Since I love running, and I help people with fat loss, I get asked a lot about running and fat loss. There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to fat loss and cardio:
- Running miles upon miles will make all of your weight loss dreams come true.
- Doing any cardio is silly and you should only lift to get the body you want.
When it comes to cardio and fat loss I can definitely see your confusion. For someone who is extremely overweight, they are going to lose weight engaging in cardio. For someone who is average, or is only trying to lose 5 or 10 pounds, steady state cardio probably is not going to help. It genuinely really does affect your hormones. It affects your Leptin levels, as well as your Cortisol levels causing you to not only retain fat, but to consume more in general. The cardio cycle causes you to need to eat less and up your cardio in order to continue to see results. This can cause a lot of damage to your metabolism
After I had my son, I got back to my pre-pregnancy weight pretty quickly, which I attribute to an easy pregnancy where I made healthy choices 90% of the time, listened to my body, ran a few days per week until I was around 38 weeks, and some good honest rest and healing. Once I was feeling good enough to workout, I focused on fat loss first. I am a big fan of prioritizing. I did weighted circuits 3x/week and some very slow runs maybe 2 times per week. After my husband deployed around September, I started running no more than four days per week, and no more than two days in a row. My mileage was 16-20 miles per week, so nothing crazy. I was still doing three circuits per week, and sometimes sprints. I doubt that I ever ended up running 4 days/week during that time, if I’m being honest.
Fat loss was my goal and I lost probably another two pant sizes (honestly, I don’t weigh myself often, but I was down about 2 pant sizes from pre-pregnancy). In December I officially started my half marathon training, but I usually follow a 10-week program, and the mileage is pretty low the first three weeks. I was still only running 4 days per week. Here’s what my workout schedule looked like:
- Monday: Circuit + Run
- Tuesday: Run
- Wednesday: Leg Day
- Thursday: Run
- Friday: Upper Body
- Saturday: Sprints (First 3 weeks when long run was < 6 miles) + Long Run
- Sunday: Complete Rest
This is how I trained for my half marathon and I put on about 5lbs. I increased my carbohydrates mostly on Fridays for my long runs, because during the week the longest I ran was 6 miles, and I personally do not have to adjust nutrition for 6 miles or less (I already eat A LOT… like for real a lot. You may need to increase intake before I do. Most people add 30-50g carbs for every 1hr of running). I lost some of my muscle strength, especially in my arms.
I gained about 5lbs during my half marathon training, which I 100% expected to happen. I knew I would gain weight, I was OK with it, and it’s not like I was a fat person. I just became less lean. My goal is always performance first and aesthetics second. That does not have to be your goal. It’s just my goal and my approach. So gaining 5lbs because of hormone imbalance during training really did not matter to me, because I love to run and I like to push myself. I increased my carbs for performance, but my weight gain was definitely hormones and it was all in my belly. I just want to reiterate here, I was not fat I was simply less lean.
Then during my full marathon training, I gained another 5lbs. Again, I knew this would happen and I did not care. It was mostly hormones, and a little bit the fact that I chose to stop breast feeding part of the way through, meaning my caloric needs were not as high, but I did not really adjust my intake to accommodate that change. My milk supply did not dip at all from training, as I was taking in plenty of nutrients throughout.
My marathon was on a Sunday, and from the Friday before to the Wednesday following I went down five pounds, and have maintained that decrease. Some of the weight gain from the marathon training was hormones, but increased calories had a little to do with it as well. It was good I had those calories in reserve though because I used ALL OF THEM during the race.
I typically do not really track what I eat. I try to focus on real food most of the time. I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. I eat about 600x/day and I drink a lot of water. During marathon training though, I did follow a macro plan, which served its purpose (performance) but it was way too tedious for me and I am already so happy I am back to just listening to my body. My carbs were up around 325g, but I follow a lot of athletes who eat less than me and they are superstars. I really rebuilt my metabolism after giving birth and it is legit on fire. I don’t share this to brag, just to say you may not require as many calories during your day as I do. I got my macro plan from @katiesfitscript and I stinkin love her. If you love running, I think you will like following her page too.
I think the most important thing is to prioritize your goals. If your primary goal is fat loss, but you LOVE LOVE LOVE to run, then keep your mileage lower but still get out for the love of running. If you are training for a distance race, you have to decide what is most important to you and what you have time to dedicate yourself to. If you are seeking fat loss and are running just because you think it will help you reach your goals, stick to just sprints and bag the distance running.
Can you retain the muscle you build and gain no weight during race training. YES!! BUT, it is VERY difficult and time consuming, in my opinion. I did not have enough time/energy to dedicate to training runs, lifting enough to maintain my muscle mass, and keeping my nutrition 100% on point. Mostly, I would have had to break up my run and my workout into two separate parts of the day in order to maintain the energy for my workouts, and that was just not realistic for me.
Can you run and be lean/maintain fat loss? YES; however, it is VERY time consuming and when you are race training and raising a family/working/doing pretty much anything, you might have to prioritize what is more important: performance or physique. And again, either answer is fine. You just have to be real with yourself.
Essentially, distance running will definitely affect your fat loss, but it doesn’t mean you can’t run AND be lean. It’s just a matter of how much time/energy you have and if performance or physique is more important to you.