Running: why it’s not my favorite form of exercise
Today, let’s talk about running. Running has been glorified in the fitness industry, and to be honest, I think it’s over-glorified. I know this is a hot topic, and I don’t mean to offend anyone. I’ll try to meet you runners half-way with this podcast as much as I can.
Today, I’ll talk about how to incorporate strength into your running routine if you don’t want to give up running, why I prefer walking to running from a mechanical and nervous system standpoint, why running to burn calories isn’t effective, and how running can affect your central nervous system, and potentially delay muscle growth.
I want to start by saying that I have a certain bias against running. I’m not a huge fan of running. I think there are smarter ways to move your body that are less repetitive, and more beneficial to your cardiovascular system and muscular system. I’ll explain why in this podcast. However, I will say that I totally understand that there are people who run for other reasons than to improve their fitness. Maybe it’s meditative, clears their head, or is stress-relieving. If you love running for those reasons, I do not want to discourage you from doing it. This podcast is more for people who think they “need” to run in order to be fit or lose weight.
I often get asked how to incorporate running into my workouts. And I first ask: why are you running? Is it because you think you will lose weight, get more fit, or burn off what you ate or will eat? If those are the reasons – I always caution them, and encourage them to do strength workouts, lace in 1-2 short HIIT classes/week (if their joints/hormones aren’t burnt out), and walk 10-30 minutes most days of the week. That tactic, combined with good nutrition, will be much more effective than running.
However, if you run because it helps you mentally, then I always say to take our 3 days/week of full-body strength and run on 2-3 other days. Make sure to take at least 2 days of recovery where you walk or do mobility. But if you hate running, or are wanting to start running because you think it will help your fitness, I’d love to give you permission to spend your time doing other forms of exercise. Let’s go through why.
Let’s start with the mechanics.
Physical and Mechanical Standpoint: My bias is to walk rather than run. Running is a lot of repetitions and impact through the same joints, in the same direction. If you have a small injury somewhere, these highly repetitive movements and impact can magnify that small injury quickly. Impact is not a bad thing if it’s in the right dosage, which will vary for every person. I do think that impact has been demonized incorrectly – small amounts of it have been shown to improve joint health, depending on how the program is progressed. But most people progress too quickly, don’t allow for recovery days, and end up paying for it with joint injuries.
Heavy Eccentric Components: Running puts a lot of stress on tendons, specifically the quads and lower leg muscles like the anterior tibialis. From a muscle loading standpoint, running is a steady-state activity, which means it can be carried out for a long period of time. Any repetitive movement that can be carried out without rest for longer than a few minutes is an exercise that uses type 1, endurance muscle fibers. These fibers, although important, are small and don’t take up much space. Instead of challenging your large muscle fibers, as you would in strength training, you’re using a smaller percentage of your weakest, slow-twitch muscle fibers that are smaller and don’t take up a lot of mass in the muscle. If you are exclusively running, this can mean those larger, type 2 muscle fibers start to atrophy, and you begin to lose muscle. And because muscle is the most metabolically expensive tissue in your body, and a primary way to improve your metabolism, starting up a running routine with the idea that it will help you lose weight is just not effective.
When you cut calories, but you aren’t strength training, your body will not only decrease fat, but also decrease muscle, bone, and connective tissue. This will lower your basal metabolic rate (because you’ve lost muscle tissue), and you will have to “diet” your entire life to maintain a certain weight. However, when you are strength training, you are placing high demand on your system to lay down more muscle, bone, connective tissue, and neural tissue, so the body’s weight loss will come exclusively from fat. If you control your nutrition by eating unprocessed foods and control insulin levels (see a nutrition specialist for information on this), you can approach a healthy body fat with lots of protective muscle.
Running for High-Calorie Burn: I think a lot of people run because they think they can burn more calories in less time than if they were to walk. And yes, that is true. But I want to teach you how to train smarter, not harder. If you train smarter and not harder, you save time, you stress your system less, and your joints and your system age much more effectively. Running begins to get easy as your body learns patterns of movements that will lead to the path of least resistance. This means as your body gets good at running, it will burn less energy doing it, and you won’t see great results from it. In other words, increased efficiency decreases adaptation.
Remember that your bread and butter when it comes to exercise is resistance training, and any cardio on top of that is a bonus. But that extra cardio should only be done if it doesn’t disrupt your recovery from your resistance training sessions or if it’s stressing your joints so you can’t give more effort to your resistance training sessions. Additionally, since steady-state cardio doesn’t place a high demand on any muscles, it does not meaningfully empty the glycogen stores in your muscles. This can lead to more circulating glucose in your bloodstream, which has to be stored – as body fat.
Here’s how this works:
Every time you eat, the food is converted into glucose, which is either used by the body or stored in the liver or muscles to be used when the larger muscle fibers are recruited – like in strength training. However, when the glycogen stores in your muscles are full, the excess glucose is stored as body fat. So regularly emptying those glycogen stores by strength training can leave more room for glucose to travel into the cells, and less likely for the glucose to be stored as fat.
Since running doesn’t substantially tap into the type 2 muscle fibers, it doesn’t empty those stores and isn’t effective for weight loss. Weight gain isn’t because you aren’t running or exercising enough. Weight gain is from food abundance. Studies show that there is a difference of 1,000 calories between feeling satisfied and feeling full, and 2000-3000 calories between feeling full and feeling stuffed. Many people run the day after they’ve over-indulged, thinking that they can “burn off” some of or all of what they ate. This also drives guilt-exercise, which has you looking at your watch for metrics to punish yourself, which just never works long-term, and probably isn’t good for your mental health. The problem is, to burn off the number of calories that you consume from being stuffed, a female may have to run around 45 miles, which would take more than 5 hours. Therefore, burning off what you ate just isn’t a solution.
Additionally, burning more and more calories by working out isn’t actually proven to work, because of something that I’ve talked about a lot called the constrained energy model. What happens is that when your body senses you are approaching an upper limit of energy expenditure for the day, it will down-regulate other systems in order to keep you within a certain limit. You will move less, unintentionally. This means that you can’t just burn and burn and burn in your workouts and dig yourself further into a caloric deficit. At some point, your body caps at a caloric expenditure, despite what your fitness watch is telling you.
If your focus is on weight loss, which is why many people do more cardio, even though it isn’t necessary at all for weight loss, notice what happens to your hunger. Do you get starving after your run or does it stabilize hunger cues? Notice what happens after a walk. Everyone is a bit different with this. Personally, I always find I’m starving after I do steady-state cardio like swimming, biking, running, etc. This may make it harder for you to stay on your nutrition plan.
How Running Can Inhibit Your Strength Training Efforts: Too much cardio can cancel out your efforts in your training sessions because it can decrease protein synthesis, overstress your CNS, and you’re left feeling frustrated that you’re putting in all this time and not seeing changes in your body but just feeling joint pain and soreness all the time. You have to be careful of how much extra activity you’re adding because more activity is only effective to a certain point, and going beyond that point results in diminishing returns. Basically, you’re stressing your body and impairing muscle recovery, but no longer getting the benefits of the workout, because of the constrained energy model that I discussed earlier. Because too much cardio can stunt your muscles from growing because of the over-stress to your system, this is why I prefer walking. It still gets you moving but is much less stressful on your system and less likely to impair recovery.
Hopefully this was helpful. And again, if you feel like you have a compelling reason to run – I don’t want to discourage you. I just think that running has been over-glorified, and I wanted to educate you on some reasons why I think there are better ways to exercise for longevity and results.