Why Running Sucks for Fat Loss

I’m setting aside the usual performance focus for this post and taking a step back. Fat loss is the number one goal for millions of people getting into fitness for the first time, and in that spirit I want to offer some insight to those who might be looking to jogging for a quick way to lose some pounds.

Every year right around now, millions of people start to think about how they’ve let themselves take on some bad habits, eat some bad food, and generally be lazier than they should. So, they decide to start exercising in an effort to lose some of the extra holiday pounds. And that’s a great thing! I’m all for people taking control of their lives, and I’m ESPECIALLY all for people deciding to get fitter and more mobile.

And then they start running.

Assuming they actually stick to their goal and make it consistently through the coldest months, they’ve logged dozens or hundreds of miles. They’ve tracked food, they’ve decided to cut back on the beers. All great things. But the scale has long since started to slow down its steady decline and grind to a halt. In some cases people will actually see the scale start to increase again!

The mad googling starts–“how to lose fat fast”, “best exercises for fat loss”, “best diets for fat loss”, and even the occasional and dreaded “cleanse”. I think I can answer all of those questions rather quickly…except for cleansing, because no. Just, no.

The answer is simple: jogging has stopped working for people because they’ve gotten good at it. Sure you’re not exactly ripped, and running still makes you gasp for air like a drowning man. In fact, that spare tire is still hanging around, even with your attention to tossing out junk food. The reason? Your body has learned how to “hack” your exercise, short circuiting your effort and taking the progress towards maximum leanness with it.

Here’s what’s happening

For simple cardio like running, the only challenge to your body is getting and using oxygen fast enough to handle your pace. This is a pretty small challenge for the body to manage if you’re starting out relatively healthy, even though you feel like you’re being slowly constricted by a WWF sleeper hold when you start out.

Once the body masters the run you have to either a) run faster or b) run for longer. The problem is that pushing harder in the run leads you right back to that deathly sick feeling you probably started with, and almost nobody likes to voluntarily put themselves back into misery (if you do, you’re my kind of sicko!).

Besides, I don’t know about you but I like having a life and I much prefer not to spend hours running away on a treadmill like a gerbil on a wheel. And it’s boring as hell.

Your body adapting to running or the elliptical (or even stair climbing on the stepper) is the kiss of death to your fat loss efforts.

The simple truth is, the best “fat loss” exercises are the ones you suck at the most. You don’t WANT to be good at your exercise if your goal is fat loss, and especially not your cardio! The better you are at an exercise the less it costs your body to perform. The less it costs to perform, metabolically speaking, the less fat you shred. Now, if your goal is performance for sport, that’s a completely different story.

The reason running stops working for fat loss is that you gave your body a very simple puzzle to solve. The conversation between mind and body goes something like this:

You: “Get oxygen to my system this fast”

Body: Check, now what?

You: “Learn to use it”

Body: Got it, what next?

“Nothing. Just keep doing that over and over again”

Should I improve?

“Nah, just hang there”


“Yeah it’s cool, just chill”

Does this sound like a recipe for fat loss? No? Good. Because it isn’t.

If you want to reap the most fat loss possible from exercise, you need to do 2 things

First, give your body more complex challenges to beat. This is why weight training, cross training, and high intensity interval work continues to give such awesome results. More variety means the body has a harder time adapting quickly, and let’s face it: it’s much less boring. And, it is very easy to increase the weight of a bar when it gets too easy, or to rest less between exercises, or to do a few more reps. It doesn’t cost you an extra 30 minutes of run time and you stop feeling like a gerbil and start feeling like you’re actually accomplishing something.

Second, embrace the “suck”. Doing things your body is not good at doing means you’re going to suffer, and you need to embrace it. When you stop suffering your body stops adapting. You’re going to need grit and determination. Most of all, you’re going to need discipline for when motivation starts to suffer.

The good news is this: you DON’T need to be good at exercise to get results. In fact, if you’re still following so far, being good at exercise is a BAD thing for fat loss. Now, I’m not telling you that you should immediately start your fitness routine off by doing things that you’re not physically prepared for. Getting hurt is also bad for fat loss. If you’re struggling with medical issues, injuries, or serious weight control problems, just get moving. Save the harder stuff for when basic cardio becomes easy.

On the other hand, if you’ve been doing the same old things for the last few months (or the last few New Years resolutions), it’s time to kick it up a notch and embrace the suck. Because change isn’t easy, and if it is….it’s not really change.

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