David Dack
Published by David Dack
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: December 21, 2020

If you’re thinking about taking up running or looking to improve your performance, you likely have the same question I had when I started: Does running build muscle?

Sure, when we think about building muscle, the first thing that comes to our minds is exercises like squats and push-ups.

Running, being a cardiovascular exercise, isn’t known for its muscle-building benefits.

But, as we’re going to see in today’s post, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In reality, running can actually help your muscle mass, despite the common misconception.

Keep on reading to learn more about how logging the miles impacts your muscle size, as well as what to do to improve your strength gains.

Let’s get into it.

Does Running Build Muscle?

do muscles work while running

The simple answer is yes, it is possible to build some muscle with running—to some extent.

However, the variables involved in muscle gain while running aren’t as simple.

First, intensity and length. 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 things as they have a different impact on your body.

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

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

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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.

How Running Builds Muscles

running aggressively

Now let’s look at how running can trigger growth in your muscles.

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.

How much stress we’re talking about here?

A lot. Like really a lot!

Research shows that hitting the pavement may places six to ten times your body weight on your muscles in a single stride—depending on factors such as speed, terrain, and bodyweight.

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

Let’s check this research out of The International Journal Of Science Exercise [1].

During the experiment, subjects performed four sets of running at near maximum speed for 4 minutes, followed by 3 minutes of active recovery, three times per week for a duration of 10 weeks.

By the end, the subjects showed roughly an 11 percent increase in the muscle mass of their lower body—especially the quadriceps—compared with the control group. 

But that’s the case with sprinting, what about long-distance running?

Well, the impact of endurance training may have the opposite effect.

Let’s explain more.

Can Long Distance Running Burn Your Muscles?

incline running

Logging in too many miles—as in long-distance running—can drastically increase muscle breakdown, therefore, limit, even hurt, muscle growth.

That’s why most endurance runners are so thin and slender.

Again, don’t take my word for it.

Research out of the Journal of Physical Therapy revealed that amateur runners who completed long-distance runs experienced significant muscle damage and limited muscle growth, compared to those who run shorter distances [2].

But this usually happens when a runner is starving themselves or drastically reducing their protein intake, forcing their bodies to consume its own muscle.

In other words, it’s not the act of distance running that leads to muscle waste. It’s actually malnutrition.

What’s more?

Most endurance runners prefer cardio over resistance training. Regardless of how helpful running can be for muscle gain, a well-rounded athlete must perform cardio and weight training to see results.

How To Run for Building Muscle Mass

Simple—all you have to do is challenge your body by switching from aerobic to anaerobic training.

To keep building muscles over time, change up the focus of your training from slow-twitch muscle fibers (steady-state, aerobic, exercise) to fast-twitch muscle fibers (interval, anaerobic, exercise).

In short, in the same line as the mentioned research, do plenty of speedwork runs, such as sprints, that focus on intense work over short periods of time.

By increasing your training intensity, you introduce more stress to your muscles—and start reaping gains soon and again.

Just remember not to do too much too soon—or else, you risk hurting yourself.

Don’t Know How to Get Started?

uphill and sprint running

Try these two workout routines to help you build muscles with running. Just remember to start each session with a 10-minute dynamic warm-up and end it with another 10-minute cool-down.

The 100-Meter Sprint

Head to the nearest track. Next, following a warm-up, sprint as fast as possible on the straightaway, then walk the curved section at a comfortable pace to recover. Repeat for four to six laps. Do more as your fitness ability improves.

The 30-Second Uphill Surges

Find a hill with a challenging grade that takes roughly 30 seconds to run up. Then, following a 10-minute warm-up on a flat surface, sprint up the hill as fast you can.

Walk back down to starting point to recover. Repeat the cycle for 15 to 20 minutes, then finish it off with a 10-minute cool-down.

The incline offers a greater amount of resistance and strain on your muscles and builds them faster than running on a flat surface.

More Tips To Ensure Muscle Growth

healthy living

As you already know, training—stimulus—is only one part of the muscle-building process. Your body also needs to properly adapt to training.

Here’s how to ensure that.

Rest

Recovery is key because it sets the stage for muscle re-building. Without downtime, you’ll set yourself up for soreness, poor performance, even injury.

When you give your muscles the time to bounce back, they’ll adapt to the training load and become stronger.

Recover can mean rest, or it can also involve performing low impact exercises like walking, swimming, and yoga.

Diet

Last but not least, to gain muscle mass, you need to back up your training program with the right nutrients—especially protein—otherwise, your body won’t support the muscle-building process.

First of all, consume plenty of calories. Sure, aiming for a slight calorie deficit can help you lose weight and reduce body fat—if that’s your goal—but an excessive debt can lead to muscle waste.

Next, eat enough protein, key for muscle repair, especially post-workout. To gain muscle, shoot for 0.6 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight daily. So, for a 160-pound person, that equates to 96 to 140 grams of protein per day.

Good sources include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and nuts.

What’s more?

You should also consume plenty of healthy carbs, such as brown rice and sweet potatoes,  and healthy fats, such as olive oil and avocados.

As for diet breakdown, 55 to 65 percent of your calo

So, Is Running Optimal For Muscle Building?

Although running can improve your overall fitness and help build muscle under the right conditions, strength training is still the best option for building muscle mass.

The truth is, running won’t turn you into a bodybuilder—in fact, it won’t even help you gain a note-worthy amount of muscle mass—but it actually helps.

So make sure to hit the weight room regularly if you’re serious about building muscle mass. Add in a few sprints sessions to help you with your efforts.

Well-rounded training is all about balance.  That’s how you’re going to reach your peak fitness and health. The rest is just details.

Thank you for dropping by.

Please feel free to leave your questions and comments in the section below.


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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