Can you run if you are overweight or obese? The short answer is yes, you can run if you are otherwise healthy. However, the topic is more complex and controversial than a simple answer of just yes. Plus-sized runners need to be cautious, start their run program slowly, and increase pace and distance gradually. This article explores what overweight and obese runners need to know to run successfully.
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Dispelling the Myth by Example
I was recently told that I was not a real runner because I am overweight. I thought this odd because I have been running for years, I run half- and full-marathons, I run every day, I research running topics, I write about running, and I also coach other runners. But they didn’t know all this about me. They simply judged me based on my appearance.
More recently, when running in a group of fellow runners, I was asked how my “walk” was. Of course, I ran the distance, albeit slower than most. And I have received some derogatory comments from onlookers when out running, both for recreation and during run events. And I know I am not the only overweight runner to experience such things.
But I do not let the occasional fat discrimination get me down. And you shouldn’t either. I continue to run. And I continue to coach and help beginner runners, overweight, obese, or otherwise, also learn to run. I believe, with proper guidance, that you can run no matter what you weigh. Science supports me in my thinking.
And I also believe that if you run, no matter your speed, you can call yourself a runner.
Can You Run If You Are Overweight?
A 2016 study of Parkrun athletes revealed that 44% of participants were overweight or obese. Parkrun are regular weekly 5 km events that are popping up all over the world. I think it is amazing that more and more overweight and obese people are becoming more active through running events like these.
We need to break the stigma that overweight people don’t exercise. And we need to dispel the myth that it is dangerous to run if you are obese.
Yes, you can most certainly run if you are overweight or obese!
Is it Harder to Run When You Are Overweight?
I will be honest with you; it is harder to run when you are overweight.
We have known for decades that extra weight makes a runner slower. It is estimated that every pound of extra weight slows a runner down by 1.4 seconds per mile. If you are 10 pounds overweight, it will slow you down by 14 seconds per mile. While that doesn’t sound like much, multiply that over the 13.1 miles of a half marathon or 26.2 miles of a marathon, and that extra time becomes significant.
The effort to run with extra weight is high. Every percentage above your ideal weight results in a 1.4% increase in metabolic costs. This means that it takes more effort to run the same distance for every pound you are overweight. You will tire more easily and may not be able to run as far.
At my heaviest, running is indeed harder. The extra weight makes me much slower, and it is sometimes a struggle to run 5 km. But I persist with my running because it is good for my health and lowers my risk of breast cancer recurrence.
Finishing a 5 km distance when overweight or obese is a great accomplishment and a reason to celebrate.
Is Running Good for Weight Loss?
The short answer to this question is no, running alone is not good for weight loss. Have I lost weight as a runner? Sure, but it wasn’t the only thing I was doing to accomplish this.
Weight loss is about 80% of what you eat and only about 20% of what you do. Your body needs to be in a calorie deficit before you can lose weight. This means you need to burn more calories than you eat. Running is great for burning calories, but if you are eating the calories that you are burning, you won’t lose weight.
It is even possible to gain weight while running. Running can increase your appetite, as it affects the balance of hunger hormones. Runners call this “runger”. And if you give into this phenomenon, you may be eating more calories than you burn with running, thus gaining weight. However, runger usually only occurs when you get into the longer distances, like marathon training.
So, you need to combine physical activities, such as running, with nutrient-balanced, calorie-controlled eating habits. Notice I said eating habits and not a diet. The most important component for permanent weight loss is to develop healthy eating habits.
How Many Calories Do You Burn Running?
While weight loss is mostly about the foods you put into your body, exercise does play a role. You do need to work out to burn fat and do aerobic exercises to maintain your metabolism. So, running can help you lose weight. But you need to be realistic about it.
People tend to think that they can reward themselves with food after a good workout. But you are essentially undoing the work you just did if you don’t eat healthy. Fuel your exercise and support your workouts with proper nutrition, yes. But avoid the temptation to use high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods, such as donuts or cakes, to reward yourself after a run.
If you are an overweight beginner runner, you won’t be burning many calories on a run. For example, a 250-pound person running 2 miles in 30 minutes burns about 350 calories. A chocolate glazed donut is about 370 calories. If you reward yourself with a post-run donut, you would be eating 20 calories more than you burned.
And as a beginner runner, you won’t be burning much fat. It takes sustained physical activity to start burning fat since your muscles prefer using carbohydrates first. Moderate-intensity exercise for long durations leads to fat burning, which you won’t be doing when you are learning to run.
Why Should You Start Running?
So, if you can’t lose weight by running alone, why should you run? It is a great question!
Running can help you lose weight if you also develop good eating habits, including portion control. And as you build your fitness and endurance, you can start to lose and maintain a healthy weight over time.
Running is a high-intensity exercise. When you can run consistently, you can cut the amount of exercise you need to stay healthy by half. Instead of the recommended 150 – 300 minutes per week, you only need 75 – 150 minutes of high-intensity exercise for health. So, if you are limited on time, but want to meet the required amount of exercise as recommended by medical experts, running can do that for you.
Running also has direct effects on health, such as
- Strengthens muscle and bone
- Improves blood flow and oxygen uptake
- Balances hormones
- Lowers risk for type 2 diabetes
- Better cardiovascular fitness
- Improves mental health
- Lowers blood pressure
- Clears the mind
- Reduction in pain
- Builds stress resiliency
- Improves sleep
- Lowers the risk for anxiety and depression
- Reduces cancer risk
So, run for the health of it!
Can an Obese Person Run Couch to 5K?
As you read on, you will see that overweight and obese people can indeed run 5 kilometers. This is the most popular distance in running events. And it does not matter what you weigh. It only matters how you train. As you keep reading below, I discuss how to start running when you are overweight or obese. With consistency and persistence, you can build to running 5 km.
Participating in these events is super fun. The atmospheric energy in a live 5K race is what got me hooked on running. It pumps you up.
Can You Run a Marathon If You Are Obese?
According to the Guinness World Records, the heaviest person to run a marathon was 427-pound Charles Bungert. He ran the LA Marathon in just a little under 8 hours and 24 minutes. The heaviest woman was Ragen Chastain. She was 288 pounds when she ran the Mainly Marathon.
And Julie Creffield, author of The Fat Girl’s Guide to Marathon Running, has run in many marathons and even ultramarathons. She has also helped over 100 plus-sized runners run their first marathons.
So, yes, it is possible to run a marathon when you are overweight or obese. While it is not easy to run a marathon at any weight, it is harder if you have extra pounds. Training gradually over at least 20 weeks, likely longer, and a good race-day strategy will be important for the obese runner.
How to Start Running If You are Overweight?
- The first step in any running program, especially if you are overweight or obese, is to get the okay from your doctor. Once your doctor has told you that you are healthy enough to run, you can move on to step 2.
- Start slowly. It is awesome that you want to start running, but don’t let your enthusiasm cloud your judgment. If you haven’t exercised in a while, you should start by walking.
- Once you can sustain a walk at a moderate pace for about 3 – 4 miles, you can start a beginner’s running program.
- There are several methods you can use to train your body to run. My favorite program, and the one that I learned to run with, combines walking with running in progressive intervals. The idea is that, after a warm-up, you run for one minute then you walk for 2 minutes. You repeat these run-one/walk-two intervals for about 20 – 30 minutes.
- You can set your intervals to your current capabilities. If you need to run for 30 seconds and walk for 5 minutes, then do that. If you need a visual marker, then you can run from lamp post to lamp post, then walk for 5 lamp posts. The very important point is to train to your current capabilities and start slowly.
- The next step in learning to run is to assess how each run felt. Did it feel difficult? Or was it too easy? If your run felt too hard, then perhaps you need to continue the run/walk interval or ease back a bit until it feels a little easier.
- If your run/walk interval feels about right or a little too easy, then you might need to increase your effort. The rule of thumb in run training is to increase mileage or duration by about 5 – 10% each week. You need to push yourself a little bit to improve, but not too much to over-train and risk injury.
- You also need to run in order to run. Does that sound simple? Yes, it is a simple concept. But many beginner runners drop out of their programs when it starts to feel hard. You need to stick with the plan to be successful. There is no way around this. You must run, increasing time or distance gradually, to reach your run goals.
- So how often do you need to run to improve? Aim for running at least 3 times per week. Combine this with walking or another physical fitness activity at other times during the week to get to 150 – 300 minutes of exercise per week. This is the current physical fitness recommendation. However, keep in mind, if this is too much in the beginning, then just do what you feel you are capable of and make it a goal to get to 150 minutes per week in the future.
- Stick to the plan. Keep going. Adjust as you need to. But don’t quit. If you persist, you will achieve your running goals.
Can You Be Too Heavy to Run?
Some studies have reported that there is a higher risk of run-related injury for overweight and obese beginner runners. If you are older or have suffered prior exercise-related injuries, then this risk is even higher. But there are ways to mitigate this. With proper support and slow, progressive training, you can reduce your risk for injury by as much as 90%.
If your doctor has said that you can start running, then you can start running. But do take the following into account
- Start slowly and progress slowly. Set realistic goals and be honest about your current abilities. One study demonstrated that keeping the learn-to-run distance to 3 km compared to 6 km, reduced the incidence of run injuries by 20% in overweight and obese runners.
- Walk before you run and use run/walk intervals to train. Avoid overtraining your muscles and joints. It is better to run slower, for shorter distances, and more often, especially in the beginning.
- Wear good shoes with the proper supports. Running with excess weight puts added strain on your feet from impact. Go have your feet and gait analyzed by a professional.
- Learn proper run form and posture to avoid back, hip, and knee injuries.
- Stop if you feel pain. It is normal for running to leave you a little sore and stiff, but it shouldn’t be painful. Seek help from a professional, such as a physiotherapist or kinesiologist, if running is painful for you.
- Run with a coach or with a group of knowledgeable runners. They can give you tips on running safely.
Why Shouldn’t You Run when Overweight?
As I have said before, if your doctor says that you can run, then you should run. But if you have underlying health problems, perhaps you should find another way to be active.
Running leads to a higher impact on the feet, legs, and back. The heavier you are, the higher those impact forces will be on your body. If you have current issues with your joints, such as arthritis or a prior injury, then perhaps a lower impact sport is a better choice. Swimming or aquarobics are great choices for those with joint issues.
People with heart and lung disease should be careful if they decide to take up running. While aerobic exercise, such as running, can help prevent these diseases, if you currently have these health issues, the exertion from running may cause you to be out of breath, feel dizzy, or suffer a cardiac event if you start too vigorously.
If you are getting up off the couch and you are obese, then you likely shouldn’t start a running exercise program. Start with walking. Once you can walk for 3 to 4 miles, then move on to a beginner running program.
If you have had bariatric surgery, then you need to pay careful attention to your hydration and nutrition when exercising. You can run after your doctor says it is okay, but you need to make sure you are replacing any fluids lost through sweating. You should also ensure you replace energy through eating appropriate foods. While everyone needs to stay hydrated and nourished after exercise, bariatric surgery has made your needs a little trickier to meet. Ask your doctor or dietician for some guidance.
Am I too heavy to run?
The question of “am I too fat to run” is on the mind of almost every obese beginner. But, if you have read this far, you likely already have my answer to this question. There is no weight cut-off for running. Whether you are 150 pounds or 400 pounds, the beginner runners’ journey is the same. Be honest about your current fitness ability, set realistic goals, walk first, ease into running, and progress slowly over time.
It is true, the heavier you are the harder it is for you to run. You won’t likely be fast or win races. You will likely be at the back of the pack at running events. And, unfortunately, you may even experience some discrimination from other runners. But you can definitely run. And you can most certainly call yourself a runner.
If you run, you are a runner!
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