One of the best things about running is that it helps to strength and tone different muscle groups throughout the body. It’s not a replacement for strength training, but it will absolutely help you to get muscle definition and power that allows you to move through life with ease.
Understanding what muscles running works allows you to focus on them to:
- Improve your running form (think posture and stride)
- Improve your running technique (think speed and efficiency)
- Improve your running endurance
- Eliminate common running injuries
- Maximize your race day performance
What Muscles Does Running Work?
While running focuses largely on your legs, it’s hitting all your major muscle groups including your upper body muscles!
- Gluteal Muscles
- Hip Flexors
- Upper body
That’s right, a strong arm swing means you can power uphills better and a strong back means you maintain form as you fatigue, so running is not just focused on the legs.
Running has two key phases and that influences how each muscle is worked:
- Swing – Moving the leg forward and up
- Foot Strike – Creating power off the ground
Of course, none of your muscles work alone.
Which is why having a weakness, tightness or muscle imbalance can throw off your stride. Checkout what each muscle does while running and what you need to know to prevent injuries.
Role of Quadricep Muscles in Running
The quads are often one of the most overworked muscles in runners.
Weak glutes and tight hip flexors mean that the quads start to take on too much of the running load. This often results in runner’s knee and fatigue in distance running. Your glutes need to be taking on the bulk of the work.
Located on the front of the thigh, the quads are a key part of bringing your leg forward and assisting in the knee drive during the swing phase of the leg swing.
- Stop Overstriding (learn to land under your body)
- Learn how to activate your glutes
- Checkout this running technique program to improve knee drive for speed
Hip Flexors for Running
In conjunction with the quadriceps are the hip flexor muscles which are a group of muscles that connect the pelvis to the quadricpes providing a key piece in moving you forward and stabilizing your body.
Hip flexors run in to two common issues:
- Tightness that inhibits the glutes
- Weakness that limits leg swing power
If your hip flexors are weak that can cause low back pain, groin pain while running, IT Band sydrome and even shin splints.
- Hip flexor stretches — try adding some each day
- Glute bridges for total hip strength — do this prior to running
- Bird Dog movement (stability ball adds more core) — do this prior to running
Hamstrings While Running
On the back side of the thigh is your hamstring is your powerhouse for pushing off the ground and preventing the knee from hyper extending during this movement.
We get so focused on the knee drive, that we often forget about the power that comes from the quick ground push off.
- Stop overstriding — this places more work on the hamstrings
- Hamstring curl with stability ball – improve muscle strength
- Resolve hamstring pain or tightness
- Best post run stretches
Use of Calves While Running
Located in the lower leg, the calves take on a lot of load during every step of the run.
The calf is part of absorbing the impact through your foot, then lifting the heel to push on to your toes and power off the ground. In fact, your calves may lift your heel up to 1500 times per mile!
Our calf muscles will fatigue faster than other muscles due to their size, which is why it’s not uncommon to have calf cramps from running or tightness if our form is wrong. Additionally, any weakness in this area can lead to Achilles pain or shin splints.
- Stop running on your toes and overtaxing the calves
- Stretch calves after runs
- Calf raises on a stair or holding weight – 1 or 2 times per week
- Improve your shin strength
What the Gluteal Muscles Do While Running
I feel like I’ve been saving the best for last, but that’s not true since we’ve still got the core to go. The glues are a PRIMARY force in injury free running.
The glutes are made up of three muscles and all three are important for helping to raise your leg during the swing, push off the ground and stabilize your hips to prevent knee, ankle and hip pain.
Weak glutes lead to a host of problems and are one of the most common issues cited by Physical Therapists when runners come in with issues!
For example, when your glutes are weak they allow your knee to fall inward during every step of your run which leads to knee pain or ankle pain.
Stop neglecting them in your strength training or your warm up.
- Continue with the glute activation exercises
- Resistance band exercises for hips and glutes
- Utilize a PT ball to release tight glute muscles
- Try the 30 Day Runner Core Program for hip, glute and core exercises
What the Core Does While Running
If you think you’re legs are doing all the work then you’re missing out on a big piece of your power in running.
A strong core will improve your speed and prevent all kinds of pain.
To be clear your core includes the abdominal muscles, hips and glutes. Because it is your entire trunk, it allows your body to work efficiently together.
We’ve partially covered many of these muscles in other areas, so a few more things specific to the core.
- Consistently include core workouts (try this 10 minute pre-run system)
- Utilize a dynamic warm up to ensure muscles are engaged and firing
- Work on not swing arms across the body while running
- Think about engaging the core when running hard, do not keep your abs tight during all runs
- Learn exactly what muscles are involved in your core
Can you get abs from running?
Yes. BUTTTT not just by running more.
There’s actually a process that’s going to make abs from running more likely:
- Strength training with heavy weights
- Consistent core workouts (even with weights)
- Running sprints and intervals
- Less distance running (too much running increases cortisol which leads to belly fat)
- Lose weight – I mean honestly getting body fat to a certain level through nutrition really is the biggest factor
Is the Upper Body Used While Running?
Strength training for runners allows you to maintain good posture as you fatigue over long miles, to stabilize the core and find power on your uphill.
Of course it’s not working your muscles like a bicep curl, but if your muscles are weak and begin to fatigue then that will mentally work against you!
- Strength train at least twice a week while base building
- Alternate between heavy weights for muscle building and light weights for endurance
- Work on posture correcting exercises while working all day
I think what we’ve learned today is that running is a full body exercises which is one of the reasons it can be useful when people are looking to lose weight!
But we’ve also learned that running alone does not work.
You have to cross train. You have to spend a little time on pre-hab movements. You will develop injuries if you don’t utilize these tips.
✅Instead of getting overwhelmed with what to do, remember that many of these moves recommended can become part of your warm up routine or are already laid out for you in the 30 Day Runner Core Program!
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