There are plenty of great reasons people turn to running when they want to lose weight. It’s cheap—the only real equipment you need are running shoes (even this optional for some).
It’s easy—just put one foot in front of the other and go. And you can do it anywhere—just open your front door and head out.
But the real draw of running, when it comes to weight loss, is all those precious calories it burns.
That begs the question…
Just How Many Calories Does Running Really Burn?
Spoiler alert: I can’t give you an exact answer to this question. The reason is there are several personal factors that influence the rate at which any individual runner burns calories, and I’ll address a few of the biggest later on. For now, we will make things easier by looking at calorie burn from a general perspective.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a 200-pound (91kg) runner burns about 755 calories per hour at 5mph (8km/h) and 1074 calories per hour at 8mph (12.9km/h). These numbers are similar to what you will find on other reputable sites and will serve well for illustrative purposes. When you consider that many recommended daily diets contain 2000 to 2500 calories, and a recreational runner can burn 700+ calories in just one hour, it’s easy to see why people gravitate toward running when they want to lose weight.
Now, if you are new to running, I am certainly not advocating going out and running for an hour straight in the name of weight loss. You need to ease into running, or you will spend more time dealing with injuries and missed workouts than you will burning calories. Online calculators, like this one, can provide you with a more personalized picture of how many calories you burn at your current speed and distance.
Running vs. Other Popular Fitness Activities
Sure running burns a lot of calories, but how does it stack up against your other fitness options? If we take a look at the same Mayo Clinic data for an average 200-pound person we used to get our running numbers, we find the following:
- Swimming burns 528 – 892 calories/hour
- Aerobics burns 455 – 664 calories/hour
- Walking burns 255 – 391 calories/hour
Unfortunately, the Mayo Clinic data does not include a range for cycling, a common alternative to running and a great cross-training option. Using this calculator at Bicycling.com, we get the following numbers for comparison. These are calculated at
- Cycling burns 363 – 1089 calories/hour
Note: Since we had to use 2 different sources for our run and cycling data, I am considering the 25 calories/hour difference between the highest values to be statistically irrelevant. We can consider moderate to high-intensity running and cycling to be more or less even in terms of calorie-burning potential.
As you can see, running is as good or better than the most popular weight-loss alternatives. Plus, you don’t need a gym membership or expensive equipment.
The Bigger You are the Faster You Burn
As I alluded to earlier, we don’t all burn calories at the same rate. If you want to move beyond general numbers and broad averages, you are going to have to factor in your weight. The simple reason behind this is that a heavier body requires more work to move. Whether that weight comes in the form of a large, muscular frame or that extra body fat we are all trying to shed, you can’t escape the fact that bigger runners burn more calories when all other factors are equal. This is why running watches, cardio machines at the gym, and online calorie calculators all typically ask for your weight. Some will also ask for your height and gender as these give a more complete picture of you as a runner and help personalize the calorie rates used in calculation.
How to Keep Your Body from Working Against You
Another important factor for consideration is your body’s amazing ability to adapt to repeated stress, like running the same distance or pace over and over. Say you run 5 miles (8km) 3 times a week at the same moderate pace. When you first start this regimen, your body shows signs of the new stresses it is encountering. Your heart rate will be significantly elevated, you may sweat a lot, and you’ll be noticeably sore after each run.
After several weeks or even months of this routine, you should find that your heart rate is lower, you sweat less, and recover faster with much less soreness. You may also notice that your weight loss has slowed significantly or stopped altogether. This is because your body has gradually adapted to the running load you are subjecting it to and figured out how to work more efficiently and burn fewer calories.
This is when you have to shake things up if you want to lose more weight, improve your running performance, or both. Try adding an extra run each week or increasing the intensity or duration of your existing runs. The new stress caused by these changes will boost your calorie burn and help build fitness. Keep making changes and adding stress in small increments as you notice your body adapting, and you’ll find it much easier to stay on track with your weight loss goals.
Make Cross Training Your Secret Weapon in the Battle Against the Bulge
Cross training often carries negative connotations—it’s viewed as what you’re stuck doing when you’re injured or lack the motivation to get out and run. It’s a shame so many runners look at it this way, because cross training may just be the best thing you can do when you’re trying to lose weight.
Let’s use the same example we did earlier and say you run 3 days/week. You are limited to 3 days/week because you feel you need a day or 2 to recover enough to be ready for your next run. If you are running at an easy pace for an hour each time you head out, you are running 3 hours/week and burning approximately 2,265 calories (based on the Mayo Clinic data for a 200lb (91kg) runner). If you were to add 2 half-hour easy swim sessions per week on your non-running days, you could burn an extra 528 calories without increasing your running volume.
The effects of cross training become even more dramatic if we imagine that you are limiting yourself to 3 runs/week because the impact of running leaves you with sore joints more often than sore muscles. This is common for new runners, especially overweight runners. If you add an hour of low-impact cycling and an hour of elliptical training to your week, you can burn an additional 800 – 1000+ calories/week without putting significant strain on your joints. This can help speed up weight loss, getting you to a point where you can safely increase your running sooner.
Serious about running nutrition? Check out our “Run Lean, Run Strong” program. Your definitive guide to running nutrition, strength training and injury prevention/treatment.