Fun and Challenging
Despite the above, running remains one of the most popular forms of exercise (and competitive pursuits) for countless people the world over. This is due to the simple fact that running can produce a good return on fitness investment if done right. It can also lead to an improved fat to muscle ratio, again if certain precautions are taken. Despite the potential drawbacks of running, many thousands of people include it in their daily schedules. A big drawcard for many is the way running makes them feel, the highly-coveted feeling of euphoria known as the runner’s high. The famed runner’s high can be attributed to several factors, the most important being the release of various feel-good chemicals. Whenever we run for prolonged periods at a moderate intensity, our body produces the stress hormone cortisol, which partly explains why running can be catabolic to muscle tissue and not entire suitable for bodybuilders. However, the release of cortisol also stimulates the production of two key classes of chemicals: the pain-mediating endorphins and endocannabinoids, which, when released, result in the aforementioned euphoria – the runner’s high.1
Unfortunately, the runner’s high often keeps people running against their better judgement (i.e., when the body begins to break down due to overtraining). Such positive feelings thus could be considered a double-edged sword in that they can only be experienced to the fullest possible extent when running long distances (two hours or more with no resting). Thus, to enjoy the coveted high, the runner will be forced to sacrifice their body to some extent, muscle catabolism being the least problematic outcome in this regard (the number of athletes who choose to continue running despite suffering serious running-related injuries is legion). On a more positive note, running also provides a great challenge and fosters a sense of accomplishment. Perhaps like no other athletic pursuit can, running long distances makes the runner feel like they have achieved something of great significance, and indeed they have. Such efforts may be rewarded with greater mental strength and a disciplined mindset (positive attributes that can be transferred over to other areas of life).
Increased Caloric Expenditure
Of the many activities people pursue expressly for weight loss, few top running in terms of caloric expenditure and accessibility. The fact that running can be done by virtually anyone, anywhere, coupled with the positive feelings it fosters in those who run long distances makes it an activity that’s more likely to be adhered to in the long term. This alone makes running an efficient and effective activity for steady weight loss. By running at 7.5 mph (8 min/mile) – a good pace that is neither not too fast, nor too slow – a 185lb person can burn roughly 300 calories per mile, which translates to around 1000 calories an hour (the larger the person, the higher the caloric expenditure). In fact, what makes running detrimental to those looking to retain muscle makes it perfect for those who simply wish to lose weight by any means possible. So, for those wanting to shed weight fast, running is hard to match. But can we enjoy the weight loss benefits of running without the aforementioned muscle losses? The short answer is yes – keep reading to find out how.
Since the beginning of organized sports, running has been used a staple means for improving athleticism and functional performance. Name the sport and running is likely to form a heavy part of its training focus. This is largely because running works multiple systems of the body at once – in its various manifestations it can enhance coordination and agility, speed, endurance, skeletal health, and, of course, weight loss. When it comes to sports specific training, the fact that so many sports require some degree of running means that the athlete needs to get good at running. This, of course, requires a great deal of running. Putting aside pursuits where running predominates (marathons, triathlons etc), there are sports, such as football and rugby, where an ability to run, albeit in shorter bursts, is fundamentally necessary. Even so, to become good at such sports requires a solid aerobic base that’s, for many, best achieved by running long distances. Indeed, there is a specific kind of fitness that many believe can only be obtained via running, such are its great energy demands and required physical exertion. Take boxing, one of the most physically demanding of all sports. To build the extreme conditioning needed to go multiple rounds, most boxers emphasize running as a fitness modality. Running also gives such athletes the leg strength/endurance needed to stay in the fight when energy depletion inevitably sets in. So, while not entirely suitable as a first option for enhancing size gains, running can nevertheless help to develop respectable leg strength and muscularity.18
It does this by largely forcing the leg muscles to contact eccentrically, rather than concentrically. Here, studies have shown that eccentric contractions – where a muscle is lengthened rather than shortened – are optimal for muscle growth as they place the hardest load on the muscles.2, 10
With running, the leg muscles are made to eccentrically absorb up to four times one’s bodyweight with each stride, a major stimulus for muscle growth among runners.
Running for Bodybuilders
Taking all of the above into consideration, running can be good or bad, depending on how it is structured into our daily training plan. Approached the wrong way and we may fast deplete our most valuable asset, muscle, while also inviting injury. Approached correctly and we may find ourselves on the sure path to efficient fat loss and maximum muscle retention. So, what’s the best way forward?
As noted above, long distance running, while integral to fostering the runner’s high and effective for weight loss, can also be one of the very worst practices from a muscle retention standpoint. The obvious solution then would be to curtail both running duration and number of weekly sessions. Unless training for a specific event, wanting to lose weight at any cost (including the cost of sacrificing valuable muscle tissue), or willing to risk injury due to overreaching (or even overtraining) by all means run long distances often. However, by reducing running output to 3-4 days per week, 30-40 minutes per session, you’ll still achieve impressive cardiovascular benefits, but also limit muscle depletion. Again, like any training modality, you’ll need to closely observe how your body responds to it. Indeed, 2-3 days per week, 30 minutes per session, might work best – especially for those in the 200-plus-pound category (remembering that the extra weight will tend to make running more difficult). If fat burning is the major goal, perhaps include two running sessions along with 2-3 bike sessions per week to balance out your cardio schedule and limit the repetitive impact of the higher intensity running.
Sprinting is a high-intensity form of running that has found favor among bodybuilders for its ability to build muscle while stripping fat fast. Indeed, when included as an interval training option, sprinting is a far and away more suitable and sustainable running addition for those wanting to retain as much muscle as possible while also improving general cardiovascular fitness. While not aerobic by nature, sprinting does provide many of the same benefits one might expect to achieve when training aerobically – namely, fat loss, enhanced oxygen uptake, and improved cardiorespiratory conditioning. In fact, it has been shown that we can substantially improve our aerobic capacity by incorporating short sprints alone, rather than exclusively committing to the long slow distance training (LSDT) that is common among runners.7, 16, 24 What sprinting does build – which running long distances cannot – is anaerobic capacity, which underlies the all-important athletic attributes of power, strength, and speed. In addition, because sprinting is more rapid and intensive (which leads to fewer strides taken overall), there is much less impact on the joints, we can move more efficiently, and more of the body’s musculature is used along with a greater proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers (the fibers crucial to building strength, power, and muscle). In short, sprinting has more of an anabolic effect on the body compared to regular running. It also raises EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) for as long as 48 hours post-session, which means we can burn more calories (fat) in a shorter period of time compared to long distance running, while keeping the body in a steady growth state.
The big problem with running for many (especially larger bodybuilding types) is the massive high-impact slamming that occurs each time the heel hits the ground. While such technique is considered normal among most runners, it can nevertheless be extremely damaging to the joints and soft tissues and is to be avoided by those who value the health of their joints.8, 9, 12 To avoid the repetitive stress of the heel strike, instead use a softer running gait, one that removes much of the impact. Think of the barefoot runner. Rather than landing on the heels, such a person will naturally land with their weight on the front/midfoot region, thus promoting a much softer and gentler transition between strides. So, when running, come down immediately on the forefoot/midfoot region, followed by the heel (instead of the other way around). Also, land with the knee slightly bent and take shorter strides. By combining each of these pointers the next time you run, you’ll save your joints a great deal of potential suffering and, as a larger person, you’ll be able to cover greater distances in a safer manner.