If you’re into running for weight loss reasons, beware the Google search. While it’s true you’ll quickly find lots of information, much of it may seem contradictory. Some sites recommend running long and slow to burn fat while others advocate prioritizing short, high-intensity workouts. So what should you do? These four research-backed truths hold true for any runner.
1.) Be cognizant of calories.
“As boring as it sounds, it really is about calories in vs. calories out,” says Jason Karp, Ph.D., coach, trainer, and author of Run Your Fat Off. A 2014 review of relevant studies concluded that most people, if they don’t consciously modify their diet, need to do four or more hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week before they might see some weight loss. That’s because many people compensate for the increased activity by eating more.
“Whatever you take in over and above your metabolic needs will get stored as fat,” says Karp. And that’s regardless of whether those calories come from carbs, fat, or protein.
The problem people run into, says Karp, is that “it takes a lot more time to burn calories than it does to consume them.” You can run for half an hour and burn about 350 calories, and then instantly eat that back by downing a donut and a sports drink.
Read How Many Calories Do You Really to figure out your caloric allotment for the day. Once you know that, you can use your Fitbit app to log your food and exercise, which will help you ensure that you’re not eating more calories than you’re burning off.
2.) Time your carbs.
While the total volume of calories is what matters in the end, timing what you eat can direct where the energy goes first, and help manage your appetite—particularly when it comes to carbs.
Post-run is a great time to eat carbs, says Karp, because the hard workout depletes your muscles’ carbohydrate storage. Any carbs you eat during that 30-minute window will refill those reserves first, rather than get stored as fat, which is harder to burn.
Karp compares it to refilling your car’s gas tank—you want to do it after you’ve driven, not before. “If the carbohydrate fuel tank is already full, where are those calories going to go?” he asks. “They’re going to get stored as fat, because your body has no other choice.”
Karp recommends eating most of your carbs first thing in the morning and immediately after your long workouts. This will supply your body with calories while it’s busy burning them, which also helps reduce that ravenous hunger you feel later in the day which can often lead to mindless or excessive eating.
What does this look like on your plate? A bowl of overnight oats for breakfast, an open turkey sandwich for lunch, and a lighter dinner of salmon and veggies. And after your long runs—that’s anything longer than an hour—throw in a recovery snack, such as low-fat chocolate milk or a peanut butter sandwich, recommends Tracy Morris, Fitbit’s nutritionist.
3.) Vary your workout intensities.
Don’t get hung up on only exercising in your Fat Burn zone—there are pros and cons to workouts that put you in each heart rate zone.
“If you can handle high-intensity exercise, it can be a very good use of time because you burn a lot of calories in a short period of time,” says Karp. However, working out at lower intensities—such as in your Fat Burn zone—allows you to exercise longer—and more often—with less risk of injury, which could lead to more calories burned overall.
The best strategy? Follow a training plan that includes a mix of intensities, and then do as much as you can while staying healthy and motivated.
4.) Just. Keep. Running.
While it’s difficult to exercise enough to produce the deficit you need in order to lose weight, research shows that exercise alone enables many people to maintain their weight. “Cutting calories gets the weight off, but it’s exercise that helps you keep the weight off,” says Karp.