Does running tone your legs? There are many benefits to running, including shapely legs. Learn how running tones legs and what you can do to improve that toned look.
Running is a cardiovascular activity that works many large muscle groups in the lower body. So naturally, when people think of runners, they think of people who have “runner’s legs”.
While runner’s come in every possible shape and size, we do have some pretty powerful legs! Whether you have the insanely large calves I do is probably more about genetics, but as a runner your legs are truly about so much more than shape.
There are plenty of reasons to run, as it provides many benefits across all areas of life. Specifically, cardiovascular exercises like running provide many benefits for your health and physique, including:
- burning some serious calories
- building muscle tone
- increasing bone density
- helping you burn fat and lose weight
Running is a calorie-torcher – but it’s not a miracle worker.
However, I know, I know you aren’t here to listen to me talk about all the reasons running is more than weight loss.
Does running tone your legs?
Yes. And no. This is a belief that has roots in scientific evidence, but it doesn’t tell the full story.
A lot of it is going to depend on body type, training style, are you lifting weights, are you eating enough to build muscle, and how long you’ve been running.
So let’s do some myth-busting today and investigate whether running will give you the slender, shapely legs you’re craving.
What does it mean to tone your legs?
Before we bust some myths, let’s get clear about what “toning up” means. Many women use this term to describe wanting to see more muscle definition in an area of their body, while also trying to explain they want it to be smaller and not “big and bulky”.
It’s very, very hard to put on enough muscle to become bulky.
Even a novice lifter can usually only gain a lb of muscle per month. So let’s not worry about bulky! If you feel like you look bigger or the scale goes up when you start lifting, that’s actually water retention and inflammation.
Don’t let it stop you from chasing the goal. It will dissipate and remember we are never able to “spot reduce fat”. The body loses it all over and often in places we don’t expect first (like the face and boobs).
Muscles Worked While Running
When most people think of running, they think of it as a cardio workout and thus a great way to burn some fat. And it IS a cardio workout that can help you get lean, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.
In addition to helping you sleep better and lose weight, running can help to build muscle.
As a full-body workout, running works muscles throughout your body. But it especially targets your core and the large muscle groups in your lower body.
Knowing which muscles you work while you run will help us as we talk about whether running tones your legs. Here are some of the muscle groups that work together to help you keep pounding the pavement.
Three main muscles make up this muscle group: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus.
Together, these muscles have a big job as they work to extend and stabilize the hip and distribute the force of impact evenly across your hips.
The major muscles in this muscle group are the iliopsoas, tensor fasciae latae, and sartorius muscles. Your hip flexors drive you forward while you’re running.
One of the muscles, the iliopsoas, runs from the lower back to the hip and acts as your stabilizing force when you stand or sit. It’s notorious for causing hip pain, and the most common reason is that it’s too weak.
Maintaining a balance of strength (meaning not letting any group get much stronger than the others) between the hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors is essential for preventing the iliopsoas from becoming weak and causing pain.
This muscle group (also called the quads) is comprised of four large muscles in the front and side of your thigh: the rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and vastus intermedius.
These muscles extend your leg out in front of you and propel you forward. They stabilize your knees and help you maintain balance as you run.
The rectus femoris runs from the hip to the knee and can become tight and painful if one of the hip flexors (the iliopsoas) is weak because it has to take on a bigger role to bend the hip.
In running, the energy from your quads transfers into the hamstrings, but it’s common for runners to be disproportionately strong in their quads vs their hamstrings.
This large muscle group comprises the back of your thighs, with the muscles running from the pelvis along the back of your leg and attaching to the back of the knee.
There are three main muscles in this group: the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus.
These three muscles work together to help bend the knee and extend the hip while running so that you move in a forward motion.
Because runners are often quad-dominant, hamstring injuries are one of the most common running injuries.
This muscle group is below the knee on the back of your leg and has two main muscles: the gastrocnemius (the visible muscle in your calf) and the soleus, which lies underneath the gastrocnemius.
These muscles come together to push your feet off the ground with each stride as you run.
Note: as you run, you also work your core and shoulders, but the major muscle groups I just mentioned do the brunt of the work.
Does Running Tone Your Legs?
When you run, your legs and feet absorb a force of up to seven times your body weight each time you take a stride. That means constant work for the muscles in your legs, which will (over time) increase muscle tone.
Running on its own will help tone your legs (and butt), but it might not be enough for some people to get those lovely runner’s legs.
One thing you may notice is that sprinters often have more defined muscles in their legs and abdominal muscles than distance runners.
This is indeed due to the style of training, which builds more power and thus more muscle. The following tips will help you achieve that more powerful look as well, even if you run long distance.
Let’s look at some specific tips and workouts to help you get more shape in those legs.
1. Dietary Changes
Let me put it this way – you can never outrun your diet. Even if you exercise for hours every day, making poor food choices or having an unbalanced diet will prevent you from achieving your desired results.
Adjusting your diet is one of the biggest things you can do to melt body fat and help you get the shapely runner’s legs you want.
This will allow you to make the right adjustments to eat the best balance of vegetables, carbohydrates, and protein. A few things you’ll need to pay attention to.
- Eating enough protein for muscle building
- Learning about nutrient timing for maximum recovery
- Understanding how many calories runners need (you can’t be in a massive deficit all the time!)
- Learning that fueling during the run helps you to maintain muscle mass
- Focusing on high quality foods for maximum nutrition and feeling full
2. Include Interval Training
Even (especially) if you run a lot, you need cross training workouts to balance out the load on certain muscles in your body and keep all of your muscles strong.
High-intensity interval training (also known as HIIT) is an intense workout that cycles through brief periods of high-intensity exercise (such as sprints) and periods of lower-intensity exercise (such as jogging) or rest.
It’s a great way to complement your normal runs and improve your endurance because it works more muscle fibers than your traditional running stride does.
Use interval training workouts to build more muscle mass in the legs while also improving your aerobic capacity. In doing so, you’ll tone your legs more than running alone.
Some great options to build in to your plan for results:
- Hill repeats (this is going to fire up the glutes)
- Running stairs (again intense lower leg burner)
- Beach running workouts (that’s right, this can be fun too)
- Plyometic workouts
3. You Must Do Strength Training
Of course, nothing tones legs like strength training.
Running is a forward motion that works the muscles in the front and back of your legs, but not the muscles that help you move from side to side.
It’s also focused on building strength for endurance or speed, while lifting weights will break the muscles down in a way that helps them to build back stronger and bigger.
Exercises such as lunges and squats help to work leg muscles in ways that running and jogging don’t. But runners and sprinters also need to get into the weight room and do regular weight lifting for the core and upper body too.
Weight training is the best way to decrease total body fat, which is going to allow muscles to be more visible.
If you’re focus is on building more toned legs, then think about including the following:
- Work on lifting heavier weights for fewer reps, rather than lighter for more reps
- A weight you can lift for 5-8 reps is a good starting point
- Learn how to perform movements with proper form to ensure you are activating the right muscles
- Include strength training at least 2 times per week in your training plan
If you don’t know where to start with strength training for runners, we have a number of courses with follow along videos lead by our running coaches! ✅Explore our strength training programs to start making progress right now!
When thinking about your strength training plan, it’s important to work the core and upper body as well. Having a strong balance in your weight-lifting routine will ensure that all muscles are contributing as they should to help reduce the risk of injury.
Bonus: Building muscle helps to boost your metabolism even at rest, so if you’re wanting to melt fat and see more muscle definition, weight training is key.
10 Strength Training Exercises to Tone Your Legs
If you’re truly focused on building leg muscles then you need to ensure these movements are in your routine. Focus on learning how to master the movement, then being slowly increasing your weight.
As noted above, you will not get bulky. You must build muscle to see muscle.
Here are some of the moves we love having runners do because they will both improve your runs, prevent injuries and build that desired muscle.
- Squats with weights (full, half and quarter squats)
- Front step ups with weights
- Side lunges with weights
- Walking lunges with weights
- Bulgarian Split Squat
- Deadlifts with barbell
- Calf raises with weights
- Side step ups with weights
- Stability ball hamstring curl
- All variety of lunges from side to back to curtsy
What you should not do is try running with weights. That will not build your leg muscles faster, it will overtax smaller muscles and lead to injury.
If the question “does running tone your legs?” has crossed your mind, I hope this post gave you a start on figuring out what changes you need to make to get the look you want.
Want to learn more?
Check out these additional articles:
- 30 Day Core Challenge to work your hips, glutes and abs
- Workouts To Build Hip Strength
- Balance Exercises For Runners: Improving Your Form
- Mobility vs Flexibility: Why You Need Both And A Workout
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