Does Running Build Muscle? | Here's What Science Says

Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Published by Christiana Mikesch, CPT | Senior Coach
Last updated: June 20, 2024
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Does running build muscle? This is one of the most asked questions, bearing in mind that it is used by many to stay fit. Running, being a cardiovascular exercise, isn’t known for its muscle-building benefits.

Scientifically, running can actually help your muscle mass, despite many individuals doubting it.

Read through for detailed information on how running can help you build muscles. We will also give you tips on how to increase your muscle size as time progresses through running.

Quick Summary

  • Running, particularly sprinting, builds muscles, especially the calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, and hips.
  • The intensity and length of running influence the amount of muscle mass you will gain.
  • Research published by the International Journal of Science Exercise found an 11% increase in lower body muscle mass, particularly in the quadriceps, following sprints at maximum speeds.
  • Based on my observations, the most successful muscle-building strategies for runners include a mix of endurance, nutrition, and targeted strength training.

Does Running Build Muscle?

do muscles work while running

Yes, running can build muscles, but only to an extent.

By extent, I mean, intensity and length. See, based on my experience working with clients and aspiring athletes, when it comes down to it, how much muscle mass you build while running ultimately depends on how you run.

Steady-state running and sprint sessions are not the same thing, as they have different impacts on your body.

The former can harm your muscle-building efforts, whereas the latter can do wonders for your muscle mass.

Before we get into why let me first explain the process behind muscle growth.

Related: Is It Better to Run Before or After a Workout?

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The Process Behind Muscle Building

flexing

Muscle growth happens as a result of stress being applied to the muscle during contraction.

This stress causes micro-tears to the muscle fibers, triggering a chain of reactions within your body that leads to the rebuilding of new muscle fibers, which increases your muscle mass.

Technically, growth happens when your muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown. Exercise helps trigger this process.

Related post: Myo-Reps for Building Muscle

How Running Builds Muscles

running aggressively

Running puts a lot of stress on your body, especially your lower-body muscles. These include your hips, glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves—all of which help you push force into the ground and propel you forward.

Based on my research and experience, hitting the pavement may place six to ten times your body weight on your muscles in a single stride — depending on factors such as speed, terrain, and body weight.

For example, if you weigh 160 pounds, you could be placing 1200 to 1600 pounds of weight on your muscles during each stride.

Of course, don’t take my word for it.

The Research

results and running

Research done by The International Journal of Science Exercise found an 11% increase in lower body muscle mass, particularly in the quadriceps, following sprints at maximum speeds [1].

As for long-distance running, it had the opposite effect.

Can Long Distance Running Burn Your Muscles?

incline running

Yes, long-distance running can burn your muscles and hinder muscle growth, as often seen in the slender builds of endurance runners.

Research in the Journal of Physical Therapy shows that long-distance amateur runners experience more muscle damage and less growth compared to short-distance runners [2].

However, this is typically linked to inadequate nutrition, particularly low protein intake, rather than the distance running itself.

In my experience as a fitness trainer, endurance runners often prioritize cardio over resistance training.

For balanced muscle development, incorporating both cardio and weight training is essential.

How To Run for Building Muscle Mass

To effectively challenge your body, alternate between aerobic and anaerobic training.

This approach helps in continuously building muscles by shifting from slow-twitch (steady-state, aerobic exercises) to fast-twitch muscle fibers (interval, anaerobic exercises).

Based on my experience as a trainer, incorporating speedwork runs like sprints, which emphasize intense, short-duration efforts, is beneficial.

Increasing training intensity introduces more stress to your muscles, leading to quicker gains.

However, low-intensity running is also crucial as it enhances blood flow, aids in recovery, and reduces injury risks. Use it for warm-downs.

Don’t Know How to Get Started?

uphill and sprint running

To build muscles through running, try these two routines, starting and ending each session with a 10-minute dynamic warm-up and cool-down, respectively.

The 100-Meter Sprint

At a track, after warming up, sprint the straightaway at full speed, then walk the curve for recovery.

Repeat for 4-6 laps, increasing laps as fitness improves.

The 30-Second Uphill Surges

Find a steep hill, warm up for 10 minutes on flat ground, then sprint up the hill. Walk back down for recovery. Repeat for 15-20 minutes.

Running uphill offers more resistance, building muscles faster than flat running.

Mindy Solkin, founder of The Running Center, notes that different terrains target different muscles:

  • Downhill running strengthens the quadriceps,
  • Uphill running builds hamstrings and glutes,
  • Trail running works abductors and adductors, and flat running enhances fast-twitch muscle fibers.

More Tips To Ensure Muscle Growth

healthy living

Training is just one aspect of muscle building; your body also needs proper adaptation.

Rest

Recovery is crucial for muscle rebuilding. Without it, you risk soreness, poor performance, and injury.

Rest allows muscles to adapt and strengthen. Recovery can be complete rest or low-impact activities like walking, swimming, or yoga.

Diet

Support your training with the right nutrients, particularly protein, to facilitate muscle growth.

Ensure adequate calorie intake; a slight deficit may aid in fat loss, but too much can cause muscle loss.

Aim for 0.6 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily (e.g., 96 to 140 grams for a 160-pound individual).

Consider our protein powder for runners. Include meats, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, healthy carbs like brown rice and sweet potatoes, and healthy fats like olive oil and avocados.

From my experience, a balanced diet with 55-65% carbs, 25-35% lean protein, and the remaining healthy fats leads to the best muscle-building results.

Shoes

Runamoc Shoes

Choosing the right running shoes is vital for injury prevention and effective muscle building.

Proper footwear is essential to condition the small muscles in the feet, preventing damage that could affect the ankles, knees, and hips.

As a trainer, I emphasize the importance of shoes that protect yet allow sensory ground contact. This approach ensures foot muscles are built correctly, safeguarding leg and back muscles from overuse.

The ideal shoe should balance free movement with stability.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5214170/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4792989/
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About The Author

Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Senior Coach
Christiana Mikesch, CPT is a personal trainer and author with contributions to publications like the Chicago Tribune and Yahoo. She emphasizes a holistic approach to weight loss, combining an energy-fueling diet, goal-oriented workouts, and daily habits. Her approach avoids short-term goals and fosters a lifelong commitment to health and well-being.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer
Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Holistic Nutrition from Clayton College of Natural Health and is the owner of Taylor Made Fitness. Her philosophy centers on cutting through the hype and misinformation surrounding dietary supplements, focusing instead on practical, science-backed strategies for health and weight loss.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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