Running is arguably one of the best ways to get fit and control your weight. You can run almost anywhere and anytime, and you don’t need much in the way of specialist equipment. Just grab a pair of running shoes, pull on your shorts and your favorite T-shirt, and head out the door. It’s as simple as that!
And while running safely and efficiently is a skill, it’s one that’s very easy to learn. Most people run well naturally. Humans were, after all, born to run. It’s part of what made us such effective hunters and allowed us to escape from danger.
You don’t even need to be especially athletic to enjoy running. Sure, some runners are highly competitive and love to race and chase personal records, known as PRs. But other people simply run for the pure pleasure of doing it.
But what about running with weight? Will running with a backpack, weighted vest, or plate carrier make your workouts more or less effective?
In this article, we examine the pros and cons of running with a load on your back.
The Pros of Running with Added Weight
Running with weight is common in the military, where soldiers need to be able to cover long distances quickly while carrying all the kit they need to fight and survive. But does running with weight offer any benefits that make it worth while?
Let’s take a look!
More intense workouts
Running with weight turns your workout intensity dial up to eleven! Carrying an inert weight means your muscles will have to work much harder, demanding a greater supply of life-giving blood and oxygen. Subsequently, your heart and breathing rate will increase.
You could run faster to achieve a similar surge in intensity, but some runners are more carthorse than greyhound. Carrying weight provides a way to make running harder without increasing your pace.
Burn more calories
While it’s impossible to say how many more calories you’ll burn by running with weight, it’s safe to say it will be more than for the same run done unweighted. You can estimate how many calories you’ll burn by using an online calorie calculator and inputting your body weight, plus how many extra pounds you’ll be carrying.
More efficient workouts
Time is arguably the biggest barrier to consistent exercise. As a fit runner, you may find that you need to head out for an hour or more to feel like you’ve had a good workout. Strapping on a loaded vest means you probably won’t need to run as far or for as long, saving you time.
For example, 30-40 minutes of running with weight will probably tire you out as much as a 60 to 75-minute unweighted run. Plus, as mentioned above, it’ll also burn more calories in less time.
Running with weight will overload your legs and core, strengthening these critical muscle groups. This is especially true for running up and downhill, when your muscles tend to work the hardest.
If you want to build fitness and strength, running with weight could be a time-efficient way to achieve both goals simultaneously.
Develop mental toughness
Running with weight is hard work. You’ll need to grit your teeth and double down on your determination to keep going. Running uphill in a weighted vest is a special kind of hell! Overcoming your desire to slow down or stop will develop mental toughness, which will transfer to other parts of your life.
Got a deadline to hit but got no sleep last night? Planned an early morning workout but want to hit the snooze button instead? Car broke down and need to hike five miles to the nearest garage? No sweat – with your background in running with a weighted vest, you know you can rise to the challenge and get it done!
A great leveler
Running with someone slower than you can be difficult, and it’s hard to run with people who are less fit. Because of this, many runners train alone, so they don’t have to compromise their workout.
While there is nothing wrong with solo running, it can become boring, and you may even feel lonely.
Running with weight slows you down, so you can train with people who are not as fit or fast as you. It’s a great leveler and means groups of exercisers with vastly different fitness levels can train together.
Think of the weight as a handicap system; the fitter you are, the more you must carry.
The Cons of Running with Added Weight
While running with weight can be very effective and beneficial, there are a few drawbacks to consider, too:
Needless to say, if you want to run with weight, you’ll need a way to carry it. It’s not like you can go for a jog with a barbell on your back! So, you’ll need a suitable backpack, a weighted vest, or a plate carrier, all of which cost money.
Weighted running also means you’ll need some extra equipment compared to just heading out for a regular run. This may take some freedom and spontaneity away from running.
Increased joint stress
Running is a high-impact activity during which your feet hit the floor with force equal to several times your body weight. All this impact is one of the main causes of running-related injuries. Running with a weight vest increases this impact, which could increase your injury risk.
Foot, ankle, knee, hip, and lower back injuries are common enough in runners, and running with weight could make you more susceptible.
That said, you can reduce your injury risk by increasing your weight and workout duration gradually, wearing supportive, shock-absorbing shoes, and warming up/cooling down correctly.
Changes in running gait
Running with weight will change the way you run. Unweighted, you probably (or should) land with your weight toward your forefoot, taking short, quick, light steps for maximum efficiency while minimizing impact.
Carrying weight could change all that, so you end up heel-striking or running more flat-footed, which is less efficient, increases impact, and is more likely to cause injuries.
Teaches you to run slower
Because of the law of fitness specificity, your body adapts to the type of training you do. So, if you want to run faster, you need to run fast in training.
Running with weight will invariably cause you to slow down. While you’ll get stronger and fitter, you may lose the “skill” of running fast. This is no issue if you are a non-competitive runner, but if you dream of posting a quick five or 10k time, running with weight probably won’t help and could even hurt your performance.
When it comes to improving your athletic performance, specificity matters. So, if you want to improve your running speed, you should include fast, unweighted runs in your training program and only run with weight occasionally.
Tips for Running with Weight
Before you strap on a weight vest and start pounding the pavements around your neighborhood, take a look at these tips so your first few workouts are as safe and comfortable as possible.
Don’t be tempted to carry too much weight too soon; a load that feels manageable at the start of a run can feel crushingly heavy by the end.
So, start with about 5-10% of your body weight and increase gradually as you become accustomed to running with weight. If in doubt, go lighter rather than heavier. You can always add more weight on subsequent runs.
Lower the distance
If you are a regular runner, you probably have a distance you usually run, e.g., five miles/eight kilometers. The chances are that you feel comfortable running this far, and it’s your standard workout distance.
Avoid doing too much too soon by only running 50-60% of this distance with weight. This will save you from getting part way around your run and feeling like you need to stop.
As with increasing the weight, you can always add distance as you get more comfortable running with a backpack or plate carrier. However, initially, shorter runs are the way to go.
Ensure you are comfortable before you start
An uncomfortable pack, weighted vest, or plate carrier can turn a tough workout into a miserable one, so make sure you are comfortable before you start. Experiment with different load distributions to determine what feels best. If you are using a backpack, make sure your weights won’t dig into your back.
Ideally, whatever weight you are carrying should move with your body and not bounce up and down as you run.
Stick to smooth paths initially
While running over uneven terrain will add an extra dimension to your workouts, initially, it’s probably best to stick to smooth paths and trails. Running with weight can turn the most agile athlete into a lumbering beast, reducing your balance and making you more prone to tripping.
Embrace one challenge at a time by avoiding technical terrain until you are comfortable running with weight.
Remember – it’s okay to walk
Despite following these tips, you may still find running with weight is a shock to your system. Don’t make things worse by stubbornly running the whole way. Instead, slow down into a brisk walk.
Rather than cheating, walking with weight offers all the benefits of weighted running but with fewer drawbacks. In fact, walking with weight is a workout in its own right – rucking.
Feel free to alternate between running and walking, adjusting your speed to the terrain and how you feel, e.g., walking uphill and running on the flat. You don’t have to run the whole way if you don’t want to.
The Pros and Cons of Running with Weight – Closing Thoughts
The best workout is the one you’ll do consistently. That’s what makes running such a winner – it’s low-tech, accessible, and almost anyone can do it. With fewer barriers to participation, it’s much easier to run regularly.
That said, running can get a little repetitive, and it’s also time-consuming. Distance runners often spend hours at a time pounding the pavement.
Carrying weight makes running harder, so you can get a good workout in less time. It also increases your caloric expenditure, which could help you lose or control your weight more easily.
That said, running with weight can be hard, so start light and don’t go too far too soon. Instead, increase weight and distance gradually to minimize your risk of injuries.
You don’t have to run with weight all the time, but if you are looking for a way to vary your workouts, strapping on a weighted vest could be just the challenge you are looking for.