“Does running tone your legs?” is one of those questions always asked among runners. Running is taxing and intense, so people who are running for weight loss or looking to trim their bodies want to know if this is the right workout for them.
Many runners get started for many reasons – what often begins as a desire to burn fat or build a healthy routine, ends up a competitive passion to keep running farther and farther.
Once you run a 5k, you’ll most likely aim for the 10k, half marathon, and beyond.
With all this training and dedication, you’re wanting to know if running will give you the toned, shapely legs you’re hoping for.
The Benefits of Toned Legs
While you most likely want toned legs for a strong and fit appearance, there are long-term health benefits of strong quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves (the main muscles involved in toned legs).
The hamstrings and glutes help to support your hips and core, which gives your body better posture and stability, reducing your risk of back pain and spinal injuries down the line.
Your calves directly support your ankles, which prevents ankle sprains and foot injury.
When you run with proper form, you help to counteract the negative effects of sitting at a desk all day or standing with poor posture. Strong and stable leg muscles help you do just that.
Does Running Tone Your Legs? How Toning Works
‘Toning’ can be a general term, and could mean something different to every runner. So let’s look at what actually happens to the legs when they get toned and general guidelines for making it happen.
Here’s a critical fact to be aware of: toning is not a one-and-done process. You start toning your legs from day one of your running training and continue toning them throughout your entire running career.
What most people consider ‘toned legs’ are visible, shapely muscles you can see from the outside of the leg.
To achieve this, keep these rules of thumb in mind:
- You can’t “spot tone.” Whether you’re looking for toned abs, toned legs, or anything else, you should know you can’t choose which of your body will lose weight. When you lose fat, you lose fat all over.
If you’re weight lifting at the gym, you can target specific muscle groups to strengthen certain muscles. When it comes to running, you can still target certain muscles but you will get a full-body effect.
Related: Weightlifting guide for runners
- You have to lower body fat and build muscle. This is the magic equation for a toned body. You can’t do one without the other. If you lower your body fat without focusing on muscle growth, you’ll simply get thinner. If you build muscle without fat loss, the muscles will not be visible on the body.
- You need consistency. Running intermittently whenever you feel like it (or even just once or twice a week) won’t get the results you’re aiming for. Toned legs take determination, dedication, and a solid plan (more on that below).
- Don’t forget about muscle metabolism. The more endurance you build through long distance running, the more fat your muscle fibers need to keep working. Thus, the more fat you’ll burn. The muscles will continue burning fat even after you run, which builds up your muscle metabolism.
7 Exercises to Tone Your Legs While Running
Dr. Rami Hashish, a body performance, biomechanics, and injury expert, points out that any old way of running will not necessarily result in toned legs.
“Running can be a very effective way to tone your legs, but it depends on how you run. For instance, if you take longer strides and heel strike, you’ll help target your shins and hamstrings. But, if you shift to forefoot strike running (landing on the balls of your feet), you’ll better target your calves and quad muscles.
So ultimately, it comes down to what your goal is. If toning and balance is the name of the game, it may be wise to utilize different foot strike patterns and running methods to help target different muscle groups in your legs.
If you do intend to start running on the balls of your feet, you’ll want to prepare your calves for the additional demand that will be placed on them.
One simple workout to incorporate into your training to help develop your calf muscles is walking backward up a hill.”
Related: The 9 Best Quad Stretches For Runners
Here are 7 other simple exercises you can incorporate into your weekly running schedule to help you tone your legs.
You might be thinking skipping is for children, but just wait until you add it to your run workout at the end. When you do it, make sure you land low and bounce high with an explosive movement. You’ll find it challenging and rewarding to your leg strength.
2. Squat Jumps
Adding this explosive movement to standard squats will help you burn fat at the same time as strengthening your quads.
3. HIIT Running
HIIT stands for High-Intensity Interval Training – as the name suggests, it’s a form of exercise where you do short, hard bursts of activity, with rest intervals in-between.
The body needs variety in training sessions. When it has to adapt to different levels of movement and strength it comes to a position of adaptability, which makes the strength and endurance building process move along faster.
Sprinting helps you push your body to its maximum limit, in a different way than long-distance running can do. It will help you burn fat, increase your endurance (which speeds up your muscle metabolism), and lets you get in a good workout, even when you’re rushed for time.
An easy-to-follow, monthly sprinting workout looks like this:
- Sprint at full speed for 15 seconds
- Rest for 45 seconds
- Week one: repeat 6 times
- Week two: repeat 8 times
- Week three: repeat 10 times
- Week four: repeat 12 times
Read our guide to sprinting here.
5. Hill Sprints
This is one of the best ways to build your leg strength fast. Not only that, but it will boost your cardio and fat burning. We recommend at least one day of hill sprints per week.
Read our guide to hill sprints here.
6. Bodyweight Exercises
Regularly performing bodyweight exercises keeps your muscles strong and helps you perform other workouts (sprints, hills, etc.) more effectively. When you build these muscles as a base, you continue to support your metabolic system as well as an overall toned look.
- Single leg squats: These provide balance and stability to your body. They are a more advanced movement than the traditional squat, so you’ll want to make sure you master the squat first.
- Lunges: Lunges create all-over strength for your legs. The main focus is on your quads, but lunges help create equal strength so that one leg doesn’t end up taking more weight than the other while you run.
- Box Jumps: This powerful move works your glutes, quads, calves, and hamstrings. Doing them improves your speed and burns a high amount of calories.
Related: Bodyweight Exercises for Runners
7. Add Weights
If you really want to tone your legs and build large, noticeable muscles, adding weights to your squats and lunges is a great way to do that. Weights help create resistance and force your muscles to contract faster and with more effort, which in turn makes them much stronger.
I don’t recommend adding weights to the box jump since you can easily slip and lose your balance, ending up with a serious injury. Stick to stable exercises where balance is not an issue.
Remember not to add too much weight too soon. It’s always better to start with less weight than you think you can handle, to master the form of the movements, then to slowly add more weight.
Related: Sore Hamstrings After Running? 6 Possible Causes + Solutions
Optimize Your Diet
Muscle definition and the right diet go hand in hand. While you don’t have to stick to a hard and fast diet, there are some basic rules to follow when your goal is tone, visible muscles.
Consume Complex Carbohydrates
Many distance runners assume they can eat whatever they want because of the hundreds (and often thousands) of calories burned during a run.
However, you need to create a calorie deficit if you want to burn fat and lose weight. Some people assume this means avoiding carbs, but that is unavoidable for runners. Runners need complex carbohydrates like beans and brown rice to fuel their runs with energy.
Eating complex carbohydrates provides your body with healthy benefits, rather than the empty, processed carbohydrates you would find in a donut or white bread.
Fueling your muscles with protein gives them to nutrients they need to perform their job and get stronger. Be sure to eat lots of lean protein like chicken, turkey, and salmon.
Related: Protein for Runners, Explained
Leafy greens are non-negotiable for runners, especially those looking to tone and lose weight. These vitamins will not only help your body perform better, but they will also fill you up with healthy options, instead of loading up on the wrong types of foods.
Does Running Tone Your Legs? The Simple Answer
Yes…if you implement the right strategy.
To summarize all the tips we’ve just covered, here is your basic 5-step leg toning plan:
Step 1: Stick with the plan consistently.
Step 2: Work in skipping or squat jumps before or after each run.
Step 3: Set aside at least 1 day a week for sprinting, hill running, or HIIT running.
Step 4: Use at least 1 day a week for additional strength training, either with bodyweight exercises or weight lifting.
Step 5: Follow a simple, yet effective diet to keep your body healthy and trim and make your toned muscles visible.