Have you ever seen a skinny long-distance runner and wondered how they power themselves through so many miles on toothpick legs? On the other hand, ever looked at a sprinter’s leg muscles? There’s quite a difference between the two!
The question is: does running tone your legs? The answer is yes, but in order to actually make it work for you, you need to understand HOW it tones your legs so you can truly use it to develop muscle and strength.
You can pour your heart and soul into running but still have skinny legs. Learning the right way to do it is key to getting those sprinter’s leg muscles. Let’s get into it!
What Does “Tone” Mean?
Toning your legs may mean different things to different people. However, what most people consider “toned legs” to mean is muscular, shapely legs—not bulky—with very little fat covering the muscles.
The key to toning is twofold—building muscle and losing fat on your legs. This requires time and consistent effort.
You can’t “spot tone”—choose where to lose fat. You need to consistently exercise and maintain a calorie deficit until you develop leg muscle and lose fat over your legs.
How Does Running Tone Your Legs?
Running targets almost every single muscle in the legs! So, of course, if you do it often and do it the right way, you can do a great job of developing toned legs.
Apart from building muscle, running can help you to lose fat. Once those muscles are there, stripping the fat off them helps them stand out, giving them the appearance of more defined, toned legs.
The Muscles Used In Running
Every time you run—as long as your form is correct—your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calf muscles are getting a workout at different times during your stride.
Having toned legs involves building all these muscles equally and reducing your overall body fat percentage.
The quadriceps are made up of four muscles at the front of the thigh—rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.
They perform various functions as you run, including stabilizing the knee and absorbing shock, especially when running downhill.
Many runners are quad-dominant, which means the quads also deliver most of their running power. However, this could lead to injury and muscle imbalances, so you should improve your running form if you’re quad-dominant.
This is a group of three muscles—semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris—located at the back of the thigh.
When your running form is correct, your hamstrings and glutes are responsible for most of your running power. They also help you to bend and extend your knee.
The glutes—made up of gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus—work with your hamstrings to provide your running power. They also perform the function of stabilizing your pelvis and anchoring you as you run.
The calf muscles consist of two muscles—gastrocnemius and soleus—which help push you off the ground. They also absorb shock as your feet land.
On the front side of the calf, you’ll find the tibialis anterior muscle, which is also important. This is the muscle that aches when you experience shin splints!
Of course, let’s not forget the hip flexors. This group of muscles—the iliopsoas and rectus femoris—is located in the front of the hip and helps you lift your leg up towards the body or push it down and away from it.
They’re partly responsible for your push-off power, and loose hip flexors also allow you to have a more flexible stride.
The Benefits of Muscular Legs
Now you know that toning your legs involves building muscle, you may be wondering if having more muscle will make you heavier and negatively affect your running.
There’s no need to worry. Building muscle may add a bit of weight to the scale, but the benefits far outweigh the cons. You will also most likely lose that extra weight anyway as you lose fat.
Here are some benefits you can expect when you have muscular, toned legs.
More muscle in your legs means you will have more running power. Your push-off will be more powerful, and you will be able to run faster. If you have a running power meter, you can easily track the increase in your running power as you develop more muscle.
Better Muscle Metabolism
The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn during exercise. But you will also continue to burn calories for hours after exercise, known as muscle metabolism. The higher your muscle metabolism, the more calories you burn, leading to losing fat faster.
Toned legs are naturally an aesthetic feature that many athletes would love to have. Not only does it indicate that you’re dedicated to your sport, but it also shows a commitment to your health and wellness.
How to Get More Toned Legs
Does running tone your legs? If you do it right! Try these tips to get more toned legs from your training.
Do Interval Training
Sprinters naturally have much more muscular legs than long-distance runners, so adding interval sprints to your training can help you to build leg muscle.
We recommend doing hill repeats and stair running, which are excellent all-around glute and leg exercises. Beach running is also great for building muscle, as it adds resistance.
Cross-training allows you to work on your leg muscles while reducing the impact that could potentially damage your joints.
Depending on your preference, you can choose to cycle, swim, use the rowing machine, the elliptical machine, or jump rope. All these exercise forms build leg muscle without adding strain to your joints.
Running alone can build your leg muscles to a certain degree. However, if you truly want to tone your legs quickly and effectively, you should include weight-lifting in your training routine at least twice a week.
Not only does it build muscle, but it’s also an excellent way to decrease body fat. This is an important part of developing toned legs, as less fat means your muscles will be more visible.
Make sure you perform every movement with the proper form to prevent injury and make sure you’re activating the correct muscles on every exercise.
You should choose a weight you can lift for 8 to 10 reps—women—and 6 to 8 reps—men. If you can reach 10 reps with a weight, you should increase it.
Don’t be afraid of heavy weights—it’s the best way to build muscle, and it won’t make you bulky if you do it correctly and pair it with a healthy diet!
Heavy weights help break down the muscles so that they get bigger and stronger during the repair process.
While you should focus on the lower body if you want to get toned legs, don’t neglect your upper body. Include at least one upper body session a week, including abs.
Watch Your Diet
You will never get perfectly toned legs if your diet is poor, no matter how much you run, cross-train, and lift weights. Making healthy food choices is key, but it’s more than just “eating clean”.
You need to ensure that you’re eating enough protein to build muscle. While you’re aiming to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, you can eat between 1 and 1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight—40 percent of your daily food intake.
You should also make sure to eat enough carbs. Choose healthy carbohydrates rather than processed carbs as far as possible.
You should also calculate how many calories you should be eating in order to fuel yourself correctly, both during meals and during your run.
Get Your Form Right
If your form is incorrect, it can hamper your muscle-building ability. Getting your form right can help you to build your leg muscles quickly, safely, and in a balanced way, leading to toned legs.
You need to do it consistently if you want to get toned legs from your running. You should be running three to four times a week at a minimum, plus weight training twice a week and cross-training at least once.
Remember that you need at least one full day of rest per week. Recovery is important as well! A foam roller can help ease stiffness in the quads, hamstrings, and glute muscles.
What Not to Do to Tone Your Legs
Run With Arm/Ankle Weights
While running with weights can be helpful in some cases, they have the potential to throw your form off and reduce your speed, which may be frustrating.
This may not be a problem if you’re already a slow runner. However, we suggest choosing a weight vest if you’re going to try running with weights. Ankle weights can make you “drag your feet,” and holding weights can ruin your form.
Expect to Spot Reduce Fat
You can’t choose where the fat comes off when you exercise. Don’t give up if you don’t see your legs taking shape after a few weeks of training! The fat will first come off of the easier parts of the body. Be patient and trust the process.
You can spot train for muscle building. For example, the more you do hamstring exercises, the stronger your hamstrings will get. But that doesn’t mean the fat will come off of your hamstrings necessarily.
Overdo It With Protein
As we mentioned above, you need a maximum of 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
That means, for example, a 180-pound runner should not eat more than 216 grams of protein per day. A 120-pound runner should aim for 144 grams of protein maximum.
You CAN eat more than that, but it won’t have a helpful effect and may contribute to stomach cramps and digestive upset.
Choose lean proteins as much as you can, like chicken, turkey, and salmon. Red meat should be eaten in moderation as it’s quite fatty.
Contrary to popular belief, runners should not avoid eating carbohydrates. Instead, you should simply be more choosy about which carbs you eat.
Avoiding carbohydrates will have a negative impact on your energy levels and affect your running—and your leg toning—adversely.
Choose complex carbohydrates like whole wheat pasta, brown rice, vegetables, and fruits. You should avoid processed carbs like bread, pastries, and sugary foods.
Does running tone your legs? Yes, if you do it correctly and adjust your lifestyle to supplement your running.
You can’t just run a few times a week and expect to develop toned legs. You need to put together an effective training program, including running, cross-training, weight lifting, and recovery.
If you consistently stick to an effective training plan for a few months, you’ll see a noticeable difference in your legs!