What Muscles Does Running Work? A Complete Guide to Running

This post contains affiliate links. Read the full disclosure here.

What muscles does running work? In today’s article, we’ll talk about the main muscle groups involved in running.

This will help you know which muscles you should train the most to be more efficient as a runner and, more importantly, prevent injuries.

By the way, did you know that over 200 muscles (at once) are exercised when running?

Our body is an incredible piece of machinery, and the muscles are part of the structure that drives it. A major muscle group is responsible for performing a movement or action with more force than others.

When a major muscle is affected, multiple muscles react to compensate for that activity or movement.

Muscles have many functions, although some of the most important ones are:

  • Maintaining posture
  • Generate heat
  • Moving body parts
  • Achieve muscle coordination
  • Controlling balance and center of gravity
  • Operate critical body functions such as digestion and blood pressure

When running, various muscle groups are involved, although some are more important than others. These are known as muscle motors (motor units) and are located primarily in the legs and hips.

Skeletal muscles

what muscles does running work

There are two phases when running: the flight and the support. During the flight, our lower train works 80% and 20% in the support phase. As we said initially, more than 200 muscles are involved in the race, while our body releases toxins and the mind releases endorphins.

So, to be more specific, what muscles does running work? There are three groups: cardiac, smooth, and skeletal. Each one fulfills a defined and different function in the body.

We are going to focus on the skeletal group, which are the primary muscles in human anatomy. In fact, our body contains more than 640 skeletal muscles.

Muscles are nothing more than elastic fibers connected by tissue and attached to bones. The main function of skeletal muscles is to create movement in any form of physical activity.

They can contract or relax through conscious control, using nerve impulses sent from the brain to the muscles in messages. Therefore, they are voluntary muscles because we have control over them.

What muscles does running work?

Although many muscles work during running, we will focus on the lower body and core muscles.

Quadriceps

what muscles does running work

Whenever you move one leg forward, you mainly use the quadriceps located in the front of the thighs. They are called quadriceps because they’re formed by four muscular heads: vast external and internal, femoral and crural.

Quads are the most powerful muscles in the human body. In addition to supporting the entire body, it allows basic actions such as walking or sitting.

When running, the quadriceps allow the hips to bend and straighten the knees while stabilizing them. They also help to absorb the impact in the “support phase.”

Hamstrings

As the body advances, the action shifts to the hamstrings, the muscles at the back of the thigh.

what muscles does running work

They are formed by the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris. These muscles are in charge of generating force since they’re the main knee flexors and hip extensors.

We use them daily for practically any moving action, as is the case with the quadriceps. Working them is essential to prevent thigh and knee injuries. That’s why warming up and stretching this area thoroughly is so important.

Tibialis Anterior

what muscles does running work

In the anterior region of the leg, below the knees, is the tibialis anterior. It’s beside the tibia spine, and one of its objectives is to make the sole touch the ground, avoiding dragging.

The tibialis anterior performs dorsiflexion during the flight phase, in which the tip of the foot is raised and cushions the weight of the body by falling at the beginning of the support phase.

This is usually the muscle that hurts the most when you first start running. The reason for this is the fascia swelling that covers it due to repetitive pressure.

Twins and Soleus

Just on the other side, in the posterior region of the leg, you’ll find what is known as calves. These are composed of the large gastrocnemius or twins (external calf) and the soleus (internal calf).

what muscles does running work

The soleus is a much smaller flat muscle that lies just below the twins. Both calf muscles attach to the Achilles heel, inserted into the calcaneus, the heel bone.

They’re in charge of providing impulse against the ground to move forward and absorb much of the impact on the ground.

Its function is to extend and flex the foot when landing and pushing. They also provide movement and flexion to the ankle joint, ensuring its stability.

Psoas Iliacus

The hip flexors are muscles located in the front of the hips, just above the thighs.

psoas iliacus

The iliopsoas muscle or iliacus psoas is the most powerful of the hip flexors. Specifically, it’s found in the abdominal cavity and the front of the thigh. It is the main thigh flexor and one of the most powerful in the body.

It is divided into two portions, the major psoas that originates in the vertebrae and iliacus. These muscles come into action every time you lift your leg, whether for walking, running, or any movement involving lifting the legs.

Gluteus

The buttocks are formed by three muscle groups: major, middle and minor buttocks.

The gluteus maximus is the largest and strongest of the three. It’s in charge of hip extension and plays an essential role in stabilizing the spine and pelvis.

These muscles’ main function is to provide stability, power, and strength to the pelvic and hip region in up to three planes of movement.

Abdominals, Lumbar and Erector Muscles

erector muscles

In the central area of the body or core, we find the central muscles. On the one hand, this area is composed of the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, and transverse).

And on the other hand, lower back muscles (lumbar area, lower back, multifidus muscle, spinal erector muscle, and the broad dorsal muscle).

you may want to read: Home remedies for back pain treatment and relief

It’s true that for a runner, the legs are the main power source. However, the core muscles are the fundamental base from which absolutely all movements are derived, including the feet.

Even if you have the strongest legs in the world, you will not harness your legs’ strength efficiently without a strong core.

The extra strength and stability that a strong core gives you will also protect your spine and lower back from running impacts.

Other Important Muscles for Running

There are other muscles that we must take into account when running. The fact that they aren’t the “main” ones doesn’t make them irrelevant.

Their strengthening is also essential for improving running performance, improve posture, and prevent unnecessary injuries.

Feet muscles

These bad boys are responsible for absorbing the impact in the “support phase” in each stride.

Depending on the type of surface you run on, impact stress will either be increased or decreased. If you run on grass, it will be much less than running on asphalt or a trail.

Choosing the right footwear with good cushioning is key to effective running, comfort, and injury prevention.

Arms and shoulders

Along with the abdominal and lumbar areas, the arms and shoulders are muscles in the upper body that play a fundamental role in running.

Thanks to the shoulders, it’s possible to perform the “pendulum movement” of the arms.

By swinging the arms backward, we help ourselves from the back and the deltoid’s broad dorsal muscle. And by swinging the arms forward, we help ourselves from the anterior deltoid, which allows us to take impulse and maintain balance.

The mind!

In addition to exercising both the lower and upper body muscles, you should know that running involves very intense brain activity.

When you run, a great number of hormones are released, making you feel pleasant emotions like euphoria or happiness.

the wellness route

This feeling of satisfaction is due to the segregation of endorphins and serotonin (hormones of happiness and welfare).

Therefore, the mind plays a fundamental role in keeping you motivated and making you want to move forward. It is only through motivation that you can surpass your goals and continue to progress as a runner.

What muscles does running work? Mistakes to avoid and Pro tips to do it right

So far, we’ve seen the muscles that running work and other important insights. Now it’s time to go over certain guidelines for a successful race!

Running is one of the most natural impulses of humans. Since ancient times, reaching maximum speed was the dream of many. Today, it’s a hobby and a sport for thousands of athletes.

However, not everyone is born and gifted with prime running abilities. Many people don’t run as they should.

Is there a correct way to run?

This is a question that many beginners and even some more experienced runners ask themselves.

There is really no single answer to that question. However, taking into account that each body has different characteristics, the correct way goes from the footprint to the spine’s position.

However, some qualities and aspects can and should be worked on to conquer the right way of running – which, whenever possible, should be guided by a coach.

To give you an idea, we made a list with the correct and incorrect postures of running.

6 Things NOT to do before running

what not to do when running

1. Stretching

Stretching before training can do more harm than good. Static stretching strains muscles, and conversely, while running, muscles contract.

What is the point of stretching if you’re going to contract later? It would be better to do a light warm-up with functional movements to increase cardiorespiratory rate, blood supply to the muscles, and joints lubrication.

Thus preparing the body for physical activity.

2. Lack of petroleum jelly during long training sessions

Don’t leave home without it. Apply between the thighs, in the genital area, across the toes, etc… Body sweat and clothing friction can increase the incidence of scraped parts.

In addition to petroleum jelly, a good option is to run with a thin shirt underneath, reinforcing protection.

3. Don’t wear a dry shirt

Many athletes forget to wear an extra shirt and hold on to their wet clothes until they get home. For those who don’t know, running warms up the body a lot, and not taking off your wet clothes can lower your immunity.

Therefore, always carry an extra dry shirt and change as soon as you finish running.

4. Little sleep

When you sleep, the organism performs necessary metabolic adjustments. Therefore, bad sleep or no sleep at all harms any physical activity.

Remember that good rest is also part of the training routine.

5. Drinking too much (or too little) water

Drinking moderate amounts of water throughout the day is the best way to stay hydrated without overdoing it. Drinking too much water can dilute the sodium present in the bloodstream and lead to hyponatremia.

However, not drinking enough water before training can trigger various physiological processes in the body by trying to compensate for the lack of fluid. One of them is the increase of pulsations and dehydration, of course.

6. Eating a lot

When you run, blood flow is directed to the muscles, and digestion slows down. In other words, eating too much can cause gastrointestinal problems.

And another thing: fried foods, fat, sugar, and too much fiber before running can cause discomfort. Ideally, if you’ve eaten a heavy meal, you should wait for 2 to 3 hours before training.

Tips for proper running

the wellness route

Flexibility

To become flexible, you need to stretch your body; a good runner has a flexible and strong body in all systems (muscles, tendons, and joints).

If you’re not flexible, you limit the range of motion for running and other sports. One stretching session per day is enough to improve flexibility and thus reduce the chances of injury.

Mental strength

If you want to run faster, farther, and injury-free, you’ll need to use your brain to re-educate your body. The mind is just as important as the legs; therefore, mental training is essential for better strides.

Good leg and footwork

Make sure your feet position on the ground is a correct and comfortable feeling. Your legs’ movement makes all the difference, so it’s essential to learn the right way to run.

Your knees should be bent at a 90º angle when you have warmed up and running at an average pace.

The most suitable footprint for good running efficiency is with the midfoot forward.

Knee and elbow position

The less you bend your arms and legs, the more work the muscles will have to perform the correct movement. Ideally, your forearms and shins should be parallel to the ground when you’re in the middle of the aerial phase.

But not too tight! Don’t forget that tight muscles restrict the range of motion and make it difficult to run fluidly.

Self-awareness

You need to know your body limitations and high points to evolve in the sport (and escape from injuries). Things like: why this hurts, where it hurts, can I go faster or should I stop? among other physical and psychological issues that may arise throughout your training sessions.

Posture

A good running technique and efficiency are directly proportional to your posture quality. Also, the arms need to help the body moving forward; the head helps the trunk erect but slightly inclined forward, in a posture that favors the whole biomechanics of the body as soon as you run.

Running cadence

Most people have low cadence (the number of steps taken per minute). Nevertheless, it’s important to know what your running cadence is. Think of it this way: in running, the longer your strides, the longer your foot stays on the ground.

In other words, the more energy you spend to support your body weight on your legs and feet.

How many steps per mile do you take? The idea is to maintain a cadence of 85-90 steps per minute on each leg. In other words, 180 would be the ideal number of strides per minute.

Breathing

The muscles use oxygen to convert stored fuels into energy. Any reduction in oxygen uptake will affect your ability to burn muscle glycogen.

It goes something like this: when we breathe, the chest doesn’t rise and fall (or at least it shouldn’t). The correct way of breathing, called diaphragmatic breathing, happens in the abdominal area, which expands and contracts, like when you want to inflate a balloon, for example.

This is how you should breathe all the time. When breathing is shallow, you only use the top of your lungs. That way, you get the most out of your lung capacity.

Ok, great! Now that you know exactly what muscles running work, you should now be able to make the most out of your training sessions.

Please share with us any comments or suggestions; all are appreciated. Thanks for joining us, and have a wonderful day!

nv-author-image

Joel Zazueta

Hey! Joel here; A graduate of Herbalism & Naturopathy Medicine School. My team and I are passionate about finding ways to improve our lives on a daily basis and truly believe in natural alternatives of doing so before seeking traditional medications. However, always consult with your Doctor/Physician first before taking any actions in regards to your health. Stay Safe and Healthy!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *