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Running to lose weight? Don't make this simple mistake

Running is a great way to scorch calories — but there's more to it if you want to lose weight.
/ Source: TODAY

With summer on the horizon and inflation putting the squeeze on Americans' spending, people are looking for easy and free workout routines.

There's one effective, equipment-free exercise that almost anyone can take up: Running!

Adaptable, versatile and fairly easy to start, running can help you lose weight, especially when combined with a healthy diet. TODAY spoke to two nutritionists to find the best way to combine running with diet to reach your fitness goals.

Is running an effective way to lose weight?

According to Natalie Rizzo, a New York City-based registered dietitian who works with "everyday athletes," running is a great way to lose weight since it burns a lot of calories quickly.

"You're burning more calories per minute" with running than you are with strength training or cycling, Rizzo said.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian and the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, added that the amount of calories you burn running can vary based on how long or intense your workout does, and said that diet plays a huge role in making the exercise effective.

"My husband's a trail runner, he will go out for a run and run 15 or 20 miles out in the mountains," Kirkpatrick explained. "So that is very high intensity. If you're doing something like that, the chances of losing weight are pretty high, but if you're just someone who walks out the front door and runs three miles, that might not be enough for weight loss if your diet is still lousy."

"One of the main goals, when it comes to weight loss, is that you want to burn calories," Rizzo explained. "That has to go hand in hand with good nutrition."

Running + a healthy diet = weight loss

The problem with suddenly increasing the amount of exercise you do, Rizzo said, is that people frequently think they are burning more calories than they are, and overcompensate when it comes to diet.

"It's really easy to overeat," she explained. "You're going to feel hungry when you're just starting to run ... Just because you're running and you're working out doesn't necessarily mean you can eat whatever you want. It really has to be a combination of exercise and diet. Eating healthy is generally what's going to make your weight loss goals happen."

Kirkpatrick and Rizzo recommend keeping a balanced diet as you start running.
Kirkpatrick and Rizzo recommend keeping a balanced diet as you start running. Getty Images

"Diet will almost always trump exercise," said Kirkpatrick.

Combine running with a healthy diet to create a calorie deficit, which Rizzo said is what "really makes weight loss goals happen." A calorie deficit essentially means that you are burning more calories than you consume, so it's important to fill your diet with lower-calorie foods that make you feel full.

"You want to make sure that you're still eating a healthy diet and following recovery nutrition tactics," Rizzo said. "Look for foods that have hunger-fighting properties in them. That's generally energy-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains, beans and things like that. Pack your plate with those. It's going to keep you from overeating things you don't necessarily want."

Kirkpatrick said that you might have to adjust your diet a bit to make sure you are getting the nutrients you need, especially if you're running a lot.

"An average person running three to four miles a day doesn't necessarily need to come from a run and immediately re-fuel," she said. "You can probably have normal meals and snacks as you typically would. If you're doing five or six miles, you're probably going to have to have some sort of simple sugar to refuel with, and of course water and electrolytes. Complex carbohydrates and lean sources of protein are always a great option."

Rizzo recommends using "the right kind of fuel" to make sure your body is supported by your diet, but you don't overeat.

"Generally, think about food as fuel for a workout," Rizzo said. "One of the main issues that I see with runners, in terms of losing weight, is that they want fuel for their workouts, which a lot of times requires eating a decent amount of carbs and things that they've been taught are not necessarily the best foods for weight loss. It's almost like they're fighting with themselves on figuring out what to eat."

How can you start running safely?

If you do decide to start incorporating running into your weight-loss journey, Rizzo recommends starting slowly and carefully to avoid any injury.

"You want to make sure you have the right form," she said. "And that you don't go out to fast. That can be as simple as Googling the right form. Make sure you're landing on a flat foot, that your arms are at your sides and not crossing in front of your body, because having the wrong form can really lead to difficult injuries."

If you're going to be running a lot, make sure that you have decent running shoes, says Rizzo, because improper footwear can lead to shin splints.

"Another thing that can lead to injuries is going out too fast and trying to train too much," Rizzo explained, adding that people should try to combine running with other forms of exercise like strength training.

Ready to get started? Try our 6-week training plan.