Emily Brown

Written by Emily Brown


Understand How Metabolism Works to Unlock the Mystery of Running and Weight Loss

Metabolism. It’s a word we hear a lot when discussing weight loss (or weight gain). We usually use it as an excuse for why we can eat whatever we want when we are younger, and more often as an excuse for why we get bigger or can’t seem to meet our weight loss goals.

The truth is, metabolism does have a lot to do with body weight and energy balance. Perhaps a better understanding of what metabolism is and how we can use it to work for us, instead of against us, is the secret to achieving and maintaining a fit, healthy body for running and for life.

Energy expenditure

It is widely known that if you want to lose weight, you have to create a negative energy balance. In other words, you must expend more energy than you take in.

Energy expenditure doesn’t just occur through physical activity. Our daily energy expenditure can actually be divided into three categories:

  • Resting metabolic rate (RMR)
  • The thermic effect of food (TEF)
  • Energy expended for physical activity (i.e. training)

We will discuss the contribution of TEF and physical activity at a later date. Today, let’s just focus on RMR.

Metabolic rate

Resting metabolic rate is typically what we refer to as our metabolism. It is defined as the amount of energy (or calories) required each day to keep your body functioning while at rest.

More specifically, it is the energy that keeps the brain functioning, the heart beating, and the lungs breathing, in addition to many other cellular processes. It is responsible for about 60-75% of our daily energy expenditure, but may account for less in individuals who are very physically active.

Determining the RMR

RMR can vary greatly between individuals and there are a few personal characteristics that determine one’s metabolism. The first is body size. In general, larger people have higher metabolic rates than smaller people. It is based on surface area so that a greater surface area equates to a higher metabolic rate. Therefore if a tall person and a short person both weighed the same, the taller person would have a higher metabolic rate due to the larger surface area.

However, the composition of body weight is the biggest determinant of metabolic rate. Fat-free mass (muscle, bones, organs) is metabolically active (calorie-burning) tissue so the more you have, the higher your metabolism. If two individuals were the same height and weight, the one with more FFM would have the higher RMR.

In general, athletes have RMRs that are ~5% higher than their non-athletic counterparts due to more muscle mass as opposed to fat mass.

Knowing your FFM is the best way of determining your RMR and therefore your daily caloric needs. The preferred method of obtaining FFM is through underwater weighing. Other popular methods include air displacement and bone density scans. A full list with descriptions can be found here.

Once FFM is determined it can be used in a prediction equation, like the Cunningham equation, to determine RMR:

RMR = 370 + (21.6 x FFM[kg])

Other factors

Age and sex also have an effect on metabolic rate. One’s metabolism is the highest during periods of rapid growth such as infancy or puberty. This explains why it is so hard to keep the refrigerator full when you have a 16-year-old boy living at home!

As we age, however, we start to lose muscle mass and thus the metabolism begins to slow. It is estimated that we lose ~2-3% of our previous RMR for each decade of life past 30 years old.

Also, since women generally have more body fat and less muscle than men, men typically have higher metabolic rates but are still subject to declining RMR with age.

Other factors to consider when thinking about metabolism include:

  • Hormonal disorders such as hyperthyroidism, which will increase your RMR, and hypothyroidism, which will decrease your RMR.
  • Acute injury or illness can temporarily increase your energy expenditure.
  • Having a fever increases the metabolic rate by ~7% for every degree increase above 98.6° F.
  • Finally, living and exercising in tropical climates can increase RMR anywhere from 5-20%.

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Weight loss

The big question is how to manage weight loss and metabolism to find a healthy weight that will allow you to perform optimally, but is also easy to maintain. Awhile back we posted an article about Healthy Weight Loss, which provided tips on how to lose weight without sacrificing performance. One of those tips was to make sure you don’t cut calories too drastically.

1. Having too few calories can lead to the body breaking down protein, and therefore muscle mass, for energy. As we just learned muscle mass is the biggest determinant of metabolic rate and the less of it we have, the lower our metabolism will be.

The lower the metabolism, the less calories are needed for daily maintenance, and the harder it becomes to lose weight.

2. Another issue is that the more we restrict our calories, the more efficient the body becomes at using the calories that we do give it.

Normally efficiency is a good thing, unless we are trying to lose weight. When trying to lose weight, or create a negative energy balance, we don’t want the body to be efficient at using calories so that it has to work harder and thus burn more calories.

3. The final difficulty involving weight loss and metabolism is that as we lose weight, we require less energy (because RMR is determined mainly by body mass). This means you need to continually decrease your intake to account for the decrease in metabolic rate.

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Tips for managing weight loss and metabolism

  • To off-set the natural decline in metabolism that comes with age, start and continue a weight training program and do it 2-3 days per week to preserve lean muscle mass.
  • To avoid big drops in RMR, limit calorie restriction to ~15% less than what is required to meet your maintenance and training needs. So if you needed 2300 calories a day to meet your RMR + training expenditures, you should only reduce that by ~345 calories per day (consume ~ 1955 calories per day).
  • Be realistic about your weight loss goals and once you reach those goals, stop dieting. Your RMR will return to normal once calorie restriction has ceased and a normal caloric intake is resumed.
  • Don’t fight against your metabolism but learn how to structure your nutrition to fit with it. Some factors contributing to metabolism are out of our control or very difficult to change. Furthermore, metabolism is a finely tuned and highly regulated operation of our bodies and we function best when it is in balance.

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9 Responses on “Understand How Metabolism Works to Unlock the Mystery of Running and Weight Loss

  1. What about all that fat that is primary source of fuel on those easy long runs – do we need to replenish it all with food after the run?
    What if for example I am burning around 1000 calories a day from running, biking, cross training etc. How much of that will be coming from fat considering it would be all easy?

    • I’d be highly surprised if you were burning 1,000 calories a session. Exercise adaptation takes over after 6 weeks of doing cardio.. In some cases you will be burning around 70-80 percent less calories over time, especially doing cardiovascular activities that activate limited muscle groups and don’t promote destabilization. Strength Training routines that are changed up frequently, walking in sand, trampoline, these are much better exercises to effectively burn calories. That’s my 2 cents.

      • Hi Anne, thanks for the comment and recommendations. We definitely are huge fans of strength training, and we have all our athletes do strength sessions a few times a week, and we offer a course that is very popular. We also agree about the body becoming used to doing the same motions, and your body becomes more efficient. We actually wrote about this in other posts, and provided a calorie calculator for runners to calculate their specific needs. https://runnersconnect.net/running-nutrition-articles/why-you-might-gain-weight-while-running/ Thanks for sharing! What activity do you enjoy the most?

        • Trampoline! I had bunion surgery and that killed my long distance running.. Which would have been my first answer!! I have one on my balcony overlooking the ocean in beautiful Jupiter FL. Doing 4 min/1 min off intervals helped me loose 20 lbs!

          • Thats great Anne, very interesting, and what fun! Keep up the good work, and I am sure your comment here will give others an alternative to enjoy!

  2. I noticed that mixing up my regular routine seems to help. Not sure why, but if I stick to doing the same thing day after day the needle doesn’t seem to budge on the scale. Is there something to that?

    • Hi Julie, thanks for reaching out. Your body gets used to the exercises, so you no longer burn as many calories, it is great to keep your training varied. Although try not to become too obsessed with the number on the scale, think more about how you feel, and the changes you notice in your strength. But great job for getting out there to doing it!

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