I was on a short jog the other day when I bumped into a good friend who was walking his dog. The sun was just setting over the horizon, and we had both stopped to take in the beauty of it all.
He broke the silence with, “Hey man, you look great – you must be running a lot these days?” I paused for a second thinking to myself, this is weird, I haven’t been running much at all – I’ve been hitting my workouts hard and eating pretty well, but definitely not running more than normal.
“No, not really, I’ve been hitting the weights actually.”
“Oh wow! Well you look a little leaner, and I thought it must be the running.”
Looking at the sun dip below the horizon and knowing that I had limited daylight, I didn’t feel like diving into the nuances of running and its connection to bodyweight, so I just left it at that.
That brief interaction stuck with me for a few days, and it made me realize that most people still connect running (and other forms of endurance training) with losing weight.
The association between running and leanness is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that the vast majority of people start running to get in better shape. If you believe that running makes you leaner, a logical conclusion would be to run more if your goal is to lose weight and body fat.
There’s a problem here though – this association is based on faulty logic that confuses correlation with causation. Yes, there are plenty of lean runners (so running and leanness might be correlated), but running by itself doesn’t cause you to be lean.
If you’ve been following BuiltLean for a while, you probably already know that there are more efficient and effective exercise approaches to decrease your body fat and build a lean physique.
But it does beg the question – Does running help you get lean and lose fat? And more importantly, should running or any type of endurance training be a part of your workout program?
Let’s start by defining endurance training.
Endurance training, also know as “steady state” cardio, is any aerobic activity that you do at a steady pace for a prolonged amount of time. Typical examples include going for a moderate jog or a long bike ride.
Generally, you maintain your heart rate around 50-70% of your maximum, which is often referred to as the “fat-burning zone” (which is a myth).
The question of good or bad depends entirely on what it is you are trying to achieve. In other words, what is your specific goal?
Research has made it clear that running is great for cardiovascular health, and it builds a solid aerobic base that enables you train harder during your other workouts. Light jogging, or even walking can also be a great starting point for a beginner who wants to get in shape, but who might be intimidated by the gym. And, in the right doses, it can be a terrific way to manage stress.
On the other hand, if your goals are to get ripped or build muscle, running won’t help you as much. And if you want the most effective workout you can do in a limited amount of time, running and other endurance-based cardio activities aren’t the most efficient option. If you love running and want to boost your fat loss, sprinting is a very effective way to get lean and lose fat because it is high intensity and creates a large afterburn effect.
All that being said, I strongly believe that if you want to be an all-around functional human being, you should be doing some type of endurance training (like running), at least once per week.
You should be able to run nonstop for a few miles without getting hurt. You should also be able to hike for a few hours without having to stop every 5 minutes. In my opinion, these are normal, functional activities that we should all be able to do as human beings.
Before you decide whether running belongs in your workout program, here are the benefits and potential drawbacks of long duration, endurance exercise like running.
If you’re out of shape or just getting started on your fitness journey, light cardio exercise like walking or jogging is an excellent starting place. It comes down to practicality – there’s no need to go to the gym, no equipment besides your running shoes or bike, and little to no intimidation. You can just go for a walk, or hop on your bike and go for a ride. I think this is the most powerful benefit of steady state cardio.
Remember, the perfect exercise program is the one you actually do, so making the path to exercise relatively obstacle-free is a key component to getting started on your fitness journey. Walking and biking are great examples of low-barrier forms of exercise.
Aerobic exercise is heavily oxygen dependent. And the more of it you do, the more effective your body becomes at transporting oxygen into your muscle fibers. Aerobic exercise can increase the number and size of blood vessels through increased capillarization (developing more capillaries per unit of muscle). This allows for enhanced delivery of oxygen/fuel to muscle cells, enhanced removal of CO2 and waste products, and efficient transfer of heat away from the muscle.1
Every activity you do is dependent on the aerobic energy system. Even high intensity exercise requires a little help from the oxidative system in the body. The more endurance training you do, the more efficient your aerobic system becomes. This allows you to build a bigger aerobic base, which means you’ll have increased capacity in pretty much any physical activity.
We all live busy, stressful lives, and chronic stress can cause serious problems if left unchecked. Steady state cardio can have a calming effect on the body. In fact, the brains of runners might be better equipped to handle stress due to the release of certain neurochemicals during aerobic exercise.2
The body is an amazingly adaptive machine, and its primary goal is to maintain homeostasis. The problem with steady state cardio is that your body eventually adapts to the demands of your workout, which means you become more efficient and burn fewer calories doing the same amount of work.
Because steady state cardio primarily uses the aerobic energy system, there is no afterburn effect so you only burn calories during the actual activity. In order to continue to see progress and results, you have to do more and more of it, which becomes very time-consuming.
If true fat loss is your goal, you’re better off adjusting your diet and doing full-body strength training as opposed to doing hours of steady state cardio. You’ll probably get better results in less time.
Running and other forms of endurance training does very little to build muscle, or develop any kind of explosive power or speed. Most sports require bursts of speed or effort, so by only endurance training you’re neglecting these other critical facets of fitness.
Think about a tennis serve, jumping to grab a rebound in basketball, chasing down the ball in soccer, paddling into a wave, etc. Almost every sport requires some kind of explosive movement, so the ideal fitness program would incorporate speed, power, and strength training.
Repetitive movement patterns like running or biking can bias certain parts of the body and neglect others, leading to muscular imbalances and potential risk for injury. Running with proper form is a fairly technical skill that most of us are never taught.
Think about what happens if you have poor running form and you take 5,000-10,000 steps with bad mechanics every time you go for a jog. Does that sound good?
While all physical activity comes with a certain amount of risk, if you’re only doing one type of movement repeatedly over and over, you could put yourself at a higher risk of injury. Instead, vary your training program with a mix of strength training, interval training, and steady state cardio.
While running may not help you get ripped or help you jump higher, it offers a lot of other important benefits and should probably be a part of your overall workout program.
And if you have goals of getting leaner and losing fat, I do believe running and other endurance training can help you with those goals. For the reasons stated above, running as your only form of exercise would not be the best approach. But if you were to combine running with strength training and HIIT workouts, then you will have a great recipe for fat loss.
For those of you looking to add in some endurance training into your life, here are a couple of ideas for you.
1. Work It Into Your Commute.
Think about how you can squeeze a little bit of endurance training into your commute to work. If you live in a big city, this might be the easier way to go. Carve out 1 or 2 days each week and walk at least 2-miles home. Maybe you can get off the bus, train, or subway a few stops early and walk the rest of the way?
If you drive to work, maybe you can look into a parking option that’s a few miles away from your office and do that once or twice per week.
And if you work from home, this might require a little more planning, but try to set up 1 hour per day for walking calls. A good friend of mine works from home and sets up 3-5 walking work calls every day at 1pm. He laces up his sneakers and goes for a 1-2 hour walk while taking work calls on the phone.
2. Find an active passion that involves some kind of endurance training.
Finding an Active Passion can completely eliminate the need for willpower when it comes to exercise. If you don’t enjoy running, don’t run. If you sit all day in the office, riding a bike might not be the best option for your tight hips. Find a hobby or activity that you enjoy.
Think about when you were a kid. What did you love doing? Seek out that activity at least once per week. The obvious examples are running, biking, hiking, soccer, basketball, tennis, surfing, boxing, etc. but the options are endless!
I hope this article helped clarify how running and other forms of endurance training can fit in your exercise program to help you get leaner.
Given this new knowledge, I’d love to know what you plan to do. Reply in the comments below!