Running for fat loss
Dealing with runners on a daily basis means that I know the many different motivations behind why individuals indulge in this sport. For some it’s all about performance and becoming the best runner they can be, for others it’s simply about physical health or perhaps the well documented mental health benefits. There is a sizeable portion of runners, however, who run as a way of maintaining or losing fat. This article is for you guys… and anyone interested in fat loss, AKA most of us!
Let’s start by defining terms because this is quite important. I want to make a clear delineation between fat loss and weight loss. The two are often used interchangeably and they are not the same thing. Weight loss relates to a decrease in your body mass and this could be down to a whole host of reasons, such as fluid loss, bone mass, food in the gut, stored carbohydrate, muscle cells, organs mass etc. Whereas fat loss is about the loss of weight coming from fat alone.
The starting point for the conversation around fat loss tends to centre on workouts with people asking what is the best workout for fat loss? The reality is you need a few fundamental things in place before you even think about what workout is best for you and your fat loss. If you have these fundamentals in place, then the workout bit is actually very easy. The fundamentals are:
- Create a calorie deficit
- Force the body to use fat to plug the calorie deficit
Let’s look at these fundamentals in a bit more depth
Creating a calorie deficit
You need to be in a calorie deficit to lose fat mass. That means that net calories in, has to be less than calories out. Net calories in, is basically the the calories you ingest through food and drink. I refer to ‘net calories in’ because they have to be absorbed by the body to count and some calories we consume might not be absorbed.
Calories out is the amount of calories we burn off over a given time period (per day/week/month depending on how you are measuring it). Calories out is the combination of the energy required to keep you alive (your basal metabolic rate or BMR) e.g. to keep your heart beating, lungs breathing, organs functioning etc. and your exercise and voluntary movement, whether that be an hour long run, talking, combing your hair or scratching your leg. It all takes energy and forms part of your calories out equation. The vast majority of your calories out will be taken up by your bodily processes (BMR) and, believe it or not, your exercise will only take up a tiny part of your daily calories. You can use apps like My Fitness Pal to track your calories so you can work out how many calories you’re taking in.
Force the body to use fat to plug the calorie deficit.
Once you’re in a calorie deficit you need to give the body a reason to preserve muscle tissue and burn fat. The bottom line here is that the body is the ultimate survival machine. It doesn’t care about your appearance, it just gets the job done. We evolved in a calorie deficient environment so if we begin to drop calories, the body, a bit like a politician, will start to look at areas where it can make some savings. Maintaining muscle mass takes energy, and therefore calories, so like most politicians during times of cuts the body will start to look at this expensive process and ask ‘Do we really need all this muscle mass? could we manage without some of this muscle?’ like all good organisations trying to prevent cuts, you must ensure that the answer is ‘No, this expensive process of muscle maintenance is absolutely vital to our survival, we cannot lose muscle, we absolutely need it’ If we convince the body to preserve muscle mass we will by default force it to use fat mass to plug the calorie gap. So how do we tell the body to preserve muscle mass? we have to prove we need it.
We do this by using the muscles – remember, what builds muscle, maintains muscle. So if you are training for fat loss I would look to add some heavy, low-rep weight training to your weekly regime. Low reps means approx. 6 sets of anywhere between 3-6 reps. Because we are performing low reps we can go high weight, and that’s the point. High weight = maintenance of muscle mass. Think of it like this. When I was a kid I remember overhearing my Dad saying to my mum ‘I’m gonna chuck that bike of his out, he never rides it and it’s just taking up space’. This set into motion a two month period of continuous bike use to show my Dad I really need and love this bike and prevent him from chucking it out! My Dad in this scenario is the body looking to chuck anything out that we don’t need. The bike is muscle mass. In a calorie deficit, your body wants away with it. Our job is to convince the body we absolutely cannot chuck it out because we use it regularly and need it. So if we convince the body that we need to maintain this muscle mass it will be force to look elsewhere for cuts e.g fat mass.
The second part of the story behind maintaining muscle mass is to keep protein intake relatively high. My protein intake is around 30% of my daily calories. We need high levels of protein to maintain muscle mass. So if you’re dropping calories to get yourself into a calorie deficit then it’s advisable to manipulate your carb or fat intake (whichever you prefer) and drop those calories rather than trying to take away from protein. Again, apps like My Fitness Pal can help with tracking your macronutrients (Carbs, fats, protein) and what’s more…it’s free!!
To summarise so far, these are your fundamentals for fat loss: create a calorie deficit, make heavy, low-rep training a staple of your weekly routine and maintain relatively high levels of protein. Once these are in place then, and only then, can we think about doing what most people think about doing first e.g. looking for the best fat loss workout.
What type of workout it best for fat loss?
If your goal is to use your workout purely for fat loss, then your reason for doing it should be to burn calories as a way of increasing your calories-out and therefore ensuring you are in a calorie deficit.
One argument in the world of fat loss is around what type of exercise burns the most calories and is therefore helpful for fat loss. You have HIIT (high intensity interval training) that is generally short duration (20 mins) and high intensity exercises done in short bursts with limited recovery. Think circuits, cross fit, boot camp type exercises. Whereas at the other end of the spectrum you have the longer, steady state exercises. Think of your weekly long run for example. Like most disagreements in the fitness world the argument is polarised, and each exercise type is championed strongly by those that swear by it or have a financial reason behind advertising its benefits. To get closer to the truth we have to acknowledge that it is not necessarily that one type of exercise is better than the other, but it very well may be that one type of exercise is better for you. Both exercise types have pros and cons.
Depending on the intensity, steady state running tends to burn more calories during the exercise bout than HIIT but this is only down to the duration. It’s not unusual to see steady state runners performing their choice of exercise for an hour or more and it is this length of time exercising that yields the greater calories, simply due to the duration possible.
However, HIIT is more time efficient. Not everybody has the time to devote an hour (or more) to long slow running. A HIIT session may only take 15-20 minutes. This 20 minutes, due to the intensity, will burn more calories than the equivalent amount of time spent doing steady state long runs.
That said, HIIT training, if done correctly e.g. at max intensity as it is designed to be done, is very hard work and taxing on your nervous system. Because the workouts are so tough it’s not advisable to do them every day because you’ll begin to overtrain. So whilst the HIIT guys are resting in between exercise bouts the steady state runners can go again (because steady state running is not as taxing so doesn’t require as much rest). This ability for steady state exercise to be repeated frequently again puts it at an advantage over HIIT when it comes to cumulative calorie burn over the week.
The other plus is it tends to be better for beginners (provided they are gradual with their mileage) compared to HIIT. The high intense nature of HIIT can mean that poorly conditioned athletes can get injuries.
The downsides to steady state running are 1) it can be quite boring, especially if it’s indoors on a treadmill and 2) many people just don’t have an hour (plus) a day to spare for exercise.
In summary, when choosing and exercise programme for fat loss it doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you are in a calorie deficit and preserving muscle mass you will lose fat. If you are time poor or find longer steady state exercises boring then you may better off doing HIIT style workouts. Conversely, if you’re a beginner, you’ve got the time and want to burn the most calories then longer steady state exercise, such as running, will be a great choice.
Fig.1 – Understanding fat loss summary
On a final note. Keep calories as high as possible while making progress for the most part. Creating huge calorie deficits is not a healthy way to go and can actually slow down fat loss as the body goes into starvation mode so drastically slows metabolism to prevent losing too many calories. Also, as this website is all about health, as well as acknowledging the importance of aesthetic considerations like body composition. Make sure that even when you’re in a calorie deficit you are eating a balanced diet with plenty of nutrient rich foods.
Let me know how you get on!