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Walking, running, cycling: Burning calories

In September of 2007 I wrote an article "Running vs. Cycling: Burning Calories." This one piece gets more hits per day than any other article; at least 150 hits per day, thanks to Google search.

It seems the article gets this many hits because it contains information that people seek out and are interested in. I used data that was gathered by fitness expert Dr. Edward Coyle; he stated that a person running one mile burned 110 calories.

It didn’t matter what speed you ran at, if you were an out of shape beginner, or a super fit athlete. This statement upset a lot of super fit and serious runners. I never intended to belittle the dedicated runner, but the fact is we were talking about distance covered, not speed.

Energy expended is measured in Horse Power, or Watts; both are the energy needed to lift a Weight, a certain Distance, in a certain time. Horse power is Foot/lbs per min, Watts is metric; Kilos/Meters per min.

Many could not grasp the concept that if a fit runner ran a mile in 6 minutes, he was using the same energy, burning the same amount of calories as an unfit runner running a 12 minute mile.

The reason is the slower runner is running at half the effort, but is running for twice as long; so the Wattage/Calories burned is the same.

If effort = y, then the faster athlete is running at (y) times 6 mins. While the slower runner’s output is (½ y) times 12minutes. Both are the same.

Today there is a wonderful website called Wolfram Alfra. You can type in “walking,” “running,” or “cycling.” You can then input time, speed, even gender and body weight, to calculate calories burned, and compare.

You can also add height, age, and resting heart rate, etc. if you want to get really precise.

According to what I found a fit male athlete weighing 150lbs. running one mile in 6 minutes. (Pace 6 mim/mi.) would burn 117 calories. Close to Dr. Coyle’s 110 calories quoted in the original article.

Here is where it gets interesting. Again not to belittle any dedicated runners, but a runner of the same weight and gender, running a mile in 12 minutes, would actually burn 124 calories. (Acording to this calculator.)

The only reason I can think of for the higher calorie burn for the slower runner is that during running or walking, a certain amount of energy is required just to support your body weight. It makes sense if you are on the road for twice as long; you are supporting your body weight twice as long.

The figures for walking also bring up a similar result. 150lb. man walking a mile in 15 minutes (4 mph.) burns 73 calories; a 150lb. man walking same mile in 30 minutes (2 mph.) burns 90 calories.

Also let’s say the unfit slower runner weighs 300lbs. double the fit runner’s weight. The 300lb. man would burn 248 calories. More than double the faster runner’s calorie burn at half the speed.

As pointed out in the original article, cycling is different because wind resistance comes into play, and the faster you ride the more calories burned for the same distance.

So a 150lb. male cyclist riding 10 miles in 30 minutes (20mph.) would burn 587 calories.

A 150lb. cyclist riding half the speed 10 miles in one hour (10 mph.) would burn 354 calories.

Considerably less even though the slower rider is on the road twice as long; however, the difference in wind resistance between 10mph and 20mph is huge.

Interestingly, an unfit 300lb. male cyclist riding 10 miles in 2 hours (only 5mph.) would burn 816 calories. That is more than the super fit cyclist riding 10 miles at 20mph.

It seems an unfit newcomer to walking, running or cycling can take some comfort in the knowledge that the extra weight they are carrying will initially cause them to burn more calories.

With running or walking, because wind resistance has little or no bearing on output, your calorie burn will drop as you lose weight. The only way to maintain the rate of calorie burn is to increase the distance, although not necessarily the speed. The only limitation will be the time available to you to walk or run.

However, with cycling as you lose weight and your fitness increases, so too will your speed increase, translating into more calories burned due to increased wind resistance.

More speed also means more distance covered in the same amount of time. The same is true for running of course, but with less effect on number of calories burned.

I feel the Wolfram Alpha program will be extremely useful for anyone starting an exercise regimen, or even a fit cyclist trying to figure out if a short fast ride is as beneficial as a longer ride at a slower pace. It will help an individual better manage the time available for exercise.  


Reader Comments (18)

Wind resistance does play a role in running, for example 6min/mile is running at 10mph where as a 12 min/mile is only 5 mph.

Although not as much as cycling(due to the higher achievable speeds), wind resistance will still play a part.

The other thing that you haven't taken into account is running efficiency. Not all runners run at the same energy consumption rates. As you get to be a better runner more and more time goes into running technique and is quite often the difference between podium and not.

So as you get to be a faster runner you should also be getting more efficient due to working on your running style. How much this accounts for is up for some debate but my point is that calculating someone's calorie consumption, even roughly, is hard.

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTimo

Thank you, yes I agree wind resistance would be a factor for a top level runner. But most people seeking this type of information are people looking to start exercising and trying to decide whether to walk, run or ride a bike.

I also agree that it is just about impossible to get an accurate estimate of calorie burn for each individual as everyone’s make up is different. However, these figures are useful as a guide when comparing the different forms of exercise.

May 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

Very interesting info, and, as a cyclist, I have no problem with it. But one thing puzzles me. Why do I see so many menofacertainage in lycra on their expensive crabon bikes, with amazingly well muscled and toned (and shaved) quads and calves, but still sporting massive bellies? b

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBendo

Big Bellies! Riding a bike will not directly affect the size of your bellie. Eating habits will.

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

To continue along these lines though, how many more calories would the fit runner burn while she is waiting for the slower runner to finish? Your body consumes a surprising number of calories at a rest state; I wonder if any of these calculations are accounting for this. How many of the additional calories burned during a slower pace run over that which would be burned at a faster pace are merely calories that would be consumed anyway by standing around?

Additionally, by taxing your muscles harder (fit runners/training cyclists) you also burn many more calories in the hours/days following exercise while your muscles rebuild.

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertheguth

And to illustrate Bendo's and Crump's 'belly' look at Big Jan Ullrich. He was an amazing talent but also a bit of a glutton. I always liked seeing him in his aero tuck with his gut touching his legs. That's a pro I can appreciate.

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertheguth

Big Belly,
I have lost 4 inches off my belly in the last year, with still a little way to go, but I have had to ride 150 to 200 miles per week to acheive it. Plus I don't over eat. It is tough to lose that belly fat when you are older, your metabulism slows and you need less calorie intake.

May 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

My AeroBelly (tm) decreases my wind resistance, increases my descending speed, and serves as a fuel source to prevent bonk. Shame about the uphills though, but 3 out of 4 ain't bad. Oh, and it's fun when I laugh.

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Schietzsch

A lot of Jan Ullrich's "belly" is a massive diaphragm. Have you seen that guy *breathe*? Like a bellows. He is a big eater though.

I'm fortunate to know and have met many people who lost really large amounts of weight. For example I know a woman who lost half her body weight (300 to 150). Many of these people eventually took up running but none of them started with it (too much wear to the skeleton & connective tissues). Few of them started with "dieting" but a lot of them wound up eating healthier because it made the exercise easier. All of them walked a LOT more and most of them took up cycling, often as a form of transportation. (One guy I know hit a weight loss plateau so he sold his car: now THERE'S a recipe for weight loss!)

However I think you can exercise away the first [n] pounds but you can't exercise away the last five. That takes hunger. Myself, I'll live with the last five pounds :-)

One of the great advantages of cycling is that it provides a smooth gradient of effort from boardwalk cruising to the Tour De France. The bikes change but the muscles (basically) don't. If you tire a little, you can slow down or coast without dropping out of the zone the way you do running. If you engage different muscles during this gradient of effort the changes are barely perceptible. Of course to eke out a few minutes in the TdF you have to put in a huge amount of training so the right end of that gradient is very steep. But still: same gradient.

Running, on the other hand, engages a different set of muscles than walking, at a higher rate of activity, and at an obvious transition point. They are basically two different gradients. There's a noticeable energy jump between "walking fast" and "running slow" which intimidates a lot of people. My opinion is that it is this pain moment that running junkies are addicted to. I mean here people who love running for its own sake, not for the sake of fitness or accomplishment. It's not the peak of completion or exhaustion -- even non junkies get a high at those moments. If running didn't enjoy the takeoff they'd hate running like non-runners.

"It never gets easier, you just go faster"

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Souders

It is my impression that most of these calories for unit of work measurements are over and above normal maintenance calories. So if your body burns 50 calories an hour during the day the one mile run adds 110 to that hour or day's total.

I worked with a Phd in exercise physiology and asked him about stairs vs a ramp. The cost of work is the same. You are lifting X pounds/kilos Y disttance.

The ramp might give you marginally more based on extra time according to the article presented here.

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRalph

Dave 4" in one year from the belly? Now I dont think that you are that much bigger than me. Must be all the Guiness your drinking!

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

Seems like a good arguement for heavy bikes - letting you burn more calories, right?

May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Katz

"AeroBelly (tm)" Love it! I never thought of it that way, but I can see where it closes that "parachute" space between torso and knees.

May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRaymond Parker

Power output on a bike is proportional to velocity cubed. So, going twice as fast uses 8 times as much power (calories/time). But, for a human profile, air resistance is negligible under about 7-8mph. So, the power needed for running is much more constant.

Sounds reasonable to me, and very interesting at that.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave G

I love this article and am going to google+ it for reference. It's good to know that newbies who are out of shape will get the greatest benefit in calories burned for the amount of effort they put in. However, the athletes should be glad that as they increase in ability and speed, they'll burn more calories. They can be glad they are closer to their ideal weight.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjhailstone

Walking is an excellent aerobic exercise even a very good social activity. However, in order to get more calories burned walking, it is possible to raise your heart rate during this activity; most of us are walking too slowly to draw any benefits, making it an inefficient aerobic exercise. “One of my biggest frustrations, says Mark Fenton, an expert, former athletic and co-author of the book Pedometer Walking says that it takes an eternity to get a good workout while walking but with running you do it more easily. ”

July 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Roger

Well I am glad to know that walking also seeks similar results as running does. I have a ligament tear in my left knee due to which I often find it difficult to run. I prefer brisk walking though! Happy to learn that speed doesn't matters that much and making an effort is justified :)
Thanks for sharing this wonderful post!

April 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJeff_Thomson!

I don't agree that air resistance is negligible for runners, however fast we go. Take an average age-grouper like me running at 7mph along a flat road with no wind. The air resistance I experience while I run will be equivalent to a 7mph headwind..I'd not particularly be aware of it because we are all used to running through still air, but it is a big drag on speed. 7mph is the same resistance I'd feel if I suddenly ran into a 7mph headwind and would be equivalent to a 14 mph total resistance....It would certainly slow me down. 7mph air restance and 7mph wind against. Now suppose I turn around to go back home and run away from the wind. The wind will be following me at 7mph, the same speed as I am running, and I will feel no air resistance at all. My running would feel so much easier than running through still air, like gliding along! 7mph difference in air resistance makes a huge difference to a runner. So the 7mph air resistance when I run through still air at 7mph makes a very noticeable difference compared with no air resistance if I was running in a vacuum. The faster I go the more it will slow me down but it is never negligible.

April 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterchrisgg

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