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.
The Myth of Running & Leanness
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.
What Is Endurance (Steady State) 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).
Is Endurance Cardio Good For Your Health?
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?
Pros Of Endurance Cardio
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.
Cons of Endurance Cardio
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.
Where Endurance Training Fits In
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.
Benefits of Running & Endurance Training
1. Great For Beginners.
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.
2. Increased Capillarization
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
3. Improved Aerobic Base
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.
4. Stress Release
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
Potential Drawbacks of Running To Get Lean
1. Less Effective For Fat Loss
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.
2. Not Effective For Developing Speed, Power, or Muscle
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.
3. High Risk of Injury
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.
A Place For Running & Endurance in Your Workout Routine
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.
Easy Tips To Add Endurance Training Into Your Routine:
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!
- The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, Andrews, Berardi, 2012 ↩
- Schoenfeld TJ, Rada P, Pieruzzini PR, Hsueh B, Gould E. Physical exercise prevents stress-induced activation of granule neurons and enhances local inhibitory mechanisms in the dentate gyrus. J Neurosci. 2013;33(18):7770-7. ↩
Hey that was amazing I am regular reader of your blogs .. its nice to get these tips .. and learn along the way thanks a lot 🙂
Hi Vinita, you are very welcome. I’m glad you got some tips and thanks for the comment!
Hi Nick. While I hate running (it’s probably the most boring activity I can imagine myself doing), I like biking. Hope that counts as an alternative endurance training/cardio exercise. Going up hills can be pretty challenging.
Hey Steve – yeah, I hear you about running being boring. Biking absolutely counts as solid endurance training. How often and how long do you bike per week? If you’re riding a lot, I would make sure you’re doing mobility work to keep your hips loose and doing some glute training to balance all the quad dominant work of biking.
Nice article again!
Yeah, I strongly agree that running is the most boring type of exercise there is! Instead of that, I hit the ground with a jump rope lol. I do 30secs on, 15secs off, 40 rounds for half an hour. I take a rest every after 10 rounds. I hope this is not a bad alternative for running/jogging. I started doing this twice a week but surprisingly it is kinda fun so I am adding another day for this cardio exercise. 🙂
Thanks Cherry! Love it, jumping rope is a solid alternative for sure. Keep it going, you’re also getting the added benefit of increased coordination in your legs which is a bonus that you don’t get with normal running..
I’m curious about the interval training or sprints. Like how often (days a week) how long to rest in between etc.
I typically run on tread mill so wasn’t sure how long to sprint and how long to rest in between
Thanks Steven. It really depends on a number of factors, you should check out this article that goes into some of that detail – https://www.builtlean.com/2016/07/08/hiit-workout-duration/. Hope that helps..
I have seen some articles recently stating that endurance exercise helps stall cognitive decline associated with aging. Neurogenesis is a word cropping up in context to endurance training.
Yes, correct Greg. There is some good research to support aerobic exercise and cognitive function. A lot of that has to do with something called BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor) which is released during exercise and can grow new brain cells. Read a book called “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” if you want to learn more..
Thanks Nick. I’m constantly trying to find that sweet spot. Shred the fat and keep/build muscle. Not interested in bulking up, just have some definition and have the clothes fit right! It seems like some research points to these things as being mutually exclusive. What to aim for first??
You bet Dan. Yeah, I hear you – it can be tricky sometimes to find the sweet spot. Depending on where you currently are, I would say the best goal would be to get leaner first by focusing on your diet. Then you can slowly start to put on a little muscle until you’re happy with your the way you feel and look. That help? Keep me posted!
Thanks for the Reply. Yes, I am working on the diet portion first while incorporating the necessary exercise to lose the weight. Down to that last stubborn 15 lbs. From there I plan to ramp up with body weight exercise.
Thanks again for the advice.
Our Golden Retriever, Bailey, gets us out on walks several times a day, and just being with that crazy guy relieves stress!
Yes Jim, Goldens are probably one of the best stress relievers out there! I’m glad to hear Bailey is keeping you healthy!
Hey Nick. Nice article. I’m 57. Just bought a bike. Not so much for the exercise, but just for the fun of it. Makes me feel young!
Love it Russ – anything that makes us feel young is good by me. Keep it up!
im 37 5ft6 225 pounds i have been lifting since i was about 15 im as big as i wanna get what kind of training routine and cardio should i be doing to lean out more and separate the muscle and add vascularity my scale says im 33% bf
Hey Joey – that’s a little beyond the scope of this article, but I would say you should focus most of your attention on your diet if you goal is to get leaner. A good place to start would be to simply write down what you’re eating for 3 days – no judgements, just take an objective intake of what’s going on. Then, focus on one small thing to improve on. Be patient and slowly make progress week by week. Hope that helps!
Do you have article or blog or information on doing interval training? You mentioned running sprints , I’d like to know more about how long and length of rest In between
Hey Steven, check this one out I wrote last month – https://www.builtlean.com/2016/07/08/hiit-workout-duration/
Good information, need to incorporate these ideas into my weekly running regimen. I think hill sprints instead of 45 min of easy running would be more effective.
Hey Carlie – yes, for sure hill sprints will certainly ramp up the intensity big time. For me, hill sprints are one of the most intense exercises I do!!
Nick, thanks so much for your insightful updates & clearing up some confusion for me regarding why I may not be losing weight with all my spinning or cycling sessions any longer-got to get back to my weights! There is still so much wt loss advice & gyms still pushing “the benefits of the fat burning zone”!
Exactly, there is a lot of misinformation out there. I know “the benefits of fat burning zone myth” just wont die. I’m glad I helped clarify some of that stuff for you. Maybe sub out 1 or 2 of your spin classes and do some strength training instead?
I think in general running for long periods of time is not really a good way to exercise.
Studies have shown that long distance endurance runners have lower testosterone levels and higher cortisol levels. Basically it breaks down your body faster.
There are no animals on this planet or humans for that matter that ever had to run for long periods of time, nature did not create our bodies like they are, to be used for that.
HIIT workouts like sprinting is to prefer since they have all the benefits without the negatives.
Hi Nick. This is a great article. Does doing stationary bike & cross-trainer (elliptical) is better vs running ? Can you help to share what proportions or weight ages of different types of training to be included in one’s workout programs assuming the target is to have a healthy long life ? Thank You..
Thanks for another nice article. I hope it’s oke to challenge you a little bit, but I would like to bring up something after reading your article. I’m not an expert like you guys, I’m simply trying to learn and I’ve read and learned a lot from builtlean.
Basically you’re saying that building muscle is a better way to burn fat as it increases ones’ BMR, so you’re actually burning more calories even when you’re not excersizing. I also understand that both are important, cardio and strength training.
Here’s my problem with building muscle to loose fat, but I probably got some things wrong which is why I wanted to post this. Hopefully you can clear up any mistakes I am making.
If my BMR would be 1400 kcal, about 18% of that is used by muscles. I got that from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basal_metabolic_rate.
From another builtlean article I understand that there is a maximum to how much muscle you can gain and how fast you can gain it. At best, this is estimated at 2 pounds a month in the first year of training, halving with each year that I train.
So … 18% of 1400 is 252. This is what my muscles burn from BMR.
Now, this is tricky because I don’t know exactly how much muscle I have. I think I read it’s 60% of LBM, which would be 90 pounds in my case.
So, if I gain 24 pounds this year, my muscle mass would be 114 pounds. Calculating my new BMR would be 252 / 90 * 114 = 319. That is a 67 kcal difference after 1 year of intense training.
From that point on, each day I will burn 67 kcal extra due to an increased muscle mass. Purely from a weight loss point of view, this is completely neglectable. The time I need to spend training for gaining 2 pounds a month is intense. This means hardcore resistance training, sticking to a diet to maximize muscle growth. 1,5 hour in the gym, 4 or 5 days in the week.
Setting this off against running, 3 hours a week equates to about 2400 kcal. In a year this is 124,800 kcal.
So, the question is, am I seeing this wrong? Is my math so far off?
The way I see it is that resistance training is important for a lot of other things, and, if you want to loose fat, it’s a nice little extra, but it’s not going to loose you a pound extra. It is a small bonus, nothing more nothing less.
Unless I am wrong. Am I?
Really looking forward to your answer, I would really love to know.
Well, I can’t edit my comment but I failed to mention the calories burnt during and after resistance training. As far as I’m aware this doesn’t come close to the same time spent on cardio so even then I don’t see how it is “better”.
Hey Ingemar, thanks for the comment. I can’t follow your math and it frankly in the context of this article, it really doesn’t matter. Here’s the short answer. It’s not about “building” muscle being better for fat loss than cardio for fat loss. My point was that doing strength training will “maintain” muscle mass you have and therefore when you reduce calories, you will be lose more body fat.
What often happens when people do nothing more than cardio and reduce calories, they lose weight, but not fat, as often muscle is lost as well. Building muscle is a completely different beast in that you not only need to strength train hard, but you also have to be at a caloric surplus (more calories in than you burn). Hope that helps!
Great…I agree with you. I too started with simple school exercises Thanks
I learned a lot from this article. I’ve been running for the past 3 years and now I understand why my weight loss became so slow. I need to do other workouts to lose body fat.
…and don’t forget nutrition