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What Muscles Does Running Work? The Answer Might Surprise You

A couple years ago, I started running with the nebulous goal of “getting in better shape.” Being in good shape, though, can mean different things to different people, and fit bodies can vary widely. Your decision to take up cycling, rowing, CrossFit, yoga, dance or running will affect how you “get in better shape,” and what that does to your body. Each activity recruits different muscles in different ways, resulting in unique types of fitness.

Maybe you’ve been running for a while and have never really thought about which muscles you’re working. Maybe you’re thinking about running but want to know what benefit you’ll get for your muscles.

Or maybe you’re like me and wish running came with a guide like the one you see on machines at the gym to show clearly what muscles you’re working (on some ripped person!).

In any case, by the end of this article, you’ll be a pro at knowing the muscles that running works.

Muscles Worked When Running

Lower Body/Legs

Since you’re on your feet for running, it makes sense that it is a good lower body workout, but here are the specific muscles you’ll work.

Quads

Your quads are located on the front of your thighs. As the name suggests, there are four (quad) muscles that make up this muscle group. If you’re curious, they are the vastus intermedius, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and rectus femoris.

Quads are a large and essential muscle group that makes it possible for you to run. But since they help keep your kneecap in its proper place, injuries to your quads will often involve your kneecap in some way.

For example, a dislocated kneecap can occur from a sports injury, and you’ll have to have surgery to repair the quadriceps muscle that you tore followed by time in a knee brace. If your hamstrings are weaker than your quads, you may suffer from iliotibial band friction syndrome.

A great quad exercise is standing on one leg and bending the other leg so that it touches your bottom and holding for at least ten seconds. Repeat with the other leg.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are located on the back of your upper leg, and they are also used for running. They make the opposite motion of the quads through decelerating knee extension. Typically, injuries to the hamstrings occur when there are a lot of stops and starts. Whereas distance runners rarely damage their hamstrings, the injury is fairly common for sprinters.

If you’ve been doing a lot of Fartleks and interval training, you might be a more likely candidate for a hamstring injury. However, you can do strengthening exercises like stiff-legged deadlifts or stretches like reaching to touch your toes.

Glutes

Your glutes help you stay steady and impact a wide variety of muscles. In fact, studies have found that weakness just in your glutes can lead to injuries like Achilles tendinitis, shin splints, runner’s knee, and iliotibial-band (ITB) syndrome.

You don’t work your glutes as much as your calves, hamstrings, and quads with running, so you need to make sure that you’re specifically targeting your glutes in strength workouts. Lunge stretches are probably the most popular way to do that.

Hip Flexors

Hip flexors connect your femur to the lower back, hips, and groin. They are essential in running because they help you pick up speed by lengthening your stride and driving your leg up and forward.

Typical injuries are feeling a sharp pain in the front of your hip, especially when you lift your knee up. Stretching will make a huge difference in how much pain you feel. One good stretch in the standing lunge. You can even stretch your hip flexors by lying in bed and dangling your leg over the side, extending it backwards.

Calves

Woman Holding her calves

Your calves are in your lower leg, and they are what controls the spring in your step and help you push off and land. They are some of the key muscles used in running. Pulled calf muscles are common, particularly for older runners. It helps when they are thoroughly stretched.

Calves help you lift your heels up, put your body weight on your toes, and circulate blood back toward the heart. If you slow down when you’ve been running for a while, it’s your calves tiring out. To stretch your calves, do heel raises with your toes pointed in as well as out.

Shins: Tibialis Anterior & Peroneals

Shin splints are a common injury for runners, so it’s important to make sure that your shins are plenty strong. One stretch that I love is a seated shin stretch. Sit on your knees on a softer surface, with the tops of your feet on the floor. Slowly lean backward and hold as long as you can.

Your shin is located on your lower leg between the knee and the ankle, and you typically get shin splints from overuse. If that describes you, then you might want to take a day off and make sure that you’re regularly stretching your shins.

Core Muscles

The core is the muscle area runners most love to ignore. Unfortunately, it is critical to a strong and stable stride. In order to stay upright when running, you engage the core muscles, located in the center of your body. Your core also helps you from “wobbling” when you run, and helps you keep your balance. If you have a strong core, you will run more smoothly, expend less energy, and run faster.

Planks are a great way to work all of your core muscles so that you can kill it on the pavement. You might want to consider doing a 30-second plank before every run. Within a month, you’ll have a rock-solid core.

Common core injuries include lower abdominal injuries, which you can help to prevent by doing crunches and planks on a regular basis. In addition to helping to prevent injuries, you’ll also love the side benefit of abs that look great!

Upper Body

Running doesn’t work the upper body too much, especially if you’re running on flat terrain. At least with hills, you can use your arms to push harder, which will give you a little bit of a workout.

As the name suggests, your upper body muscles like shoulders, arms, back, and chest are all located near the top of your body. If you have a strong upper body, it will help you run faster as well as be more stable.

If you want more of an upper body workout than a tradition run will give you, you can run with small weights or even bands. Some stretches you might want to try are the cross-body shoulder stretch, the chest stretch, and the shoulder stretch.

Some common injuries include rotator cuff syndrome in the shoulder, back sprain/strain, bicep or tricep injury for your arms, and chest wall pain or rib fractures for your chest.

In the end, running is a great workout that tones and strengthens many major muscle groups. Now you have more of an idea why by looking at all the muscles that running works. Given this list, it can be easier for you to target stretches and strengthening exercises so that you’re always good to go for your runs.

The Wired Runner