Running to lose weight is easy to sabotage

America's distance running boom has many factors. But just Google "running and weight loss" and/or "weight loss running bloggers" and you get a sense that the popularity of running 5Ks, half-marathons, and marathons is at least partly related to America's obesity crisis and the resultant billion-dollar industry of trying—and often not succeeding—to shed the pounds.

Many of us have been—or are still—there. We get to a certain age, worry about mortality after a trip to the doctor, and try various nutrition plans and exercise programs. We even see some success but then find ourselves weight-cycling despite decent willpower and a renewed commitment to an active lifestyle.

Running helps. It burns a lot of calories, sure, but it is only part of the picture.

After years of reading countless books, articles, blog posts; interviewing many fitness experts; listening to conflicting advice from my ever-growing team of doctors; venting to fit friends who happen to be trainers and coaches; learning from but eventually barely tolerating meetings of a certain weight-loss program that shall remain nameless (hint: it rhymes with "bait botchers,") I see this problem thusly:

Find better, science-based information (yes, scientists disagree)

Do the right workouts—and do them a lot

Be inspired by folks who are living healthier, smarter, and stronger lives

Get serious about what you put in your mouth, especially after a run

Turns out, Jason Karp, Ph.D., has spent years addressing this stuff. The former New Jerseyan (he grew up in Marlboro and now lives in San Diego) is an exercise scientist, author, blogger, and running coach. He is the founder of Run-Fit LLC, a coaching and educational service for runners and fitness pros.

In his recent book Run Your Fat Off: Running Smarter for a Leaner and Fitter You (Reader's Digest, 2017), Dr. Karp lays out his best advice on losing weight and keeping it off. The book includes drills, workouts, running programs, menus, recipes, and blunt talk. He also profiles several people who found success losing weight and keeping it off with the help of running.

One such success story belongs to Jessica Skarzynski. The 34-year-old marketing professional from central New Jersey has blogged about her dramatic more-than-100-pound weight loss and how running has kept her motivated to stay in shape.

Dr. Karp found her through her fun blog, Jess Runs Happy, and profiled her for the book to gain some insight into how she managed to lose all those pounds—and keep them off. Skarzynski said that she was honored to share her story to potentially help others.

%INLINE%"The worst piece of weight-loss advice I've gotten has to be from the folks that swear by juice fasts, cayenne pepper drinks, and all those unhealthy diet fads that come and go," she told me. "Sure, they help you lose weight fast, but your body is so undernourished that you end up fantasizing about eating the pigeon next to you on the subway platform."

Skarzynski has been training hard all summer for her first 26.2-mile race: The TCS New York City Marathon, which takes place on November 5, 2017.

"It's the biggest, scariest goal I've ever set for myself," she said. "But that horrible cliché is actually true—if your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough."

She is one of the several inspiring runners Dr. Karp featured in Run Your Fat Off, which he hopes will stand out from the crowd of diet and fitness books that clog bookshelves and e-readers.

I spoke to Dr. Karp about how his experience and research culminated in this manuscript. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

There are a lot of weight loss books out there, a lot of running books out there. What prompted you, as someone who's been fit your whole life—you said in your book you've never battled weight issues—to come to this topic?

KARP: Even though I haven't had a weight issue myself I've always known that running is the best way to burn calories. It really is the world's best calorie burner. The only thing that can supersede running is cross-country skiing. But cross-country skiing is not available to most people in the world. Running is available to everybody in the world, on any day of the year.

The other thing that prompted me to write it is because, quite frankly, I was just getting sick and tired of all these diet/weight-loss books that don't tell people the truth. They're written by people with no credentials and they just use these fancy marketing strategies to try to get people to buy—they'll put things on their covers, saying "Lose 10 Pounds in 10 Days"—and they don't really tell people what it takes to lose weight and really keep it off the rest of their entire lives. What's the point of losing weight if you're just going to gain it right back?

Are you hoping this book will find non-runners who are looking to start a new sport to boost their health or runners who are looking to get more from it?

KARP: The book is skewed toward people who want to lose weight and looking for a sustainable lifelong strategy to do that. So it is skewed towards the beginner runner because when I set out to write it I didn't want to write another running book, I've already done that, I wanted to write a weight-loss book using running as the method to lose the weight and keep it off. So definitely the main target audience is people who want lose weight by doing something that is going to be very helpful to them and give them a sustainable strategy.

What are some of the misconceptions about weight management and obesity that you hope your book might help clear up?

KARP: I am very honest with people. I don't sugarcoat things in the book. If you want to lose weight and keep it off the rest of your life it's going to be a tremendous amount of work. It's probably going to be the hardest thing that you've ever done in your life. But life is hard. If you want to accomplish something that's worth anything then you have to accept the fact that it's going to be hard and do the work. And that's why I wanted to include stories in the book because I didn't want it to just be my voice. I didn't want to just be me telling people "This is what you got to do." I also wanted to get the stories of other people who have actually gone through this, who have lost the weight through running. And they all talk about the same thing: how difficult it was but the payoff is extraordinary. So I think that's one misconception that people have and that's partly the media's fault because they come out with all these books that act like "Oh, it's easy to lose 10 pounds in 10 days," but the truth is it's really very difficult to lose weight and it's going to be constant work the rest of your life.

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges runners face when they're trying to lose weight? And just let's just assume that this is someone who is committing to a training plan but will face challenges.

KARP: The biggest one is accepting the fact that you're going to have to go to life a little bit hungry if you want to lose weight. Because it may take 30 minutes to go run three miles—that's about 330 calories or so, give or take—but it takes seconds to get those calories right back. And so it's very easy to replace the calories and it takes a lot of physical work to burn it off. And so people can't go and run or do any form of exercise and then think, "Oh, I deserve to have an ice cream cone" or "I deserve a slice of pizza" because you're just going to end up negating the calories that you burned when you were running. So you are going to have to accept the fact that even though running is going to make you hungry you can't just go back into the kitchen and replace the calories because then your weight's not going to go anywhere.

How many people do these marathon training groups, and they gather for a 16-mile run on a Saturday or Sunday and then they all go out to breakfast afterward and all they do is just replace all the calories that they just spent on a 16-mile run? And so it requires a lot of self-control because it is just too easy to replace the calories. People have no concept of how many calories they're burning and how many calories are taking in. People completely underestimate the number of calories that they're consuming and they overestimate the number of calories that they're expanding.

Low-carb, high-fat diets get a lot of attention in recent years. I've seen that it's discussed a lot in terms of diabetics. Even some high-level athletes say they follow low-carb, high-fat diets. I mean, these are not people who are winning marathons but I've heard about these high-level triathletes and trail runners, ultrarunners who seem to follow these diets. What is your take on this trend? Is it a fad? Is it legitimate? You seem skeptical in the book.

KARP: It's legitimate from a fat-burning perspective because if you are lacking carbohydrate, the muscles will be forced to rely on fat. [The muscles] would prefer to use carbohydrate. Research is very clear that if you give a muscle, if you infuse the blood with carbohydrate and fat, the muscle is going to use the carbohydrate. So it would rather use carbohydrate, especially for high-intensity exercise it can only use carbohydrate, it can't use fat to do high-intensity exercise. But the muscles can use fat if it's available and is lacking carbohydrate. So from a teaching-your-muscle-to-burn-fat-more-effectively standpoint, then low-carb diets are effective. In terms of running performance, there is no research that's been done yet to show that a low-carb diet is better for running performance. In fact, it's just the opposite. There's many, many years of research to show that carbohydrate is the preferred fuel for muscle and performance is better when you have a high-carbohydrate diet.

In terms of weight loss, the research does show that if you want to lose weight as rapidly as you can, a lower-carb diet is the way to go. However that's not going to be sustainable for most people for the next 30 years or 40 years of your life. If you want to exercise, which is what you need to do to keep the weight down, then you do need to have at least a modest amount of carbohydrate because you need the carbs to get through the workouts. If you're only consuming 20 percent carbohydrate in your diet you're going to have a very difficult time doing any high-intensity exercise at all because the intensity is going to necessarily decrease if you're relying on fat versus carbohydrate.

So the summary statement would be that a low-carb diet is valid and okay for the short term to get some weight off quickly but it's not the long-term sustainable weight-loss strategy.

The nutrition part of your book, like your menu plans and then the recipes and whatnot. Do you have a personal favorite from those recipes? I personally thought the filet mignon with arugula salad sounded really yummy.

KARP: The filet mignon, that's a great one. I like the tuna melt. I've always been a tuna melt fan so I love that. So I wanted to have recipes that were very easy for people to do and so I actually worked with this great nutritionist [Editor's note: Dominique Adair] who put that all together. It was great to work with her on that because I wanted a menu, I didn't want a meal plan, I didn't want to tell people "Eat this for breakfast, eat this for lunch, eat this for dinner." Just like you go to a restaurant and you have you have choices for all the different categories of meal, that's what I wanted. So people can create their own menu.

What advice would you give a runner who is frustrated about their weight, in terms of if you had one concrete thing that you would say to this runner, "Okay, here's step number one," what would that be?

KARP: Get a pair of running shoes and walk outside your door and start walking-slash-running and don't get overwhelmed. Don't think "I got 50 pounds to lose." Just focus on what you can control today. Today you can control walking or running for 30 minutes, so do that today. And then when tomorrow comes, focus on what you have to do tomorrow. Don't go into this thinking that you're doing this to lose weight or you're doing it to lose a certain amount of weight. Go into this thinking "I want to live a healthier, better life." And that's what's going to direct your efforts and everything else will fall into place.


Arun Kristian Das produces content for and related social media platforms. He has run more than a hundred races, mostly in the back of the pack.