What Muscles Does Running Work?

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Running is often cited as one of the best habits you can adopt to improve your cardiovascular health.

While it’s no secret that running is good for the heart – it’s good for your muscles too. And not just the leg muscles that you’d expect, either!

So what muscles does running work? And what sets of muscles will you activate on your next morning jog?

Running works many muscles in all areas of our bodies. The primary muscles used when running include the abdominals, shoulder muscles, biceps, calf muscles, quadriceps, hip flexors, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles. These muscle groups all work together to maintain stability and mobility.

Humans are the only bipedal primates; we were built to run on two legs. Many scientists think that because of how our bodies evolved, we are the best long-distance runners on the planet.

Let’s look closely at the muscles we use when we run!

Gait Cycle And Muscles Exercised When We Run

What muscles does running work?

Gait & Posture published a landmark study in 1998 that said there are two main parts to runningstance and swing. Stance is when your foot is on the ground, and swing is when your leg moves forward (the time your foot is in the air).

Your body is in the float phase when both your feet are off the ground. 

During different parts of the gait cycle, different muscles are used. If you want to run faster or improve your form, it helps to know which muscles work when running.

Unlike many other types of exercise, running helps build muscle in the upper and lower body because it uses so many different muscle groups at once. When you run, for instance, your abdominal and shoulder muscles work to keep you upright and in good form. Having your elbows bent at 90-degree angles engages your biceps and aids your running form.

Your lower leg and calf muscles get you moving and keep you moving. Forward leg extension causes flexing of the anterior thigh muscle (your quads or quadriceps). It should be no surprise that running uses the muscles of the lower body, especially the legs. 

While you’ll work out your entire body when you run, your abdominals and legs will benefit most. Furthermore, transferring body weight from one leg to another engages the hip flexor muscles. Your hamstrings and gluteal muscles (your buttocks) also contribute to motion.

As you can see, running activates a lot of different muscle groups.  

Running muscles

How Each Muscle Group Contributes To Efficient Running

A greater comprehension of the function of each muscle group during running may result in improved form, technique, and performance.

Keeping these muscles in check and working together is also vital for staying injury-free. Below is a deeper look at the different muscles that work together when you run.

Torso And Pelvis Muscles (Your Core)

Having a solid core is the basis for healthy movement and activity. Your core muscles, which are located in your trunk and pelvis, serve to join your upper and lower halves. Maintaining good form, balance, and posture while running requires a solid core. 

Additionally, having a firm core assists in correctly aligning your spine, pelvis, and lower body. Absorbing the impact on your feet requires strong abdominal muscles. Injuries can occur if you have to compensate for a weak core by using other muscles.

Flexors In The Hips

Your hip flexor muscles are in the front of your hips, right above your thighs. They connect your thighbone to your lower back, hips, and groin. The hip flexors help keep your pelvis and back stable.

It’s essential to keep your hip flexors strong and flexible to maintain mobility. When you run, you use these muscles to bring your knees and legs closer to your body and move your legs forward.

Tight hip flexors can make it hard for your glutes to do their job, which can cause you to overcompensate in other ways or even get hurt.

The hips are at the top of the kinetic chain, and a weakness here can cause all kinds of problems with running form – and injuries.

Glutes Or Gluteal Muscles

Your buttocks are made up of muscles called gluteal muscles. When you run, the strength of these muscles is critical because they help you move and run faster. The glutes also help keep your torso stable, enabling you to stand straight.

As the primary muscles responsible for hip extension, they aid in stabilizing and strengthening the hips. This ensures proper alignment of the spine, knees, and feet.

Quads Or Quadriceps

The quadriceps consists of four long muscles at the front of the thigh. The quads connected to the kneecap are responsible for straightening and stabilizing the knees during running.

They extend your knee and propel you forward while running, and the energy generated by the quadriceps is transferred to the hamstrings.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are located between the hips and knees on the back of the thigh. They are responsible for extending the hip and flexing the knee. The hamstrings also contribute to thigh extension when the upper leg is retracted.

You engage your hamstrings to propel yourself off the ground with each step and maintain a knee bend, thereby preventing hyperextension. Bringing your feet closer to your butt by bending your knees helps propel you forward.

For optimal performance as a runner, you must possess solid and flexible hamstrings. Otherwise, your form will suffer, and your pain and injury risk will increase.

Numerous individuals have weaker hamstrings than quadriceps, leading to overcompensation and imbalances in the hips, knees, and stride.

Calf Muscles

The back of your lower legs is where your calf muscles are located. These muscles are utilized when you propel yourself forward by pushing off and raising your legs.

When your foot strikes and pushes off again, the calf muscles are also involved in extending and flexing your foot. They are responsible for reducing impact shockenhancing balance, and promoting ankle mobility.

Muscles In Your Feet

Runners may not pay enough attention to their feet, which have four layers of muscles. Some of these muscles start in the leg, while ten others begin in the foot.

The foot is the first platform that needs to be stable because it is the first thing that touches the ground and helps us get off the ground quickly. To improve your running form, you should have strong feet, a flexible ankle, a strong knee, and flexible hips.

Because most people wear cushioned athletic shoes, our feet can’t do all they can to keep us steady. But that’s not the main reason people hurt their feet. Most likely, the problem is caused by ankles that are too stiff. A stiff ankle forces the foot to take over the ankle’s mobility role.

How About Running Uphill Or Downhill?

Running uphill or downhill requires a little bit of a different form because your muscles are being worked in different ways.

When running up or down a hill, make sure your torso is over your pelvis.

Running down a hill

Running downhill is less taxing on the heart. However, your hip, leg, and ankle muscles must work harder, particularly your hip extensors, quads, and knees.

Running downhill may cause excessive stress on the shinbones, resulting in shin splints. You strike the ground with your heel more frequently, slowing your forward movement. Take care not to lean too far back with your upper body.

Running downhill

Running up a hill

When running uphill, you must exert more effort and engage more leg muscles to overcome gravity. Compared to running on a flat surface, running on an incline engages the vastus quadriceps muscle more and the hamstrings less.

Running uphill requires you to switch to a midfoot or forefoot strike. This impact increases the strain on your calves and ankles but makes it easier to push off the ground. This is because a portion of the shock’s energy is absorbed by your calves, which provide power as you advance.

Running uphill can negatively affect your balance and acceleration. Focus on using your hip muscles to propel you forward and fully extend your legs behind you when running uphill. Avoid leaning too far forward when running uphill, as this can make it more challenging to engage your hip flexors and raise your knees.

Does Running Work Your Ligaments And Tendons?

Tendons are the connective tissues that link your bones to your muscles. They help you move more smoothly and absorb shocks. Your tendons and ligaments also get stronger when you run and help absorb impact.

Ligaments are the parts of your body that hold your bones together. They help keep your body stable by absorbing some of the stress and impact of running. This keeps bones from moving too much.

Warming Up Running Muscles Is Vital

Maintaining loose, flexible, and supple muscles is essential to avoid discomfort, pain, and injury. Running and other strenuous activities can shorten and tighten muscles, resulting in decreased mobility and range of motion.

According to most medical professionals, you must warm-up for at least five minutes before stretching.

Strong Muscles For Better Running

It is commonly believed that running is only a cardiovascular exercise, but it also strengthens our glutes and hamstrings. Nonetheless, running places a heavy load on these muscles, and without proper precautions, injuries are common.

It is essential to understand the primary muscles used during running and the mechanics of the movements.

Adding a strength training and stretching routine that targets the key running muscles to your fitness program will help your muscles work together so that you can run at your most optimal and efficient level.

Author Profile

Alex Randall

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Alex is the editor at Revel Sports. It was his idea to take our post-club-run chats and build a website out of them. He is responsible for dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s when any of us have something to post. (Basically: it’s all his fault). A ferocious 5K powerhouse on his day, Alex is known for not understanding the meaning of the term ‘negative split‘.
Alex Randall

Revel SPorts Contributor

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