The Calorie ConnectionJun 28, 2021
Many people start running because they want to lose weight. They’ve probably heard that it’s a quick and efficient way to burn calories, and they’re not wrong: According to the American Council on Exercise, running generally burns more calories per minute than basketball, hiking, cycling and swimming (and more calories per minute than hiking and cycling combined).
If you take into account that running one mile burns roughly 100 calories and you need to burn 3,500 more calories than you eat to lose one pound, it may seem pretty straightforward. But calories in/calories out is not the full picture of how weight loss works.
For one thing, it doesn’t take into account training intensity. Training too much (running too hard too often, or adding too much mileage too soon) elevates the body’s stress hormones, which is why pushing hard all the time actually leads some people to gain weight: The elevated cortisol levels increase fat storage, so even if you’re burning more calories, you’re not burning fat. You’re just breaking down muscle and burning through glycogen.
Intensity does play a role in the number of calories your body continues to burn after a run, though. The more intense a workout, the longer your metabolism stays elevated, meaning the more calories your body continues to burn afterward.
Calories in/calories out also doesn’t take into account age.
Once you hit 30, your muscle mass begins to decrease by 3 to 5 percent a decade. It’s a confusing transition for many people, who continue to eat the same way they always have, but find themselves slowly gaining weight over time because they have less muscle mass to burn and tend to be more sedentary than they were when they were younger. And that’s even with running most days.
Body weight is another factor.
It may seem unfair, but the fitter you get and the more efficient your body becomes, the fewer calories you actually burn. That’s because it takes more calories (energy) to move a larger body. A more efficient body also means a faster recovery—and a metabolic rate returning to its resting rate sooner than it would in someone who doesn’t run much, or at all.
That means that even though your pace may not affect how many calories you burn during a mile, a faster pace will lead your metabolic rate to stay elevated for longer, which means you burn more calories after the mile than you would if you’d run it at a slower pace.
Runners who plateau in their calorie burn can try adjusting their workouts. Adding in hills, speedwork or simply more miles to your weekly routine can all reignite the body’s calorie-blasting ability.
When you run at your lactate threshold, in fact, you’re running the fastest you can without your body fatiguing. Research has found that exercising at the lactate threshold or just below it expends a much higher total number of calories per minute than working out at a lower intensity.
The bottom line is that calories are just a piece of the weight-loss puzzle. Drinking more water, eating more protein, prioritizing sleep and reducing stress are all equally important.
Now get out there and run your life.