Running gets your heart beating, your blood pumping, and your breath heavy — so, yes, it most certainly counts as cardio. But is running the best kind of cardio? And can you really lose fat by running?
The simple answers are yes and yes; running is cardio and you can lose fat by following a regular running routine, much like any other consistent exercise habit. But in order to optimize its benefits, you need to learn how to best go about it.
Read on to learn what cardio exercise really means in the context of overall fitness and how to make sure your running routine is helping you lose weight.
What Counts as Cardio?
“Cardio workouts are all about providing an activity that challenges the heart muscle,” says Ronnie Carda, Ph.D., with the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Cycling, swimming, and rowing qualify, of course, but so does interval training (i.e., exercise that alternates periods of intense exercise and rest, such as sprint drills or hill workouts), and circuit training (series of strength-based exercises performed back-to-back without rest).
And, of course, running is also high on the cardio list.
In general, as long as the workout involves sustained activity that elevates your heart rate and keeps it high, it can be considered cardio. “And running is one of the best ways to challenge your entire cardiovascular system,” says Carda.
Running and Weight Loss
Because it challenges both your cardiorespiratory and muscular systems, running can provide significant weight-loss benefits. That’s especially true if you’re new to the activity, as your body will have to work overtime to keep up with the demand for energy from your muscles.
The average 150-pound person can burn about 100 calories per mile during a run. If you weigh more, you’ll burn more, and vice versa if you weigh less.
That calorie burn can translate into a daily “calorie deficit,” which will result in lost pounds as long as you don’t erase it through overeating. In short, combining running with smart eating habits is a far more powerful strategy for weight loss than focusing on running alone.
“It’s also important to keep in mind that if all you do is ‘steady-state’ running, you’ll eventually — perhaps even quickly — notice your weight loss begin to taper and plateau as your body adapts to your unchanging cardio ‘routine,’” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., BODi’s senior director of fitness and nutrition content. “That’s why it’s important to regularly switch up your running workouts.”
Not all running workouts are created equal, and different routines provide different benefits.
“Research has shown that it may be best to exercise at a variety of intensities — from steady-state to high-intensity interval training,” says Carda. That’s especially true if your goal is weight loss.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) alternates periods of all-out effort with brief periods of rest.
A 2:1 ratio of work to rest is the standard. In practice, that might translate into repeats of 40-second sprints paired with 20-second jogs, or a similarly timed workout with, say, burpees, mountain climbers, squat jumps, and push-ups.
Not only can HIIT help optimize weight loss, but it can also boost aerobic capacity and enhance long-distance running performance. Indeed, a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that sprint-interval training improved overall endurance.
The opposite of HIIT, low-intensity steady-state training (LISS) involves sustained activity lasting longer than 30 minutes that doesn’t elevate your heart rate above about 60 percent of its maximum. A LISS running workout essentially entails jogging at a steady pace for an extend amount of time.