Running + Calories: A Balanced Partnership

It won’t necessarily blow your mind to learn that you burn calories while running. Any movement, no matter how minor, burns calories and longer duration aerobic exercise is no exception. It’s important to know not only how many calories your burn during a typical bout of exercise but also how many calories you should be consuming in order to replenish after exercise and to simply maintain a safe level of physical performance. While every person is different, there are easy ways to keep track of your caloric intake and output to be sure you’re maintaining a healthy, functional lifestyle.

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 1. What in the heck is a calorie anyways?

A calorie by definition is a unit of energy. What you see on a food label is actually 1,000 calories (or 1 kcal) and is noted as a Calorie versus a calorie. A Calorie is the amount of energy required to raise 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius… 

More simply, Calories are a measurement for our body’s energy sources. Calories come from the consumption of food and vary per gram based on what you’re eating. Fat provides the most Calories per gram (9) while carbohydrates and protein provide slightly less (4). Now this is not to say that you should be consuming just fat in order to get the most bang for your buck. Be sure that you are keeping a healthy diet balance while still maintaining your proper caloric intake.

2. So how many calories should I be consuming per day?

There’s no blanket answer to this question. Every individual needs a slightly different caloric intake based on gender, age, weight, height, activity level, and genetics. Your best first step is to calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which determines the minimum amount of Calories you need to keep your body functioning at a resting rate. For women this number starts around 1,800 per day and for men around 2,400. Of course keep in mind that this body function does not take into account additional strenuous or really even light exercise. As your activity level increases so too must your caloric intake to not only maintain the exercise effort but also provide your body with the proper amount of energy it requires to recover afterwards. 

3. How do I know how many Calories I burn while running?

Once again there is no singular answer to this question. As your fitness level raises and you become more aerobically efficient you’ll burn less Calories per hour at the same, maintained effort level. However, the fast and easy rule is that you burn between 80 and 100 calories per mile. The number remains relatively stable despite running pace changes until you start to push your body well past its aerobic zone. For example, if you want to burn 500 calories on your run then you can either run for 50 minutes at 10min/mile or 25 minutes at 5min/mile and you’ll hit the close to the same mark but will just have an extra 25 minutes in your day (that’s a full episode of Friends!). 

4. How should I balance my caloric intake and output?

First things is to determine what your overall running goals are. Are you a runner because you want to get faster for a race? Are you a runner because you want to lose weight? Are you a runner because you just enjoy the grind? Depending on your answer you’ll want a different approach to the caloric balance. If you’re training to get faster, then you’ll need to prioritize muscle growth and recovery which will necessitate a more specific nutrient-rich caloric intake that’s probably higher than what you’ve burned on a run. For weight loss you’ll want to still maintain enough calories to stay healthy and recover post-run but even cutting 100-300 calories a day will lead to that slow, safe, steady weight loss. Any more than that and you risk negative health effects. If you simply enjoy the running process and want to maintain your current state then you’ll want to be very particular about refueling properly and consuming equal calorie to what you’ve burned. 

5. Where should I get my calories?

Keep it simple but balanced. There are plenty of great food varieties that will easily provide the caloric intake you need for your activity level while also keeping a good nutrient balance. The best calories to ounce balance will come from your healthy fats like nuts and avocados. Add to that daily servings of complex carbohydrates (whole grains, vegetables, potatoes), fresh fruits, lean red meat, and fish or poultry and you’ve got yourself the necessary caloric intake and all the performance-boosting nutrients you need. 

6. What now? 

Eat a healthy, calorie rich meal, prep your post-workout, re-fueling food, and get out there to run!

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