I started running after college to lose that Freshman 40 I was holding on to. I learned a lot along the way, like what socks prevent blisters and how to shop for a sports bra so you don’t have to wear two. But what I struggled with was losing weight, specifically belly fat. And after 15 years of running I couldn’t outrun that still-pudgy pooch.
So I signed up for a half-marathon. I was convinced that all those training runs would surely slim my middle, but when I stepped on the scale, I was completely wrong. I was gaining weight because the hunger that came with those long workouts made me want to eat all the time. After the race, although I made some changes to my eating schedule to lose the weight I’d gained during training, my squishy belly wasn’t budging, and it pissed me off. It wasn’t like I was going to run more often or for longer distances. It was quite by accident that I figured out how running could help me ditch my mummy tummy.
One morning, I skipped the hour-long flat road run and turned into the woods near my house. I let my dog, Reuben, off leash, and we just started running. My pace was much slower because the terrain was so unpredictable. Rain had eroded away the path, creating holes, plus the slippery wooden bridges, the rocks and logs to leap over, and the hills — man, were there hills! I was huffing and puffing way more than on my previous runs, and my quads, calves, and butt were burning. I had to swing my arms more to get up those steep inclines, and trying to catch up to my dog added a little fire to my step. At the end of my 20-minute run, I felt like I did after running two hours.
After just two weeks of running those trails and those crazy hills, I felt an incredible sense of strength in my legs I hadn’t experienced before in the 12 weeks I was training for the half. In the obstacle course that is the woods, my muscles were constantly guessing, since running in the woods is completely different than running on a sidewalk or a treadmill. It’s like a dance because there’s no monotony of movement. Every step is a little different, a little shift to one side or the other, a little shorter or longer than the one before.
Interval training had always seemed so forced when running through my neighborhood: I felt a little weird sprinting past my neighbor’s house, so I skipped them and just stuck to my 9:40 minute-per-mile pace. But the hills forced me to switch up my pace, and I knew this type of training would be the key to ditching my tummy. Running this way was also really challenging to my mind. I felt a complete sense of calm afterward that I wasn’t able to get to unless I did a long training run. Instant runner’s high in just 20 minutes? I was floored.
And the added perk? My belly looked slimmer. I could see definition in my obliques—I had obliques! By no means am I saying I have a six-pack after a month of running in the woods, but I see now that I was pushing myself in the wrong way. I was working harder, not smarter. If you’re struggling with a weight-loss plateau from running, the answer for you, too, might be found in the woods.