You Don’t Have to Run

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This post was prompted by another blog post I read recently. Why do a majority of people think that running is the most effective way to lose weight? It probably has to do with the image that comes to mind, that of a lean endurance athlete. There is also the growing popularity of endurance sports, especially ultra distance activities. I happen to live in Ashland, which has been a hot bed for elite ultramarathon runners. Living here, I couldn’t help but be bitten by the running bug, and have competed in many endurance races, including triathlons, marathons, and a few 50k’s. And while I love to run, I don’t believe it’s the best strategy for losing weight, especially if the person is significantly overweight. For others, due to orthopedic concerns, it is likely more detrimental than good. There are many forms of exercise to choose from in terms of losing weight. First off, here are some reasons why I think running is such a popular form of exercise.

Let’s face it, an exercise program that revolves around running is an easy one to begin. It does not require a gym membership or a bunch of fancy equipment. All you really need is shirt (optional for some), running shorts, and running shoes, which is all highly portable. Beyond the equipment, all you need are some roads or trails, and you are ready to begin your workout. Running provides you with a high calorie burn, and the faster you go, the more you burn. According to a chart on the Mayo Clinic website, running at a 7:30 min/mile pace, outpaces every other activity in terms of calories burned (861 calories per hour for a 160 lb person), with the exception of rope jumping (which burns equal calories). Even running at a 12:00 min/mile pace will burn more calories than other sports, except for rope jumping, stair climbing, and martial arts training. It means you get a whole lot of return on your effort. It’s relatively easy to find running groups and races to participate in. Running groups allow you to meet other fitness oriented people and build camaraderie. Camaraderie is one of the things that CrossFit has going for it. A sense of friendship and team helps people stick with it. Races allow people a chance to compete and helps motivate them to train, and improve. Endurance sports often allow us to keep competing into our old age, and there are countless opportunities per year to compete. Running also gives us an opportunity to spend a lot of time outdoors, and trail running especially, gives us the opportunity to soak in a lot of breathtaking scenery. Being out in nature, breathing clean air, and getting sunlight on our skin (obviously too much may damage our skin,but now days most people are vitamin D deficient and need some sunlight), are all beneficial to our physical and mental health. Check out this 2010 study that appeared in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine on the positive benefits of forest bathing. There are a lot of things that make running a very attractive form of exercise.

Now for the dark side of running. As much as I would like to deny it, and it makes me cringe every time I read it, running has a high injury rate. There is a reason why most every conversation with a running friend usually involves the question, “How are you feeling?” and “Are you injury free at the moment?”, along with details on the current nagging aches and pains. I think the elite runners are elite because of good bio-mechanics, training habits, and genetics, which allows them to have less of those injuries. According to a review of epidemiological literature that appeared in the 1992 Sports Medicine Journal, the yearly injury incidence rate for recreational runners was between 37% and 56%. Most injuries are in the lower extremities (no surprise) and they are most often found in the knee. The injuries are predominately caused by overuse, since it is very easy to get in a lot of repetitions. Running injuries are often associated with previous injuries, excessive weekly mileage (no number was given, but I usually see it with a rapid increase in mileage), and competition. Muscular imbalances, mobility restrictions, and footwear to name a few, need further study to identify their association with injuries. However, while the injury rate is high in comparison to other sports, most injuries are minor. We are not talking high incidences of blown out backs and concussions here.  As we can see, if we take someone that is very overweight or has orthopedic problems, there is a higher risk of injury. I also find the recent popularity of maximal shoes, such as Hokas to be a bit troubling in my mind. I have mixed feelings about these shoes. On one hand, they allow people to get out there and run. On the other hand, I know a lot of people with injuries, especially plantar fasciitis, that can continue running with these shoes, yet should they really be running if they need these specific shoes to do it? It’s like throwing on a band-aid without dealing with the wound, it could come back to bite you. I guess only time will tell, how these shoes affect long term running. It’s also easy to over do it. Essentially, we are performing small, plyometric hops from foot to foot, and there are essentially 2,000 steps in a mile. Who would start off in the gym by doing 2,000 reps of an exercise? That’s insane. Also, if your form is less than ideal, it can ingrain a movement pattern rather quickly with those high number of reps. What are some other options for weight loss exercise?

First off, before you decide on your mode of exercise, get your nutrition dialed in. That is one of the most important things for fat loss. You can refer back to a recent nutrition post here. Strength training is an important component whether you run or don’t. Move heavy things and garner the benefits. Find someone who can help you identify muscle imbalances and mobility restrictions, work on those specific things to improve your movement. Strength training can help increase resting metabolic rate (RMR) and increase the amount of calories and fat you burn after a session for several hours (afterburn), according to Alwyn and Rachel Cosgrove. They are the owners of the highly renowned Results Fitness, based out of California. Some research has questioned the amount RMR and afterburn can be increased after a strength training session, but the Cosgrove’s have seen amazingly successful results with the use of strength training as the base of their fat loss exercise program.  For those who are overweight and have orthopedic concerns, you can start with low impact activities such as walking, hiking (get those benefits of forest bathing that I mentioned earlier), biking, swimming, and cardio machines such as ellipticals (my least favorite because of the unnatural movement patterns and they are indoors). With all these forms of cardio, you should throw in some interval training, moments of higher intensity, where you pick up the pace. You can increase the calorie burn without having to spend hours doing it. Ease into interval training. Start with 2-4 intervals of 15 to 30 seconds. Add more of them as your fitness increases and as long your body can tolerate it. There is no need to spend longer than 30 minutes on a cardio interval workout. Feel free to walk and hike longer. According the the Harvard Men’s Health Watch, the injury rate for walking is 1% to 5%, much lower than running. Another way to get fit and help you lose weight is to attend an exercise class, such as a high intensity interval boot camp. A good class can burn up to 500+ calories in an hour and develop endurance. Exercises can be modified for those who are overweight or have orthopedic problems. I usually teach a boot camp class in the fall and I have several variations of exercises planned for different levels of ability. A good instructor should be able to provide you with those exercise modifications.

Ultimately, I don’t want to discourage people from running, I just want to people to understand that it’s probably best to get yourself fit before you start running. For some, maybe they dislike running and honestly, it’s not necessary to run to be fit and healthy. With the amount of repetition involved in running, we need to understand there are risks. My body didn’t hold up under the amount of running I was doing several years ago and I injured my achilles tendon pretty severely. Running should not be taken lightly and it’s important to make sure you are strong, mobile, and getting adequate recovery. If you want to make it part of your fitness plan, I recommend achieving a moderate level of fitness first, and then you can add it in. Even then, you don’t have to do a lot of it to receive the benefits. If you want to compete, then you will need to run more. If it’s your passion, then awesome (I love it too), keep at it, assuming you are healthy. If you are looking to lose weight, just know that doesn’t mean you have to run. Explore your options.

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