If you want to be in shape, skip the 10K training and sprint—but don’t jog—to the nearest weight room.
Fighting Words is a column in which writers rub you the wrong way with their unpopular but well-argued opinions on fitness, health, nutrition, what have you. Got something to get off your chest? Send your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Running is a crappy way to lose fat and an inferior way to boost cardiovascular health, but it’s somehow become the most popular exercise on Earth after walking. That’s bad, because running sucks. There’s a reason that up to 79 percent of runners get sidelined with an injury at least once per year: It’s an incredibly inefficient way to build strength. And as we all know, a strong body is the number one way to prevent injuries, increase metabolism, burn fat, and stay mobile and functional in old age. Statistically speaking, if you’re interested in staying healthy, you run. And sure, it seems like a “natural” exercise. But running at a middling, not-too-hard, not-too-easy pace for an extended period of time isn’t some timeless, eternal movement pattern on which our bodies thrive. It was really only popularized as a “palliative to sedentariness” in the 1960s, and while any movement is usually better than none, running fails almost every test of a worthy exercise. According to Lee Boyce, a strength coach and owner of Boyce Training Systems in Toronto, there are two main reasons that people run, and the most popular is fat loss: Folks “do cardio” because they want to burn off their bellies. And running is a bad pick.
“That’s usually what the mentality is, that it’s a way to get leaner and lose weight, but doing other things outside of running will probably have a better effect at catalyzing that result,” he says. Boyce’s fat-loss prescription, like that of practically any trainer worth their salt, is compound strength exercises. That means multi-joint movements like the squat, deadlift, overhead press, chin-ups, pull-ups, and push-ups.
For cardio junkies, he suggests lowering rest periods or stringing together several exercises in a “circuit” in order to keep the heart rate up and improve cardiorespiratory capacity. That way, you’ll be sucking wind as though you were running, “but you get more benefits because you’re actually challenging your muscles against resistance, which will burn more calories, potentiate a lot more fat loss, and raise your metabolism.”
The man is right: Studies have consistently shown that weight training and sprinting are more effective than running at targeting belly fat and creating a good hormonal environment for fat loss, meaning better insulin sensitivity, less of the stress hormone cortisol, and more growth hormone and testosterone. (Yes, that’s a good goal for women, too.)
A 2008 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, for example, split up twenty-seven obese women into three groups: one group did low-intensity running five days per week, the next did high-intensity sprints for just three days per week, and the third control group was instructed to skip exercise altogether. After a solid sixteen weeks of training, the results were undeniable: The sprinters lost significant amounts of abdominal and thigh fat, and while the low-intensity group did improve their aerobic fitness, their body fat levels didn’t budge any more than the group on the bench.
The other main goal of running is improving cardiovascular health. In fact, if you believe some polls, that’s the most common reason people exercise—looking nice and lean is just a happy, unintended consequence. (Sure, buddy.) And while it’s true that exertion improves heart health and cardiorespiratory capacity, and running falls into that category, running is too middle-of-the-road to be a particularly effective method of doing so.
Just like curling a weight a hundred times won’t boost strength as well as a small number of heavier sets, exercising the heart at a higher intensity is a better way to get the job done. Studies have shown that shorter sessions of anaerobic training, like fast-paced resistance training or sprints, are just as good for heart health as long, drawn-out runs and better at maintaining muscle and increasing aerobic fitness (or VO2 max, if you want to be specific). A fifteen-week long study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research even found that folks who did just ten sets of ten-second balls-out sprints on a stationary bike did a better job of improving endurance and power output than medium-intensity workouts lasting 20 to 25 minutes.
Remember, running is only good for “cardio” because it makes you breathe hard, but there are endless ways to do that. Just love to run? Don’t want to give it up? That’s cool, just do it faster. “In many ways, sprinting is safer than running,” says Boyce. “The average person has a lot of muscle imbalances, where muscles on one side of the joint are weaker than muscles on the other side of the joint, so it’s really not the best idea to hammer away at them with long, endurance style running where you’re taking, like, ten thousand strides over a thirty-minute run.”
That leads to chronic pain and imbalances, he explains, while sprinting with good form remedies the problems of running in multiple ways. You take fewer strides overall (so it has less impact on the joints), you move more efficiently, you use more muscles in the body, and it recruits more fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are more involved with building strength and power.
“Fast-twitch muscle fibers will help keep your joints bolstered and strong, so it’s just a better choice overall,” Boyce says. “Plus, you’re going to have more of a fat loss effect from sprinting for the same reasons you get it from weights: You’re doing things that require strength, explosiveness, exertion, and intensity, so your muscles are going to have to work a little bit harder, they’re going to burn more calories, and you’re going to be more metabolic after you finish your workout as well.” That means you continue burning extra calories long after you’ve showered off your gym funk.
“The benefits for producing maximum aerobic work production, fat loss, or strength development are indeed less than sprint work,” says Dean Somerset, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, exercise physiologist and kinesiologist based in Alberta, Canada. He’s careful to add, however, that in his opinion, an easy, low-intensity run can put less stress on the tendons than the high-intensity kind.
Somerset also opines that while high-intensity training will burn more calories after the workout, you might burn more calories during a steady run because those kinds of workouts tend to last longer. In his mind, the really notable benefit of high intensity exercise lies in the hormonal benefits. “Sprints increase testosterone, growth hormone, and thyroid hormone production compared to steady-state cardio,” he says. The first two hormones have a powerful effect on fat loss and muscle gain, which is a big reason why sprints win the body-composition game.
If you really prefer endurance-style exercise, you’ll still achieve longer-term health benefits by relying on movement patterns that strengthen and protect the most vulnerable parts of your body. That’s not running, says Boyce. It’s lousy for joint health and lousy for strength gains—and remember, being more resistant to injury is a really important benefit of being strong, particularly as you age.
“If you don’t like running, you don’t have to do it to get the cardio benefits you’re after,” says Somerset. “You could use a rowing ergometer, swing a kettlebell, ride a bike hard or push a sled.” Shooting for, say, ten kilometers in forty minutes on a rowing machine or a 500-kettlebell swing workout are goals that can satisfy that craving for long, gut-busting endurance workouts without causing as much joint damage. The upshot is that you’ll gain better posture, a stronger core, and a healthier back.
But If Running Is Life, then run. But as Boyce puts it, “You should serve strength training as your entrée and running as your side dish.” So if you run for 20 or 30 minutes, balance that with 30 to 40 minutes of strength training first. You’ll burn more fat, improve your heart health, and have better mobility, balance, and flexibility all the way into old age. Isn’t that the point of exercise in the first place?