Running – the mother of all cardio options

It’s the first thing that comes to mind when people think about losing fat or getting fitter: GO RUN! And with good reason: running is one of the most complete, most demanding workouts you can put your body through while still remaining within the most natural patterns of motion and keeping it simple.

And yes, running is very dear to my heart as I’ve been indulging it for over 10 years – for fat loss, competition, even for walking my dog! So let’s look at all the awesome pros – and come cons – of running.

Note: this article is about running. It’s contents do not apply to jogging and / or sprinting, which are entirely different beasts.


The Good

As already stated, running is a complete workout for every single muscle in your body. Your legs are doing the lion’s part of the work by propelling your body forward. Your core and your back are far from resting while keeping you upright. Your chest, shoulders and neck are busy maintaining proper upper body posture and your arms are actually very busy adding momentum to your gait. Of course, you won’t build any biceps by running, but the fact that all of this muscle mass is involved means you are burning a lot of calories with every step.

Great efforts require great amounts of fuel

Running is estimated to burn about 600 kcal per hour. This of course depends of your body mass and how fast you’re running, but it’s an activity with one of the highest caloric expenditures per unit of time. You got that right: if compared to equally programmed activities, running is the most efficient activity to burn fat! 

In addition, when done properly, running is one of the most natural patterns of motion. Our human bodies actually evolved to run! This means that all of the impacts and forces your body is suffering during a run won’t do much real damage, but will make you stronger and build endurance.

Born to run

To add a bit of a subjective twist, running also builds character because running is hard. Or at least it is supposed to be: if you’re entirely comfortable during your run, you might wanna pick up that pace.  

The Bad

There are few, but significant bad sides to running:

  • being one of the most taxing and high – impact cardio activities out there, it can cause or provoke injuries ranging from joint pains to serious tendon inflammations if done improperly or to excess.
  • there is a considerable danger of high – speed fall or twisting of joints.
  • cartilage wear.

If you’re very new to running, it might be a good idea to take a running class or ask a personal trainer to take a look at your running form. Note, however, that if you’re planning on running just for fun and fitness, you want to tell that to your running trainer. People who run for sports are OK with adopting running patterns that favor speed before joint and muscle health because speed wins them money and prizes. If you’re not priming yourself to be a race winner, you shouldn’t be running like one.

 As bad ass as this may sound, it’s not the wisest course of action.

In addition, it’s advisable to choose your running location wisely and account for wildlife, unfriendly dogs and neighbors or possible death by boredom if running on a treadmill facing a wall.

The Necessary

In the necessary department, running is actually very brief . Meaning, running is actually quite cheap.

Unlike what sponsored athletes will have you believe, cheap or last year’s discount model running shoes will be quite sufficient to power your hobby running. The important part is that they actually fit and that you feel comfortable in them.

The Minimalist Runner says you DON’T need those $600 Nikes to have a good run

One thing I will advocate for is to pick the appropriate make of soles. If you plan on running on slippery, muddy forest roads, track shoes or indoor sprinters are a poor choice that can lead to fall and serious injury.

As far as clothes go, a simple cotton shirt and a pair of cheap sweat pants or shorts are all you need. While there is a huge offer of differently priced running clothes out there, the only real thing to consider is that the pants should be reasonably tight around your calves and ankles. You don’t want to tangle your feet in your bell – bottoms.

The Who

An avid running enthusiast will run right up and say “running is for everybody! 4 to 104, anyone can do it!” But… not so fast. While today there is an amp number of 100+ year olds running marathons, this doesn’t necessarily mean running is good for you.

Taking everything we’ve said so far in account, I’d say running is a type of workout for fairly fit, sporty individuals with a reasonable BMI.

And yes, I dared say BMI, not “bodyfat %”. Running is a high-impact activity that produces significant stress on your joints, tendons and skeleton. The power of that impact increases with the weight of your body. The math here doesn’t care if the weight comes from muscle, fat, or a heavy knapsack on your back. So if you are an overweight individual with a lot of fat to lose or a 300 lbs bodybuilder with 8% bf, you might want to choose a lower-impact activity such as swimming, cycling, elliptical, etc.

If you’re heavy, lower impact is a safer way to go

Even if you are of a reasonable weight, hitting the track after spending last 5+ years in the office or classroom might not be a grand idea. Since human bodies work on “either use it or lose it” principle, if you spent a long time being inactive you likely lost considerable strength and elasticity in your ligaments, tendons and joints. I’d suggest “earning” your right to run by choosing a lower impact activity or doing some calisthenics or dynamic stretching workouts for a couple weeks before easing into running.

As much as I admire people working hard to take control of their lives, taking a running start from your couch isn’t something your body will be grateful for.

The Where

Running isn’t very demanding in the Where department: around the block, on a treadmill, in the park, up the stairs, in a large garage, in the woods and forest roads, on the meadows, down the beaches… you can run practically anywhere, and most of us can always find ways around the bad weather, angry dogs, wild cougars, hissy property owners and other excuses.

A lot of people opt for running on a treadmill at a gym, sports club or in their own home. The pros of treadmill running are:

  • independent of weather conditions or time of day
  • easy to track and make notes of progress 
  • easy to control with low risk of injury

Some cons (and how to work around them):

  • boredom. running in place is murder for your brain cells. A TV or an mp3 player can create some relief, but also a detrimental distraction. Choosing interval training over steady state may alleviate dullness. Modern treadmills with interactive screens showing you canyons and nature you’re “running in” while adjusting the incline are also great for this, but we’re far from Ready Player One quality.
  • sole issues. the acutely flat surface of a treadmill isn’t exactly what the Mother nature had in mind when designing your foot. And this has nothing to do with your “form”: I can run for an hour in my vibrams on roads, rocks, asphalt or concrete; but 10 minutes on a treadmill and my feet are searing. Maybe pick a cushier shoe or wear 2 pairs of socks. 
  • fuzzy air. while running on a treadmill, you’re breathing in all the stuff other people at the gym are making float in the air: the dust, the perfumes, the fuzz bunnies.. make sure the area your treadmill is in is reasonably clean.
Providing as safe and as comfortable as running can be, treadmill can also be quite boring. This is why tech is there to help.

Aside of running on a treadmill, some people have a choice of running on indoor tracks in their sports clubs or complexes. Sometimes, becoming a member of a running or an athletics club is required to obtain permit to train on such premises.

Outdoor running leaves you with an infinite choice of areas, roads and pathways. I just want to caution you to make sure the choice of terrain matches your abilities as a runner: as fun as it is, a rocky forest road is a good source of twisted ankles for the new and the unacquainted.

Since the weather is an issue, one does have to get used to being exposed to the elements. This is a good thing as it makes you more hardy, but there is one element to avoid at any cost, and that is ice

Why not turn your cardio into an adventure

Outdoor running is infinitely more fun and a lot more restful to the mind than running on a treadmill, but don’t fall into a trap of always running the same track for the same amount of time. Seize the opportunity to explore and try new grounds while running outdoors, and you will be rewarded with not only having much more fun, but also progress due to variations in your training. 

Personally, while I do some treadmill running when the roads are too slippery to risk injuries, I prefer running outside for additional benefits of: 

  • boosting the immune system. running in the elements – the sun, the rain, the wind, the snow… makes your body and mind more hardy, but also challenges your immune system making you less susceptible to colds and infections. 
  • boosting the brains. running in the “real world”, exploring new pathways  and finding new routes requires a lot of quick problem solving, improving navigational skills and making you a better explorer and navigator in life. 
  • boosting your confidence. running in the “real world” exposes you to all sorts of dangers – both real and imaginary ones. but once you’ve ran through them for a while, things like night time, strangers, bad neighborhoods, bears, angry dogs, thunderstorms and hail look a lot less scary.
  • runner’s immunity. when you’re out running, it’s amazing what you can get away with: I’ve ran through concert preps, closed up rehearsals, military camps, high security areas, private parties, weddings, and even through movie sets. It’s amazing what you can get away with – because you’re only running.

The How

The proper form of running is like Star Wars: a never ending conversation with no proper conclusion. So I won’t even try. There are various forms of running; some quite bizarre being adopted by world’s leading marathoners and ultra marathon runners, so who’s to be the wiser? I’ll only say this: 

  • running shouldn’t cause any joint, foot, tendon or muscle pain. if you’re feeling it, you’re doing it wrong
  • my own go-to test of proper running is running with your jaw completely relaxed. if your teeth are snapping, you’re running with too much impact.
  • the running form of pro athletes is not something to look up to and adopt for a hobby runner. The actual runners are quite willing to sacrifice some joint and connective tissue damage for awesome results. if you’re not working up to an Olympic medal in your resume, you shouldn’t be. Other athletes such as basketball, soccer and football players adjust their gait for the purpose of their sport and equipment rather than running itself. Christiano Ronaldo is very fast, but you probably aren’t using soccer boots. And emulating Jimmy Butler might make people wonder if you’re running to hug them. 

That said, let us look into the question everyone keeps asking: does running burn muscle?

To put it simply: No, running does not burn muscle. However, excessive and poorly programmed cardio does, and with running it’s particularly easy to cross the line. Aside of being very efficient in burning energy, once you get into it running is a very pleasurable, easy to excel at activity. Fooled by this, people often take it overboard. And there’s nothing wrong with choosing to be a runner, but if your goals are aligned with gaining muscle, proper cardio programming for running is a must.

Abilities of long distance runners are to be admired, but for most fitness enthusiasts it’s not the look they’re aiming for

Now what I’m about to write is by no means gospel, but here’s four simple guidelines on how to program your running cardio:

  1. run no more than 2x a week.
  2. don’t run on your weight lifting days.
  3. program 1 off day a week on which you’ll do no other physical activity except walking.
  4. keep your running workout under 25 minutes.

These are 
The Three Rules for Your Frequency,
The One Rule for Intensity and Duration.

To keep in spirit of the Lord of the Rings references, in order to lower or maintain your bf% levels with running, you don’t need the Nine or the Seven: just the Four.

You can run forever. I am just not sure that you should.

Here’s how the 4 rules work in practice: if you’re doing an elaborate 5 day split for mass, the Rule #2 leaves you with only 2 days to run on, but Rule #3 makes it only 1 day on which you’re allowed to run for 25 minutes. Combined with a long walk on your Off day, this is quite enough cardio to keep your heart healthy but not nearly enough to burn off your hard earned gains. If you really feel you need more cardio than this, add another cardio workout on one of the easier lifting days (arms day, for example) but do not choose running (my personal go – to is stationary cycling, since I’m already at the gym).

If on the other hand you’re on a FBW or a push-pull split for fat loss, this leaves you with about 3 non-lifting days a week. With the application of the 4 rules, it means you get to run 2x a week for 25 minutes. This should be quite enough to accelerate fat loss while maintaining your muscle. If, even with the off-day long walk, you still feel like you need to do more cardio, maybe check your diet first. If you’re absolutely sure your diet can’t be any tighter, add a different cardio option on one of the lifting days.

Do not however break the Rule #4 under any circumstances. It’s very easy to get carried away and run for a long time. Since running is very efficient at burning energy, it’s also very easy to go overboard and start burning off your gains. In addition, it’s very easy to find that comfortable pace at which you could just run forever. And then do it.

So if you feel like 25 minutes just isn’t enough, don’t go and run for a longer time, but for a longer distance. In other words, don’t run longer – run faster! Track your 25 minutes with one of the countless GPS tracking apps on your phone and try to cover just a bit more ground every workout. And if even that doesn’t cut it for you, pick routes riddled with inclines and stairs and you’ll find yourself gasping for air at the end of 25 minutes rather than begging for more. 

When your weight lifting gets too easy, you add more weight – you don’t try to lift for more sets and reps. Apply the same principle to running for cardio – add intensity by running faster or on a more difficult track, rather than for a longer  time period.

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