You wouldn't have to go very far back in time to find me bashing running as a form of exercise. The strength coach in me just wouldn't have it. Whether in conversation with friends, discussing valid forms of exercise with clients, or inserted into articles as puns - I was constantly downplaying the benefits of running.
Because I hated it.
Because it is hard to keep your feet moving for a respectable distance without stopping.
I used the science, which is still very valid I might add, that running has not been shown to actually burn fat in the way that most people would hope. In fact, many studies have shown that long distance running is inferior to traditional strength training in regards to utilizing body fat as energy because your body adapts quickly to the metabolic stress.
I've also referenced how distance running can dramatically spike cortisol levels, increase total inflammation, and even consume precious muscle mass as fuel.
And I wasn't wrong.
The science continues to show that running for time or distance is not an effective method of exercise for weight loss; most specifically fat loss. Your body adapts to the metabolic demand of running relatively quickly, which renders the "shock" value to nil in just a few bouts. The only way to reignite this metabolic stress is to run further or run faster.
Running further is not the answer once we start looking at distances over six miles. At that point you are dramatically increasing cortisol levels, depleting glycogen stores to near zero, and repetitively breaking down tissues in your body that include muscles, ligaments, and tendons. All of these factors combine to make a whirlpool of physiological poo in regards to your weight management efforts.
Add in those irresistible cravings for simple carbohydrates after a long run and you are a cooking a recipe for metabolic disaster. I know my fair share of friends who finish a long run with an ice-cold beer and a carbohydrate rich meal. Doing this once-in-awhile won't do any harm, but if running distance is your primary modality of exercise and carbohydrates your method of recovering...
A lifestyle of running for weight loss, eating for glucose replenishment, and a bloodstream loaded with cortisol and insulin is not going to get you where you want to go. It is that simple.
Which leaves us with the other option - running faster.
Now, that is an excellent option so long as you are trading distance for speed and not layering speed on top of distance. Limiting yourself to just two or three miles in which you are running like the cops are behind you is an outstanding way to boost cardiovascular output, improve your metabolic conditioning, and avoid the pitfalls that snag distance runners.
Sure, you are still going to need to watch your stress levels, resistance train to strengthen your posterior chain, and be mindful of your post-run refuel. But, all-in-all you'll be working for a much shorter duration of time than your fifteen mile running friends which should limit your exposure to the negative effects of endurance training.
That doesn't mean you are going to lose a bunch of fat though. In fact, you'll run into the same issue that plagues distance runners - eventually your body isn't challenged by your workout anymore. IT MAY FEEL CHALLENGING, but it doesn't mean that your body is undergoing the metabolic stress necessary to continue metabolic adaptation.
And unlike running further you'll eventually find that top speed and never be able to exceed it due to genetic limitations. A sub 7 minute mile is possible for most people, but a sub 6 is not common and anything below 5 makes you one of the best in the world. So, there is a limit to how fast your fast can be, thus limiting your ability to continue to add stress to the metabolic equation.
Which only leads you to running further, which as we just discussed isn't a great option.
For the curious, the fastest mile ever was ran by Hicham El Geurrouj with a time of 3:43:13 back in 1999.
You: Well shit Kevin - I clicked on this article thinking you were about to tell me how running is actually really great for us and all those strength coaches were wrong and I'll be just fine if I only run.
I really thought you were going to apologize for all the mean things you've said about distance running, but here you are bashing it again and telling me that it isn't good for me.
Me: OK, your right - I haven't exactly gotten to the part where I say anything good about running, have I?
Well I'm sorry. I just wanted to cover the scientific facts before I dove into something the details about running that I have fallen in love with - I didn't want the world thinking I was suddenly endorsing running as a method of weight management.
You: Oh, well you are losing me here - I can't possibly imagine you having much to say after all that science?
Me: Do you know me? I could spend hours talking about the differences between screwdrivers; I'm a talker and a thinker - a dangerous combination.
You: OK, Mr. Run-Yo-Mouth. Let's hear it:
What I want to apologize for is the ignorance of the fact that running was meant to be experienced for other reasons. The benefits on the mind, cardiovascular system, and your athletic capacity should be what drives you to take that run - not your waistline or body fat percentage.
Running is so much more than a method of expending calories. In fact, I'd say that the calories you are burning should be the furthest thought in your mind at all times. The act of running is so primal - a method of movement once used for chasing prey and avoiding predators.
Warriors in ancient cultures would run for no set distance, no set time, and certainly not to meet some step goal, close an activity ring, or burn a specific amount of calories. No, they did it so that they could fight for extended periods of time, cover great distances to track and hunt their food, and escape to safety when the situation called for it.
They ran to survive.
As time passed and grocery stores put your next meal right around the corner we lost the need to train for survival. And while the world still has it's chaos, we've never been more at peace, at least in western nations -as said in Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. Really, you can go about daily life not worrying about a rival tribe showing up in your neighborhood and razing the place just because they want your stuff. Our ancestors had to think about this everyday.
So, here we are now at a place where food is readily available and hand-to-hand combat to the death is extremely unlikely - why do we need to run?
Because a great run allows you to thrive in other aspects of your life. Let's call Thrival - the act of doing things with the intent of thriving in your environment. The same adaptations that benefit survival also benefit thrival.
Increased cardiovascular output
Increased metabolic activity
Better sustained output of ATP over time
Increased oxygen uptake in the lungs and body tissues
Mental and physical resiliency to torturous bouts of endurance exercise
The meditative state known as "runner's high"
All of the above take place during a challenging distance run. Each of these aspects greatly improve one's chances of survival in a world like our ancestors lived in. For us, these adaptations lead to thriving in every aspect of our lives. From the gym, to an obstacle course race, to playing with our children in the backyard - being able to work hard longer is an asset.
Being able to take in more oxygen throughout tissues in the body has been proven repeatedly to be a primary driver of athletic performance.
The benefits of having long distance training in your program have nothing to do with weight loss itself, but rather with increasing your overall work capacity, your mental and physical grit, and your total oxygenation. All of these factors can greatly impact your ability to do more work with resistance training - which is what will burn fat and build muscle.
Instead of doing a set of squats and breathing like you just ran from a pissed off grizzly bear, you'll finish up and move towards a complimentary exercise such as planks or overhead presses, and then decide to rest.
These traits help you thrive.
Especially if you are capable of achieving that beautiful ground known as a "runner's high" - a meditative state where the brain is firing off information and thoughts without much input from the prefrontal cortex - the judgmental and fearful part of the brain.
That problem at work that you can't seem to solve might just break free while you are panting your way through mile five, or maybe even as you finally catch stride in mile two. That grudge you've been holding might break too as you learn to let go of all the stupid shit in your life that causes nothing but stress.
It really does work like that.
How do I Know?
Because I've been running a whole hell of a lot more as of late; usually twice a week with an increasing distance each time. My reasoning for running is as simple as this:
I'm tired of sucking at Spartan Races and I have 4 more this year, including a repeat of last year's beast (which absolutely murdered me and you can read about it here). Seriously, I'm not going back out to West Virginia and getting my ass handed to me again.
And that's why I started.
First there were three milers as a I prepped for the Stadium Spartan here at Nationals Park in D.C. . Since then I've done a few fives, a bunch of fast twos, and as of yesterday....6.6 freaking miles. (I get the weird number because I don't track until after the fact - I just tend to flow around the city).
And honestly, I feel amazing.
I breathe a little deeper, sleep a little better, and have been able to radically increase the density of work I do in the gym. In fact, in my last deadlift workout I was able to do my entire deadlift density circuit in 38 minutes vs. my normal time of fifty or so minutes. Coincidence? I think not.
Seriously, eight sets of five at 315 normally wipes my ass out, but this time.
And that run yesterday was crazy long, but it wasn't miserable. I found a great runner's high when I got to the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial and it carried me all the way to the White House ellipse. From there I battled a little until I found myself running along the Potomac river into Georgetown where once again the runner's high hit me and allowed me to problem solve like a boss.
(The product of those thoughts are coming soon my friends).
How to Integrate Running and What to Expect
I feel obligated to give you something with this. I want you to experience these benefits first hand.
So, yes you big burly powerlifter who thinks anything over 5 reps is cardio.
Oh you too, Mr. Functional Guru who spends sixty-five minutes on a lacrosse ball
Yes, you too. The one reading this...whatever you are into...I'm talking to you.
You have 3 RULES to implementing running into your lifestyle and experiencing the benefits:
1. No Calorie Tracking
Sure, bring your phone for music, or your Apple watch to track your distance, but pay no attention to the calories. Remember earlier when I said that it is not an effective modality for weight loss? Exactly, no need to track calories if we aren't running for that reason.
2. Vary your strides
Sometimes you get tired and need to putt-putt your way forward. Other times you feel like you could fly. Experience both of these feelings and let your run guide you. Hit the hills, jog down the big steps, run on gravel and sand, and feel free to stop and take a picture if you love what you see. The goal here is to improve our conditioning, our health, and our peace of mind.
3. Don't Replace Resistance Training
There is enough science to back the importance of resistance training for fat loss to crash my website, so we won't list the links - just trust me. Building muscle, straining the body, and working towards getting stronger is one of the best exercise decisions you could ever make. So, don't look at running as a replacement for training with weights - ever.
OK, so here is how you'll do it:
You'll do 1 short run (no more than two miles) per week in which you emphasize your speed. Essentially, how fast can you do (x) miles?
Then, you'll do 1 longer run that is based upon what you can handle, plus a half mile. So, if you can run 3 miles...make it a three and a half. Every three weeks you'll add another half-mile until you peak at 5 miles total. There is no need to do more unless you are preparing for a race.
Starting at zero?
Week 1-3: .5 miles
Week 4-6: 1 miles
Week 7-9: 1.5 miles
and so on...
Look, running isn't going to solve your body composition issue, at least not in isolation. But it can provide an outlet for your thoughts, a challenging bout of endurance work, and a boost to your cardiovascular health. That is plenty of reason to keep those feet hitting the ground.
I challenge my fellow strength coaches to push their people to live more well-rounded lives and to experience the primal thrill of running. Even though we no longer need to run for survival - nothing should stop us from thriving in our adventures.
So formally - to the running community - I apologize for being such a dick about running before.