Why People Don't Lose Weight Running

For millions of people all over the world, running is often the first go-to for weight loss, and the first thing to be ditched when it doesn’t work right away. 

Running can be an EPIC way to lose weight!  A simple Google search for “Lose Weight Running” will turn up dozens to hundreds of stories of people who have done exactly that!  But for the many who are successful at it, why are there so many who aren’t successful and throw in the towel?

First, for the sake of this article, I need to be clear that when I talk about “losing weight”, I actually mean losing body fat.  Yes, many people need to lose weight and will see great results from running if done correctly.  However, there are even more people who are looking to lose body fat and tighten up their waist line.  For this group, “losing weight” seems almost impossible with running, because while you are burning off fat, you are increasing your muscle mass.  Muscle weighs more than fat, so according the scale, you are not losing and may even be gaining weight.  Yet your midline is looking fabulous as those pudgy rolls and transformed to toned muscles.  Please keep in mind that for this article, I will be using the terms weight loss and fat loss interchangeably. 

Here are the most common reasons why I believe people don’t lose weight/body fat when running, and give in too quickly to actually see results.

1)     Dieting

When we start running to lose weight, it is often done with an all-in approach and coupled with a very strict diet or massively cutting calories.  While I admire the complete commitment, the problem with dieting is that diets often operate on deprivation mode: cut out delicious things, or cut out massive amounts of food/calories.  There are two issues with this.

First, when you start running your body is naturally going to require more food to fuel itself and to recover/rebuild your muscles during rest time.   When your body expresses hunger, it is its’ way of requesting nutrients.  When you do this mass calorie cutting, the hunger builds and builds until you experience that “I am STARVING!” ravaging hunger in the pit of your stomach.  This more often than not leads to binge eating or eating unhealthy options because we are so hungry and having food cravings.  Then starts the cyclical rollercoaster of “Dangit! Can’t do that again!  I’ll just have to cut back more tomorrow.”  Which leads to starving, which leads to binge eating, which leads to guilt and more cutting back.

Second, any time you tell yourself that you can’t have something, it gives that particular un-allowed item a strange sort of control over you mentally, and it becomes more of an obsession.  Have you ever known someone who had eliminated sweets from their diet, only to confess that they broke down last night and ate the entire box of Girl Scout Cookies in their pantry?  This “breaking down” causes us to completely overindulge in our “forbidden food” during moments of weakness, because we think “oh shoot.  I had one, I might as well go all out and eat the whole box, then I can start fresh tomorrow.”  Unless you are diabetic or have some other serious health reason why you shouldn’t be eating Mint Thins, I would rather someone ate 2 mint thins per day with their lunch and just enjoy them, then a whole box every other week when they break down and let loose.

What should you do to instead?

Rather than putting yourself on a diet, put yourself on a nutritional plan.  Look at your food intake wholistically, and ask “how does the balance in my food help to accomplish my weight loss goal?”.  We know that as runners (and as humans in general), that we need a large portion of carbs, proteins, and fats for our daily fuel, health and recovery.  Healthy carbs come from foods such as fruits, veggies and whole grains like brown rice or oatmeal and are the fuel for our muscles to keep us going.  Protein comes from things like meats, fish, dairy and eggs and are the building blocks that our muscles need to repair themselves and get stronger for the next run or workout.  Healthy fats can be obtained from foods like dairy, nuts, olive oils and avocados and are essential for helping our bodies absorb nutrients from our food, as well as making us feel full.  A quick internet search will turn up all sorts of great ways to get these macro-nutrients into your diet, and easy recipes to help you prepare them.   Keep these healthy foods around, and eat plenty of them until you are satisfied (not stuffed, and not gorged.).  Don’t try to put crazy restrictions on what you eat, or when you can eat it.  And when you need a mint thin, have a mint thin!  Just one or two will keep the craving away, and you will have more to enjoy tomorrow.  Then, balance the rest of your meal with these yummy foods above.

2)     Eating because you “earned it”

You trained for 6 months.  You are more fit than ever before.  You feel amazing and have great energy.  You are standing at the start line of your ½ marathon… your waist is a full pant size larger and your body is 20 lbs heavier.  What the heck happened!?  This is the reality that many runners face (myself included!) at some point in their running life.  It is so easy, especially when running with friends and training groups, to get done with your run and go out for a celebratory beer and cheeseburger, “because you earned it”.  In the running world, we like to say that you either eat to run, or you run to eat.  If you are the later, and you have the “I earned it” mentality every time you scarf down a cheeseburger and pie, then good for you!  You likely won’t be losing any weight or fat this way, but if that what makes you happy and you are satisfied with your body weight, then by all means, get that side of fries! 

What to do instead?

If you are running to lose weight, then you need to find a way to beat the “because I earned it” mentality.  Before you order that double cheeseburger, ask yourself – “Am I ok with today being a wash in terms of my fat burning”.  If you are like most of us, the answer is “NO!”.  You didn’t just go run 3 miles, or do that 45 minute sprint set to have the day “be a wash”.  You did that workout to accomplish something and get closer to your goal!  If your goal is weight loss, then let your friends order the quarter pounder, and you enjoy an amazing salad with olive oil blend dressing, veggies, cheese and big piece of salmon on top!  I am not saying to never celebrate your success with a rewarding meal.  Heck, I would go crazy without a jalapeño and cheese stuffed burger from our favorite joint down the street every once in a while.  But it is not a weekly activity, because ultimately, my waistline and staying light for the run are more important than enjoying that burger. 

3)     Not having a running goal

One of the best advice I have ever received about training with ulterior motives (like weight loss) was “Do a sport for the sake of being better at the sport.  The rest will come.”.  What this means is, if you want to run to lose weight, set yourself a goal that has to do with being a better runner.  For most of us, that is a goal event like a ½ marathon in a few months, or to beat our last event by x-amount of minutes.  What this does is force you to keep your eye on the future prize, and keep working harder to meet this goal. 

One reason that people throw in the towel too soon when running to lose weight, is that they give it a few weeks, and when the weight isn’t coming off, they quit.  As with any weight loss program, momentum is built and results are not instantaneous.   Your body has to be trained how to burn calories from fat, and it only gets better at this as you continue to train it over the course of many weeks/months.  You have to stick with any good program in order to see results.  By setting yourself this future goal, you have something to keep working toward and stay motivated day to day when the scale and waist may not be changing much.  However, when you stick with it for 4 months and show up to your goal event, you might think back and remember what your body looked like 4 months prior, and THAT is when you will realize how much you have accomplished toward your weight/fat loss goal!

Need some help to get started on your running journey? Get my free “1 Week To Get Running” training plan and guide here. 

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Happy Running!

Sabrina Santos