You have heard that running burns fat, and it is true: “Running is one of the best cardiovascular fat burners for a simple reason: it burns a significant amount of calories,” said exercise physiologist Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, author of The Marathon Method and fitness consultant for Bowflex. But when it comes to fat loss, not all runs are created equal. It is worth looking at science to ensure that you burn fat every time you come to the sidewalk.
How Do I Burn Fat by Running?
To burn fat in your runs, you have two options: a long, slow, steady-state run or a faster, shorter run, which is often done at high speed and recovery intervals. Good news: both burn calories from the fat and carbohydrate stores in your body, but the amount and percentage of fat that you can burn in particular depends on the run. Let’s explain.
“If you run at a lower intensity for a longer period of time, your body is likely to burn more fat than carbohydrates,” says Jorianne Numbers, MS, an exercise physiologist at Northwestern Medicine. However, the catch is that longer and lower intensity generally consume fewer calories. In other words, you burn a higher percentage of fats than carbohydrates, but the total amount of fat you consume may be less than in a high-intensity run, because the total calorie burn is lower.
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“While you burn a higher percentage of calories from fat while exercising with lower intensities, you burn more fat calories and more total calories at moderate to higher intensities,” Tom explained.
All this means that higher-intensity interval intervals are the best choice for fat loss. They are a powerful way to not only burn significant amounts of calories and fat during your run, but also to continue the fat burning process after your workout, thanks to the post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) effect. “Even after running, your body will continue to burn calories,” Jorianne confirmed. “The higher the intensity of your training, the more calories you burn after exercising.”
How Can I Tell If I’m Burning Fat Through Running?
When it comes to fat loss, the scale can only tell you so much. “Measuring your body composition and body fat percentage is a better way to track your loss-related fat loss,” said Tom. There are a few ways to do that: use a body fat scale (although they are not always right), a fitness professional measure your body fat with calipers, or visit a facility with a DEXA scanner or hydrostatic underwater testing capabilities, of which Tom said it was the two “gold standards”.
Jorianne also recommended measuring your waistline before you start your regime, and checking it every now and then to keep track of your progress. “Losing inches over the waist, thighs, and arms can be an advantage when exercising,” she said. Progress photos can also come in handy.
You will also need to eat a healthy weight-loss-based diet to actually see the results of your hard work. When running, this means that you need to consume sufficient amounts of whole-grain carbohydrates to fill glycogen stores and proteins to prevent muscle loss, and healthy fats (avocados, nuts, and fish) to sustain you. Avoid processed foods that have been shown to lead to weight gain. Excessive eating after a tough hunger-inducing run is common, so focus on healthy, whole foods that keep you happy.
How Often Should I Run Per Week to Burn Fat?
Fast interval trajectories help you to burn the most fat, but the increased intensity that makes them so effective also means that you don’t have to do them every day. Mix a longer, stable run and strength training and cross training, Tom said, for a well-balanced training week. This is his recommended schedule, plus some training sessions and runs that you can try every day:
Monday: Interval run
Tuesday: Strength training (try this 30-minute dumbbell session)
Wednesday: Hill run
Thursday: strength training (try this workout to strengthen the whole body)
Friday: Steady-state endurance run
Saturday: Cross-training like a swim workout, cycling session, or yoga
Sunday: rest day
A combination of faster interval runs, steady-state endurance runs and strength training will not only maximize your fat burning, but also help you prevent injuries (another major concern around high-impact exercises such as running). Bottom line: hit the sidewalk and you will burn fat. Combine your workouts with a healthy diet, and you give yourself the best chance to see the results you crave.