Conventional dieting wisdom doesn’t work for runners. It leaves you hungry, tired, and... overweight. So we updated popular weight-loss strategies to meet a runner’s needs. Here’s how you can fuel up smarter (on real food), run stronger and drop pounds for good.
Dieter's Strategy: Develop a running routine and stick to it
Runner's Strategy: Mix up your routine with new types of workouts
Anyone trying to lose weight knows that he or she needs to work out on a nearly daily basis – and that's not easy. So to stay on track, dieters develop a workout routine (that often includes lots of steady, slowish runs) and then stick to it no matter what. "People are comfortable doing what they know," says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. "If you're a runner, you feel comfortable with a specific pace or distance." Sticking to that routine brings dieters security.
While running an easy three-miler a few days a week is better for weight loss than doing nothing, there is a smarter approach. Break out of your routine by boosting your intensity and doing different types of workouts (like a weekly long run or a day of cross-training) to challenge your body and burn more calories. "It's a lot like city driving versus motorway driving," says McCall. "When running a long, slow distance, your body becomes really efficient at using oxygen. The more times you do the same distance, the easier it gets and the fewer calories you burn. Sprinting is like starting and stopping a car, which uses more petrol."
A 10.7 stone (68kg) runner doing a four-miler at a nine-minute/mile pace burns about 480 calories. But you can torch more calories, speed weight loss and spark up your runs by swapping that four-miler with one of these high-intensity workouts one to three times a week.
What: Alternating sprints of a certain distance (such as 400m) with recovery laps; often done at a measured track.
Why: Sprinting at high speeds makes your body work harder and burns up to 30 per cent more calories to keep up with the demand.
How: 4 x 400m hard (max speed), separated by an easy 400m recovery lap; 8 x 200m hard, separated by 200m easy; 4 x 100m hard, walking back to the start between sprints to recover.
Calories burned: 700
What: A less formal version of intervals; the term actually means "speed play" in Swedish.
Why: Like interval workouts, fartlek sessions make your body burn more calories to match the demand of running faster.
How: While out for a 45-minute run, pick a tree or mailbox about 50m away. Run hard (max speed) until you reach it, and then slow down until you're recovered. Continue alternating periods of hard running with recovery.
Calories burned: 540
What: This workout is exactly what it sounds like: running uphill for a period of time.
Why: Hills require more force to overcome the angle of the incline, leading to a challenging cardio workout; it's also a great way to strengthen the larger muscles of the legs.
How: Find a steep hill 40 to 80m long. Follow this sequence, each time running up the hill and jogging back to recover.Start with 10 reps (progressing to 20) - 5 runs at 50 per cent max speed, 2 to 3 runs at 80 per cent max speed, 1 sprint at max speed.
Calories burned: 600
Dieter's Strategy: Eat low-fat foods
Runner's Strategy: Eat the right fats
Though the fat-free craze peaked in the 1990s, many dieters still avoid oils, butter, nuts and other fatty foods. Their logic: if you don't want your body to store fat, then don't eat fat. Many dieters also know that one gram of fat packs nine calories, while protein and carbohydrate both contain just four calories per gram.
But the logic of having fat in your diet has risen to the fore again. "I think it's a pretty antiquated thought now that we need to eliminate fat to lose weight," says Jonny Bowden, author of The 150 Most Effective Ways to Boost Energy Naturally (Fair Winds Press, £14.99). In fact, eating moderate amounts of fat can help you lose weight. The key is to make sure you're eating the right kinds.
Saturated and trans fats are unhealthy because they raise your levels of LDL (so-called 'bad cholesterol'). Trans fats may also lower your HDL (or 'good cholesterol') levels and increase your risk of heart disease and weight gain. But unsaturated fats (which include mono- and polyunsaturated) have important benefits.
Keep you satisfied Unsaturated fats promote satiety, reduce hunger and minimally impact blood sugar. That's important because if your blood sugar dips too low, you may experience cravings, brain fog, overeating and low energy, making it "fiendishly difficult to lose weight", according to Bowden.
Protect heart health Monounsaturated fats found in vegetable oils (such as olive and canola oil) and avocados have the added power to help lower LDL and reduce your risk of heart disease.
Reduce injury Eating unsaturated fats can actually help stave off injuries, such as stress fractures. A 2008 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that female runners on low-fat diets are at increased risk of getting injured – and of course a sidelined runner can't burn as many calories.
Decrease joint pain Bowden adds that Omega-3 fatty acids – which are a type of polyunsaturated fat found in oily fish, walnuts and ground flaxseed – possess anti-inflammatory properties that can help soothe knee, back and joint aches and pains that plague many runners. Translation: you'll hurt less and run more.
Dieter's Strategy: Cut out carbohydrates to lose weight
Runner's Strategy: Have quality carbs in every meal
In the past decade, the Atkins diet and other low-carb spin-offs have become as popular as 100-calorie snack packs. It's understandable why dieters would find these plans attractive – just eat high-protein, high-fat foods, and shun carbs – to drop pounds.
"The theory behind reducing carbs is that it helps control blood-sugar and insulin surges," says Jonny Bowden. "When you eat a high-carb food, insulin carries the sugar to muscles. But if your muscles don’t use the energy, it gets stored in fat cells." This is what leads to weight gain.
It’s a different story for runners, however. We need carbs because they're our main source of glucose, a sugar that our brains and muscles use as fuel. Most glucose is stored in muscles and the liver as glycogen and used as energy when we run. But the body can only store a limited amount of glycogen, so if you haven’t eaten enough carbs, you’ll literally run out of fuel.
Keeping carbs in your diet will have a domino effect, says sports nutritionist Barbara Lewin, (sports-nutritionist.com). Your energy levels will stay high, your workouts will improve and you’ll have more zip throughout the day. All this leads the way to a greater calorie burn and weight loss.
Just keep in mind that "the kind of carbohydrates you eat makes all the difference in the world," says Bowden. Here's a quick guide to choosing the right ones for the right times:
Slow-burning carbs These are high in fibre and are slowly digested. They keep your blood-sugar steady, provide long-lasting energy, and should be a staple of your diet. Get them in oatmeal and other whole grains, beans, lentils, fruit and vegetables.
Fast-burning carbs These carbs are digested quickly, are low in fibre and have a greater effect on your blood sugar. They also provide a quick hit of energy that's useful to runners right before working out, but they should be eaten in moderation. Get them in pasta, white rice, white flour, potatoes and cornflakes.
Dieter's Strategy: Don't strength train to stop weight gain
Runner's Strategy: Balance running and strength training
Dieters often shy away from strength training out of a fear it will make them bulk up. But for many dieters, the reason is simpler: they know one hour of intense cardio burns more calories than one hour of strength training.
Yet the truth is that taking the time to add strength training to your routine a few days a week has a number of unintuitive benefits that can help boost your weight loss. Studies have shown that strength training can improve body composition and decrease your percentage of body fat, helping you look leaner and burn additional calories. Here's how it works.
Muscle burns more calories "Fat burns almost nothing at rest,"says exercise physiologist Pete McCall, “whereas muscle uses oxygen. If you increase lean muscle mass, you'll increase the body's ability to use oxygen and burn more calories." Your body typically uses about 4.5 to seven calories per pound of muscle every day. If an 11.7 stone (74kg) runner with 20 per cent body fat increases his muscle mass and lowers his body fat to 15 per cent, he'll burn an extra 36 to 56 calories a day at rest – simply by adding muscle.
You’ll be more efficient Strength training can help you run faster, longer and more efficiently. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that runners who add three days of resistance-training exercises to their weekly programme increase their leg strength and endurance. Therefore, runners with better endurance can run longer – and burn more calories. You’ll also be able to recover faster from those long runs because strength training makes your body more efficient at converting metabolic waste into energy. “It’s like being able to convert car exhaust into petrol,” says McCall.
You’ll be less injury-prone “If you increase your strength, you’ll also increase your joint stability,” says McCall, citing a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, which shows that incorporating squats, single-leg hops and abs work into a workout can not only prevent lower-body injuries, but improve performance as well. Leg exercises are particularly important for reducing injury.
Breaking down (weight-loss) barriers
That pesky number on the scale not budging yet? You may have encountered a few roadblocks. Here's how to get around them and back on the path to weight loss
You're not getting enough ZZZs
A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who get less sleep eat more snacks. Without enough sleep, says Heather Gillespie, a sports-medicine physician at the University of California, Los Angeles, your energy levels and immune system drop – the only thing up (besides you) will be your appetite. But that doesn't mean you should cut out your morning runs to stay in bed. Routine is key for weight loss, says Lisa Dorfman, author of The Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Guide, (John Wiley & Sons, £12.99). Try going to bed earlier or switching your workouts to later in the day.
You eat energy-dense foods
A hamburger is an energy-dense food – meaning that it packs more calories than less-dense foods, such as vegetable soup or a turkey sandwich. Less-dense foods have a higher water content than fats and carbs, explain researchers in a 2007 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, which found that people who lower their energy density lower their weight. A more recent study from the same journal found similar results: those who eat a lot of energy-dense foods weigh more, have a higher intake of trans and saturated fat and eat fewer fruits and vegetables.
You're stuck in
a colour rut
Many runners get the majority of their calories from carbohydrate. "I call it the flu diet," says Lisa Dorfman. "Everything is bland and white." But research supports a colourful diet: a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating colourful berries twice a day for eight weeks helps lower your blood pressure. "Eat at least five different colours daily," says Dorfman, "so that you can be assured you're getting enough fibre and protein to help steady blood sugar and feel more satisfied after you've finished eating."
You only run
Running 15 miles a week burns roughly 1,500 calories – but to lose a pound, you need to cut 3,500 calories a week. Bottom line? Running alone won't cut it; if you want to lose weight more quickly, you need to adjust your calorie intake. In a study in the 2007 American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers found that lean and overweight adults who restrict their calorie intake by an average of 300 calories a day lose nearly 25 per cent of their body fat. People who only exercise lose just over 22 per cent. Both regimes worked, but your best bet is to combine the effort.