Running can burn belly fat. Learn the right approach to whittling your waist with running.
Does running burn belly fat? Sure, running can burn fat, including stomach fat.
“Running burns more calories than most forms of other exercises, making it an ideal time-efficient weight loss strategy,” says Jason Fitzgerald, USA Track & Field certified coach, competitive runner, and founder of Strength Running<sup>1</sup>.
Belly fat, stomach fat, abdominal fat, a mix of visceral and subcutaneous fat… whether scientific or colloquial, these terms all speak to the collection of body fat around the midsection. Things that influence the accumulation of belly fat: epigenetics<sup>2</sup>, hormones<sup>3</sup>, stress<sup>4</sup>, inactivity<sup>5</sup>, food choices<sup>6</sup>, and depression<sup>7</sup>.
What can be done to burn away a bulging belly? Smart decisions about exercise, diet, and other lifestyle choices, including quality sleep and stress management.
Let’s take a look at how you can use running to burn belly fat.
Estimates circulating the internet say that running 1 mile burns approximately 100 calories.
To be a bit more precise, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) factors a person’s weight and effort into the approximation. An ACE activity chart<sup>8</sup> suggests that a 160-pound person burns 12.4 calories per minute jogging (372 calories for 30 minutes) and 15.1 calories per minute running (453 calories for 30 minutes). A 120-pound person burns 9.3 calories per minute jogging (279 calories for 30 minutes) and 11.4 calories per minute running (3342 calories for 30 minutes).
According to the ACE activity chart, the 160-pound person would burn 9.7 calories per minute walking (291 calories for 30 minutes) and the 120-pound person would burn 6.5 calories per minute walking (195 calories for 30 minutes).
A 2021 study published in Sports Medicine and Health Science<sup>9</sup> measured the energy expenditure during walking and running 1 mile, but, in addition to considering weight, they divided participants into groups according to body fat percentage, gender, and three ethnic groups.
Two hundred twenty-four participants in their 20s and 30s were divided into three groups: normal weight walking group, overweight walking group, and a running group (most in this group were “normal weight”). All participants were regular walkers or runners (completing the activity at least three times per week for 30 minutes each time).
African Americans burned the most calories running 1 mile: 119, followed by Asians at 116, and Caucasians at 99.
African Americans also burned the most calories in the overweight walkers group: 116, followed by Caucasians at 109 and Asians at 102. Caucasians burned the most calories among normal weight walkers: 101, compared to African Americans at 96 and Asians at 94.
Different genders also showed variations in energy expenditure, with males burning the most calories in this order: African Americans, Asians, then Caucasians. The study showed a strong relationship between body mass and energy expenditure, that African Americans expend more energy overall than Caucasians, and that higher intensity increased the number of calories burned. In normal-weight participants, higher-intensity running burned more calories per mile than walking.
Of course, we burn calories when at rest, too, called resting metabolic rate (RMR). Study researchers also point out that higher fat-free mass contributes to a higher RMR, which may lead to an increase in total energy expenditure.
But, does burning calories mean you’re burning body fat? Not necessarily.
While physical activities like running burns calories, your body prioritizes energy sources in a specific order. It’s called oxidative priority of macronutrient disposal.
We’ve established that running burns calories and that, the harder you run, the more calories you’ll burn. When it comes to body weight, it’s the utilization of fat calories that’s more relevant than total energy expenditure.
To burn away belly fat, you need to access your fat stores.
Oxidative priority of macronutrient disposal is a clinical way of describing how our bodies prioritize the utilization, storage, or elimination of the fuel we get from eating and drinking. One scientific paper shows the following priority hierarchy<sup>10</sup>:
As you can see from this list, if you’re in a fully-fed state (and not intoxicated from running a beer mile), you’ll have to use whatever glucose is available in your blood at the time you go for a run, followed by any stored amino acids and glycogen before you start burning stored fat.
There are ways to burn fat stores while running that involve running in the morning while fasted, running longer to burn through your glycogen stores and access fat stores, and varying running intensities.
When you want to run to burn belly fat, focus on these two running-specific things:
Let’s delve into each of these in more detail.
There’s a reason intermittent fasting is a popular practice for weight management—it gives your body time to burn through its myriad energy stores, including fat. Similar logic can be applied to running, where running in a fasted state can allow you quicker access to your energy stores because you don’t have to burn through the chia pudding you had for breakfast first.
Two small studies conducted on active men showed the fat-burning benefits of running on a treadmill in a fasted state. One study found that the fasted runners burned 20 percent more fat<sup>11</sup> than the group who ate before running.
Another study found that the group who ran long (about 100 minutes) at 65% of VO2 max before eating anything in the morning burned the most fat<sup>12</sup>, but also burned the least amount of carbs out of the three running groups.
The group that burned the most carbs? The one that ran after lunch, which makes sense because that group had two meals made up of about 60% carbs to burn through. Using the carbs available from your meals either shortly after eating to lower a glucose spike or that same day still burns energy that could be otherwise stored—and still increases your daily energy expenditure.
Some of the factors that influence whether fat or carbs are used as fuel during running include:
We won’t get into all of these, but intensity and duration are factors that can impact fat burning in every runner.
Running at higher intensities not only burns more calories than slow jogging (aka slogging), but also helps trim your waistline. After a HIIT workout, your metabolism stays elevated and continues to burn calories for hours after the effort, thanks to the EPOC effect<sup>13</sup>.
While HIIT requires a much harder effort, you get the same 24-hour energy expenditure<sup>14</sup> that you would from a longer moderate-intensity effort in far less time. You can, and should, also complete fewer HIIT sessions per week (two or three) and stay active on other days of the week with moderate-intensity aerobic and strength training workouts.
A word of caution: running too hard and too much too soon can lead to injury, muscle soreness, and the urge to quit.
“The key is to be consistent over months,” advises Fitzgerald. “Also, vary your intensity from run to run, and increase both intensity and mileage gradually so you stay healthy.”
Increase either running duration or intensity—not both simultaneously. Build up volume (running mileage) by up to 10% each week to give your body time to adapt. Be realistic about the running speeds you can maintain over a certain distance and, when in doubt, employ the help of a certified running coach to train the right way.
Research seems to unanimously support the fat-burning capabilities of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). You might associate HIIT with intervals of burpees, pop squats, and broad jumps, but you can also complete HIIT-style running intervals. Some examples of high intensity running intervals include:
Sprint Interval Training (SIT): 4–6 repeats of all-out sprinting for 30 seconds with 4 minutes rest between intervals. One study of women who followed this workout for six weeks three times per week showed an 8% decrease in body fat mass, 3.5% decrease in waist circumference<sup>15</sup>, and a 1% increase in fat-free mass.
30 seconds on, 30 seconds off: 15 repeats of 30 seconds of running at 100% max effort with 30 seconds rest. Ease into this one; if you’re not well trained, aim for 70–80% max effort and extend the rest period for as long as you need to recover. This hardcore workout was performed for 12 weeks without calorie restriction in young overweight men. The outcomes: a significant decrease in fat mass percentage and waist circumference<sup>16</sup> and significant improvements in VO2 max in the HIIT group.
Longer, slightly less intense intervals: Four repeats of four minutes of running at 85–95% max heart rate with 10 minutes of recovery between intervals. One study divided 43 overweight women into groups: a HIIT group that ran the workout described above and a MICT (moderate-intensity continuous training) group, and a no-training control group for 12 weeks of running four days a week. The HIIT group lost the most belly fat and was the only group to lose a significant amount of visceral and subcutaneous abdominal fat<sup>17</sup>.
An interesting aside: In all three of the studies mentioned above, no dietary changes were introduced. The results were earned through the workouts and not a combination of intense exercise and diet or caloric restriction.
You might read elsewhere that steady-state cardio or running at a low to moderate intensity is a waste of time, a recipe for burnout, chronic cardio that won’t get you anywhere… Here’s the catch 22: In order to develop the endurance, mechanics, and base fitness<sup>18</sup> to be able to complete HIIT workouts to accelerate fat burning, you need to do some less intense running.
You don’t need to do much if you’re into other sports, activities, or workouts, and if you’re pressed for time. Just one or two less intense runs each week for 30–60 minutes each can help.
Add strides at the end of each of these easier runs to teach your legs how to turn over more quickly. Complete 5–10 strides, which are brief (about 100 meters) accelerations where you start at a normal pace then build up to about 95% of your max speed then gradually slow to a stop. Coach Fitzgerald shows you how to run strides in this video<sup>19</sup>.
For fat burning, prioritize a few more intense workouts per week with some less intense ones, and consider adding strength training to your routine to increase your fat-free mass.
While studies show that it’s possible to burn belly fat with running without specific changes to your diet, you’ll reap more benefits (in overall health and energy, not just weight loss) if you clean up your diet.
When you want to trim your belly fat and lose weight, eat appropriate portion sizes and prioritize whole foods (such as vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, low-glycemic whole grains, and moderate amounts of dairy or plant-based milk and yogurt).
Fitzgerald’s top tips for running for weight loss<sup>20</sup>:
“Cheating” once in a while is OK, Fitzgerlad says, as the 80/20 rule is about eating to fuel your body well 80% of the time and deriving pleasure in moderation from the other stuff 20% of the time.
Remember that diet quality and portion sizes are priorities well, all of the time, but especially when you want to lose belly fat. Track your food to help you stay accountable and get a good idea of what and how much you eat.
You don’t have to track fanatically (accounting for every ¼ teaspoon of spices) or stress out about macro percentages. Use food logging as a tool to gain insight. If you pay more attention to food quality and portion sizes, you should be fine to ballpark the other things. This will keep you from becoming too obsessive, give you more time to run, and make the people around you grateful.