduce your consumption of food there isn’t any form of exercise that will get you to lose body fat. Now I know what you’re thinking – running burns calories and a lot of them, why wouldn’t this result in losing fat? In short, when most people start running they don’t pay a tremendous amount of attention to how much they eat, so they fail to realize they are progressively eating more (to keep up with the hunger as a result of the increased energy demands of running) . When this happens weight and body fat tend to stay the same. In fact, I can’t tell you how many people have told me they started a running program to lose weight and didn’t lose more than a few pounds. An Unintended and unrecognized increase in calorie intake is usually the culprit.
Hormones Play a Role
Beyond just a general lack of awareness of increased calorie intake, there are some hormonal changes that predispose running to not being an effective modality for fat loss (particularly the steady-state, longer duration running, most people do). With steady-state aerobic exercise, stress hormones (such as cortisol) rise. Anabolic (or muscle preserving) hormones are depressed. Cortisol is one of the big physiological road blocks to running being effective for fat loss. This hormone actually acts to preserve fat and excites the breakdown of muscle tissue. The end result could be some weight loss, but certainly not favorable weight loss (as losing muscle and preserving fat actually makes you look worse, not better). Interestingly enough, most of our distance runners we work with (those 25+ milers per week) will typically see their body fat percentage go up as they increase their running volume, not down. This response tends to be characterized by a preservation or maintenance of fat and a loss of a little bit of muscle tissue.
Myth #2 – Running is Safe
Ok, now I’m not about to tell you running is dangerous (unless you’re running down the middle of the street at night wearing all black), but there are orthopedic risks associated with running. The reality is running is one of the most biomechanically stressful activities you can perform. Think of the repetitive pounding associated with running and all the compressive stress that’s associated with each impact of the ground. The incidence of minor to moderate orthopedic issues in runners is VERY high because of this. As I tell everyone who runs, the goal isn’t injury prevention (because you can’t really prevent running injuries) it’s injury management when they occur.
What’s worse yet for the low volume runner doing a running program for weight loss is they’re at greater risk of injury. Having excess weight means more compressive stress on lower body joints. Being slower (which presumably you are if you have weight to lose) also means you contact the ground more compared to faster runners. This is a perfect recipe for overuse related injuries that can stop a running program dead in its tracks.
Where Does Running Fit in?
So what should you take away from this article? Am I saying running is bad? That you shouldn’t do it? Absolutely not…I want our readers to realize that running (like all forms of exercise) has its place and should be used properly, when needed, in an exercise program. Running does improve the health of the cardiopulmonary system and as we established, this is the most important system of the body. However, you can strengthen this system by doing circuit training, interval training, or other variable intensity bouts of exercise. Doing these types of training will result in similar cardiopulmonary responses without the potentially detrimental hormonal response mentioned above.
So the take home message is this, if you like running – do it, its great exercise, great for improving health and overall well-being, and it’s simple. If you’re considering taking up running as a vehicle to aid in fat loss you might want to think again. Instead, consider a balanced exercise program of weight training and cardio, along with some food logging for calorie restriction. Bottom-line is, don’t just train hard, train smart!