Recent/ Running

What Muscles Does Running Work?

Wondering what muscles you can expect to develop and what will likely be sore as you start running and ramp up your miles? Read this post to learn what muscles running works, why they’re important and how to strengthen them.

Hi everyone! It’s Joanna here! I’m so excited to be a regular contributor to A Foodie Stays Fit! If you’ve missed my previous posts, you can read more from me on the pros & cons of a GPS running watch and distance running tips for beginners. A quick recap of me: I’m a professional runner for On Zap Endurance and am knee-deep in training for the Olympic Marathon trials coming up in Atlanta this February. That means I have LOTS of tired muscles (and a tired mind, at times too!). Today I’m sharing all about the muscles that keep us running, what they are, why they matter, and how to keep them strong so you can keep running strong and long!

Running is fantastic for cardiovascular health, stress relief, building friendships and building muscle in the legs. You may think that all runners are super skinny without a lot of muscle, but some of the strongest people I know are runners. Depending on the type of runner you are (track vs. middle distance vs. endurance vs. ultra ) and the specifics of your training and your genetics, you may develop muscles differently. But, having strong, resilient muscles are key for ALL types of runners. By strengthening a few key muscle groups, you’ll improve form, endurance, and power. Let’s dive in!

What Muscles Does Running Work?

 

What Muscles Does Running Work?

Let’s face it: runners have great legs. 

It won’t come as a surprise to hear that running, especially long-distance running, works a lot of leg muscles. But what makes you, a runner, move? Which muscles are the “running muscles”? Let’s take a closer look at the five main muscle groups responsible for keeping you in motion, and why it’s important to strengthen them. 

5 Tips For Stronger Muscles

The Gluteals.

What they are.

The human butt is an amazing thing. It’s one of the essential features that make our species bipedal; since most other animals lack the strong gluteal muscles to stabilize their hips and spine, they cannot maintain balance on two legs. 

That stabilization is crucial for running. When you run, the three major muscles of the glutes – the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus – act as a combination shock absorber and gyroscope, reducing the force of impact while also keeping your hips and knees underneath you.

How to strengthen them.

Weak glutes can result in knee pain and bad posture, neither of which improves your run, regardless of distance. If you want to keep your gluteals operating at maximum capacity, clamshell and bridge exercises are a great place to start.

What Muscles Does Running Work?

Glute bridges are a great way to strengthen your gluteals!

The Hip Flexors.

What they are.

Like the glutes, your hip flexors play a key role in running stabilization. Technically, “hip flexors” refer to a group of five different leg muscles, but when runners talk about them we usually just mean two: the iliacus and the psoas (that’s “so-az”) major. 

Your hip flexors are incredibly strong – a recent study found that in order to perform their job, these muscles must generate force equivalent to over 10 times the weight of your leg. Unfortunately, that heavy lifting means that your hip flexors are prone to tightening up.

How to strengthen them.

Generally speaking, it’s more important to keep your hip flexors, well, flexible, rather than super toned (they’ll do that part on their own).

For happy hips, try some basic hip extension exercises, such as pendulums or the butterfly stretch. You can even make hip stretching part of your ab routine by incorporating bicycle sit-ups. 

The Quadriceps.

What they are.

When you begin a stride, the quadriceps are the first muscles to engage. They reside at the front of your thigh, and extend from the hips down to the kneecap. Your quads consist of four muscles (the vastus medialis, intermedius, lateralus, and rectus femoris, in case you were curious) which work in tandem to move your leg up and forward. Basically, without quads, you wouldn’t be able to extend your knee. 

How to strengthen them.

As you might imagine, the quads play a particularly important role in running up and down inclines. If you are training for a hilly race and need to keep your quads strong, I would recommend incorporating bodyweight squats and lunges into your strength training routine.

While powerful quads are essential to running fast, it’s important to keep them in balance. It’s pretty common for distance runners to develop much stronger quadriceps muscles compared to their hamstrings, which can lead to lower back pain and hip tightness. Lunges help keep your quads strong.

What Muscles Does Running Work?

That brings us to…

The Hamstrings.

What they are.

As your body moves forward through a step, your hamstrings take over for your quadriceps. Composed of the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus, and the two biceps femoris, the hamstrings are essentially anti-quads. They sit directly behind them, at the backs of the thighs, and are responsible for bending your knee so that your feet move toward your butt. 

How to strengthen them.

Tight or strained hamstrings have been the number one bane of my running career, plaguing me since college. The best exercise I’ve found to strengthen my hammies without aggravating them is, believe it or not, yoga. I try to include 30 minutes of yoga poses per week in training (usually on a recovery day). But if namaste isn’t your jam, deadlifts and lying leg curls also work wonders.

What Muscles Does Running Work?

The Calves.

What they are.

Finally, we come to the calves. You have two calf muscles: the gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastrocnemius is the superficial calf, and the soleus is the deep calf. Located at the back of your lower legs, just beneath the knee, these muscles are responsible for flexing your ankles and pushing your feet off the ground. 

How to strengthen them.

Weak calves lead to a whole host of problems, from shin splints, to Achilles tendonitis, to plantar fasciitis. All of these are incredibly common injuries for athletes who have just started running and haven’t had time to build calf strength. To help prevent calf weakness, throw in a couple sets of calf raises or ankle hops once or twice a week. Or, as a cheat code, try walking on tiptoe for 30 seconds at a time; this will go a long way towards strong calves, and you can do it anywhere.

Bonus! Other Muscle Groups.

So wait a second, you might be thinking, if running engages all these leg muscles, why am I spending so much time doing crunches in the gym? I’m glad you asked.

Running is truly a full-body endeavor – in order to run your best, you need strong core muscles and even upper body muscles in addition to killer legs.

When your run coach says “core”, they’re referring to basically all of the muscle in your torso – the abs, obliques, diaphragm, and spine stabilizers. While the motion of running does not engage these muscles directly, they still play a vital role: namely, helping you to breathe. In addition to keeping your lungs pumping, a strong core will help stabilize your hips and hold your center of gravity steady.

As for your arms, shoulders, and upper back, these muscles help to smooth out your stride by providing counterbalance as you swing your arms. It might not sound like a lot, but this is vital to stride efficiency (don’t believe me? Try running with your arms behind your back). Some light bodyweight exercises, like push-ups or pull-ups, are all you need to keep your runner’s arms in shape.

So there you have it. Whether you’re training for fast times, to lose weight, or simply for fun, these are the key muscles you need for strong, healthy running.

Time to get out there and put them to good use! Be sure to follow me on Instagram to keep up with running adventures – I’d love to hear from you so feel free to leave comments here or on Instagram with any questions you have! 

Ready to run?

Let me help! I've been running for almost 20 years, and have run over 50 races from 5Ks to marathons.

I've learned a lot along the way and would love to help you too!

Join my FREE mini Running Bootcamp and I'll send you advice to help you get started! I'll share my favorite running shoes, advice on what to eat before a run, tips to run faster and more!

Click that pretty pink button to join! Powered by ConvertKit

Rate This Post

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
Loading...

2 Comments

  • Reply
    Mina
    at

    Hi! I deal with high hamstring tendonitis on the left, and a right calf issue that no can diagnose. MRI looks clean. I do single leg unweighted deadlift for my hamstring. Am afraid to try yoga because of overstretching? Do you have any thoughts on that? Also, and this is a super weird question, but how do you know if you’re engaging your glutes when running?

    • Reply
      Joanna Thompson
      at

      Hi Mina, Joanna here! Single leg deadlifts are a great exercise for aggravated hamstrings, especially unweighted. Keep doing what you’re doing there! As far as yoga goes, I’ve found that most styles allow you to stretch to your personal comfort level. I’m not a particularly flexible person (I think a lot of runners can sympathize), so I tend to keep the stretching light in my yoga practice while leaning into the strengthening aspects. That said, I would avoid hot yoga if you’re worried about overstretching – the heat of the room will temporarily make your muscles more flexible, and that makes it really easy to hyperextend. Finally, engaging your glutes: not a weird question at all! It can actually be really hard to tell if your glutes are firing while running. The easiest check is to pay close attention to where your legs are sore after a long run. If you feel soreness in your glutes, they’re active. If your butt feels great but you’re sore in you hamstrings or IT band, there’s a good chance your glutes aren’t engaged. Hope that helped!

    Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.