There are myriad angles from which to examine the debate on running and whether or not it benefits your climbing. One of the arguments for supplementing your climbing with running is the argument that it helps with weight loss. Before we get into it, let’s recall what was covered in parts 1 and 2 of this series on running and climbing.
Recap of Parts 1 and 2:
- Based on the research, sport-specific endurance training is more effective for climbers than general endurance training
- Climbers do require aerobic endurance in order to perform in both sport climbing and bouldering
- If you haven’t read Part 1 or Part 2, make sure you do before reading on.
Now, let’s address the topic at hand: weight loss.
Weight Management for Climbers
As you are aware, climbing is a sport that is impacted by your power to weight ratio (see Weight and Climbing). So it would make sense that climbers would be interested in ways to manage body composition. Let’s quickly review how weight loss happens, keeping in mind that your weight is perhaps a less important metric than your overall body composition. For example, I have gained 5 lbs of muscle over the past 3 years. Though my overall body weight is higher, my percent body fat is lower and I am climbing harder than I ever have. Click here if you want to read more about optimizing body composition as a climber.
What about resistance training?
If reducing body fat, becoming stronger, and increasing your aerobic endurance is the goal, I would encourage you to consider resistance training. Here is an interesting excerpt written by Doug McGuff M.D, expert in fitness medicine, taken from The Four Hour Body.
“If you are intent on improving your aerobic capacity, it’s important to understand that your aerobic system performs at its highest when recovering from lactic acidosis. After your high-intensity [resistance-based] workout, when your metabolism is attempting to reduce the level of pyruvate in the system, it does so through the aerobic subjugation of metabolism… since muscles is the basic mechanical system being served by the aerobic energy system, as muscle strength improves the necessary support systems (which includes the aerobic system) must follow suit.”Doug McGuff M.D. pg. 218, The Four Hour Body
Intense workouts like heavy weight lifting cause your body to utilize the aerobic energy system during recovery periods. Therefore heavy resistance training improves your aerobic energy system. This means that cardio is not the only way to improve your aerobic energy system.
If you don’t already, you might consider adding some strength training to your climbing training program to both aid in body re-composition, also to help improve your aerobic capacity, and make you a stronger, more resilient athlete.
With that, let’s talk about a relative downside of all exercise.
Exercise Doesn’t Burn Many Calories
Have you ever heard the phrase “you can’t out-train a bad diet.” Well it’s true. You can’t. A pound of fat contains roughly 4,000 calories. Running a marathon burns around 2,600 calories (probably less if you’re a small female) – and that’s before we subtract out your basal metabolic rate. Running yourself lean would be an extremely time-consuming feat. A friend of mine was telling me about an old teammate on his collegiate rowing team. They were at a two week training camp, performing brutal two-a-day workouts, but his friend ate so much Dairy Queen that he gained weight over this two week period, despite the exceptional amount of physical activity. You cannot out-train a poor diet. If you want to lose weight, you need to change how you eat. Let’s look at another example.
Fred Eats Girl Scout Cookies
Fred is 30 years old, 5’10” and weighs about 170lbs. Fred treats himself to three thin mints after work since it is girl scout cookie season and girl scout cookies are objectively delicious. He cannot go climbing on Tuesdays, but he has time to run on the treadmill in his apartment after work. Fred runs four miles in about 35 minutes. Here’s the question – did Fred burn off the Girl Scout Cookies? Let’s take a look.
Three Thin Mints: 160 calories
4 Miles of Running: 400 calories
Fred’s Basal Metabolic Rate: 50 calories (AKA what Fred would have burned in the 40 minutes anyway if he were in a coma instead of running)
Caloric Deficit Achieved by Running: 190 calories
Yes. In 35 minutes Fred burned off just over three thin mints. I love cookies, but that’s a lot of work for three thin mints. Don’t forget that after running for 35 minutes, Fred is really hungry and overeats at dinner, which likely negates the meager caloric deficit he earned from his 35 minute run anyway.
Save Time, Skip the Peanut Butter
Can running help you achieve a caloric deficit? Sure. Can it help you lose weight? Certainly. But for the amount of time it takes to run, you might as well just skip out on a spoonful of peanut butter and get a half an hour of your life back.
If your objective is to lose weight, just adding a run or two to your weekly routine is not going to completely do the trick. You likely need to make some dietary changes as well. Now let’s look at another angle of the running for weight loss equation.
Excessive Exercise Prevents Weight Loss
If you want to lose weight and your inclination is to add a run on your rest days to help do that, you might want to think again. Neely Quinn lays this out in her article on weight loss for climbers:
Part of it is that when you’re running or cycling a ton, your body wants to eat, eat, eat. So you end up eating all your calorie deficit away anyway, and then you’re exhausted on top of it. …If you want to climb well, then climb. There’s no need for all that running if you’re trying to be a good climber. If you want to grow muscles, maintain your lean body mass, and improve as a climber, you need adequate rest.Neely Quinn, Nutrition Therapist and founder of TrainingBeta.com
In Tim Ferriss’s Book, The Four-Hour Body he lists excessive exercise as a top reason that people cannot lose weight.
“Doing too much will not only not help, it will reverse your progress and it also leads to overeating, sports drinks, and other assorted self-sabotage… Less is more.”Tim Ferriss, The Four Hour Body
I know as climbers we love to do more, but for the sake of improving as climbers, don’t just add more to your training to get better – especially if you’re adding it to lose weight. If you are climbing with 3-4 quality sessions per week, this is likely plenty of exercise.
Running and Weight Loss: What Works
Although running may not be the most optimal way to lose weight, it does work. I cannot argue that. Even esteemed climbing trainer, Eric Hörst, recommends it in his podcast episode on climbing and running. There is science to prove that running can help you lose weight. However, there are multiple different ways to run for weight loss, so if you’re going to do it, do it as well as you can.
Research on Running and Weight Loss: Sustained vs. Interval Training
In an analysis combining 41 studies and 1115 participants, the British Journal of Sports Medicine analyzed the effects of three different modalities of running for weight loss: Moderate intensity (MOD), High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), and Sprint Interval Training (SIT). MOD is defined as exercising at 55%-70% of your maximal heart rate. HIIT is performed by doing intervals greater than 80% of max heart rate. Sprint Interval training takes this one step further, prescribing intervals of “all out effort” or 100% of maximum heart rate. The table below summarizes heart rate and average duration for these protocols as examined in the meta-analysis.
The conclusion? Interval training is likely the best bang for your buck. You can scroll to the bottom of this study, if you want to read it word for word.
Here’s the bulleted version if you don’t:
- MOD vs. HIIT vs. SIT had comparable results for reduction of overall body fat percentage.
- HIIT and SIT were better protocols for fat mass reduction than MOD.
- You can get similar results from all of these modalities.
- With interval training, you can get the same results as MOD and spend less time doing it.
Running and Your Legs
For some running does almost nothing to their legs, for others running causes hypertrophy of the leg muscles. In any case, if you are running significant amounts, especially if you are running hills, etc. you may be putting on unnecessary weight in your legs. This is another variable to consider when examining the effect of running on your progress as a climber.
The Verdict on Running and Weight Loss
- Maintaining your weight and optimizing your body composition are important to climbing your best.
- Strength training is a good way to increase aerobic capacity while increasing one’s overall strength.
- Excessive exercise can hinder weight loss and even cause you to overeat.
- You cannot out-train a poor diet.
- The caloric deficit from moderate running is smaller than you think.
- Interval-based running workouts are a more time-efficient way to run for weight loss than running at a moderate pace for 40+ minutes.
- Running may cause your legs to hypertrophy, which is not ideal for climbers; however this phenomenon varies from person to person and may not impact you at all.
I know that people love to run and that for certain people, it has proven to be an effective way to lose weight. However, I challenge you to think critically and strategically about the time you have to train and how you are going about losing weight, if that is something you have decided you need to do.
There may be a better way than what you have been doing, so I urge you to open your mind, experiment, and figure out how to become a better climber.
What do you think? Have you had great success with running for weight loss? How did you do it? Have you lost weight without running at all? Tell me about it! Leave a comment or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, I would love to hear from you.
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Next up on the docket for this series on running and climbing is a discussion on alpine environments and recommendations from the experts on how to implement running into your climbing training!
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