What Muscle Does Running Work? (And The Muscles Running Misses)
Running is an amazing workout because nearly all the major muscle groups are used. With the proper form, running works your quadriceps, hip flexors, hamstrings, calves, glutes, core muscles like your abs, your feet, lower back, and more.
But while running uses these muscles, running isn’t mainly a strengthening sport. That’s why it’s important to understand the muscles used while running to ensure your muscles are strong and balanced to handle the impact.
Research shows that the muscles used in running withstand an impact of up to 8 times our body weight.
What’s more: is that impact will happen more than 1500 times or so in a mile (with each stride).
Understanding the biomechanics of running (and using this knowledge in your supplemental training) can help improve running form, increase performance, and prevent running injuries.
So, what muscles does running work?
Running uses almost all of the muscles in your body, including:
Your abdominal muscles and back muscles help reduce the shock of running each time your feet hit the ground.
Your core muscles also help you stand upright, balance and properly align your body with each step while running. A strong core will help prevent you from overcompensating, which reduces the risk of injury.
Core Exercises For Runners
Key core exercises for runners include the windshield washer, the bicycle, and plank variations such as side planks and plank walk-ups.
Your quadricep muscles get used a lot while running. These four muscles (vastus intermedius, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and rectus femoris) located on the front of the thigh work to extend your knee while running, stabilizing the knee, and propelling you forward.
This energy is then transferred to the hamstring muscles. Weakness in the quads can lead to overworked muscles in other areas of the body while running, such as the hamstrings.
Quad Exercises For Runners
Exercises to work the quadriceps include squats, lunges, step-ups, and single-leg deadlifts.
Hamstring muscles are incredibly important while running. The hamstring muscles, three muscles that line the back of the thigh, are responsible for hip and thigh extension and knee flexion.
Every time you push off the ground when running, your hamstrings help control the bend of the knee, raising your feet towards your glutes, and moving your body forward. Weak hamstrings are common in runners and lead to hamstring injuries and quadriceps, hip, and knee injuries due to overcompensation.
Hamstring Exercises For Runners
Exercises for hamstring muscles include single-leg bridges with a dumbbell, single-leg deadlifts, squats, and kettlebell swings.
If you’re a runner, you’ve likely heard that you need to activate your glutes when you run. That’s because the gluteal muscles (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus) are the main stabilizing muscles to support your legs while running.
These muscles that lie on the back and sides of the pelvis work together to extend your hip to move the body forward. The glutes also stabilize your hips and align the lower half of your body while running.
If you don’t have strong and active glutes, then other muscles must pick up the slack, leading to inefficient, less powerful strides and potential injuries.
Glute Exercises For Runners
Key exercises for glutes include Bulgarian split squats, glute bridges with a dumbbell, squats, and fire hydrants with a resistance band.
The hip flexor muscles are made of five primary muscles (Rectus Femoris, Iliacus, Psoas, Iliocapsularis, and Sartorius) located at the front of the hips, connect your thighs to your lower back, hips, and groin. When you run, the hip flexor muscles help stabilize your pelvic and spine and flex your knee and leg upward and forward.
The hip flexors easily get tight on runners which can inhibit the work of your glutes, leading to injury. So, a hip mobility routine is a must for runners.
Hip Flexor Exercises For Runners
Key stretches for hip flexors include the seated butterfly, pigeon pose, and bridge. Lunges, skater squats, and straight leg raise help to strengthen hip flexors.
Your calves are made of two muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) located on the back of your lower leg. They are one of the most overlooked muscle groups when running and bear the most impact. Some studies show that calves absorb an impact of 8 times your body weight when you run.
One 1992 study even found the calf muscles take the impact of more than 12 times our body weight! It makes sense: the calf muscles are the first line of defense when your foot strikes the ground, absorbing the most shock.
Calf muscles help you push off the ground and raise your leg to propel you forward. They also work to extend and flex your foot every time it hits the ground and pushes off, maintain balance and ankle mobility, and absorb the impact of running.
Calf Exercises For Runners
Key calf exercises include weighted calf raises off a step and walking on your tiptoes with weights.
The shin muscles, located on the front of your lower leg, also work to flex your ankle and foot off the ground when you run. The shins help pull your foot forward in what is called an inversion.
Shins bear much of the impact when our feet strike while running and if mileage is increased too soon, can cause an injury called shin splints.
Shin Exercises For Runners
Key shin exercises include weight calf raises and a bridge with a calf pull.
While the leg muscles are used the most while running, your upper body including your arms and upper back, are also used as you swing your arms back and forth and stabilize your entire body.
In fact, a recent study shows that your arm and postural (back) muscles are key to running efficiency due to the neuromuscular connection between your upper and lower body. If your upper body fatigues and slumps, the rest of your body will move inefficiently as well.
Upper Body Exercises For Runners
Key upper body exercises for runners include push-ups, the superman, inverted rows, and bird dogs.
What muscles are not used while running?
While running is a whole-body workout, you primarily use your core and lower body muscles—and you do so in a singular plane (forward and back).
Our bodies can move in three planes: sagittal (front-to-back like in running), frontal (side-to-side movements), and transverse (rotational movements).
The muscle groups activated in the frontal and transverse are often neglected by runners causing an imbalance which and can lead to injury.
Muscles need the practice to learn how best to work together so if a person isn’t used to jumping from side to side, muscles could fire inefficiently, leading to injury.
For this reason, cross-training in ways that will build targeted muscle groups is an important aspect of your training.
When do you use fast-twitch muscles versus slow-twitch muscles while running?
Every person is born with two major types of muscles—slow-twitch muscles and fast-twitch muscles.
Slow-twitch muscle fibers are used primarily when doing any type of running that isn’t sprinting. They use oxygen (so used during aerobic rather than anaerobic running), contracting less forcefully, but lasting much longer than fast-twitch muscles.
Fast-twitch muscles, on the other hand, have lower concentrations of mitochondria and capillaries making them quicker to fatigue but contract quickly and powerfully, making them the stars of movements like sprinting, jumping, and power-lifting.
How do you train fast and slow twitch muscles?
The good news is research shows that you can train your body to have more or less of these muscle fiber types.
One study found that long-term endurance training can increase the number of the capillary and mitochondria-dense slow-twitch muscle fibers, making runners more efficient.
You can train slow-twitch muscles by running long and easy. You can train fast-twitch muscles by doing sprints, strides, plyometrics, and power-lifting. Both muscle groups work together to power your stride.
What muscles are used in cycling versus running?
Cycling and running are very similar activities when it comes to muscle recruitment.
However, most of the power in cycling comes from the quads, hamstrings, and calves whereas the power in running comes primarily from the hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, and calves.
What muscles are used running on a treadmill?
The muscles used running on a treadmill are the same as running on the ground. Thus, the muscles used running on a treadmill are primarily the glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, and core.
However, studies show a shortening of the stride and a decrease in ground contact time when running on a treadmill.
Running works most muscles in the body. However, because it is a high-impact sport, it’s important for runners to strength train to protect their muscles, bones, and joints and avoid running injuries!
Lastly, don’t forget to wear proper running shoes. You don’t want something trivial, like ill-fitting shoes, to hinder your running performance.
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