What Muscles Does Running Work? Here’s Our Breakdown + How To Work Them

What muscles does running work?

You don’t need me to tell you that running is good for you. 

It can help you lose weight. 

It can help you get stronger. 

It’s both cardio and a leg workout. 

But you need specific answers if you want to see drastic improvements in your running goals. If you want to make the most of your runs, be conscious of the muscles used in running. 

Knowing what actually happens in your body when you run helps you toss out general terms like ‘getting healthier’ or ‘getting fitter,’ and you’ll know what you need to get there

Related: What Does Running Do To Your Body?

What Muscles Does Running Work

The Most Important Muscles Used in Running – What Muscles Does Running Work?

The first step to achieving your running goals is learning the anatomy of running.

Which muscles push your legs forward? Bring your leg back? Hold your body steady so it doesn’t topple over? 

You’ll see much better results if you can say, “I’m going to build my quads and calves to build up my speed and stamina in running.” 

You’re much more likely to reach a specific goal than a vague one. 

If you’re asking the question, ‘What muscles does running work?’ you should know that running works hundreds of muscles. 

But there are some main groups that do the most work. 


What Muscles Does Running Work Quads

Quadriceps are the large muscles in the front of your thigh. As you run more, you’ll see them bulging when you run. And you’ll feel great. 

They’re some of the main muscles used in running. Quads power your body up hills and launch your step forward. They propel a bigger stride, which makes you faster and helps strengthen your other running muscles. 

The quads make your knees stronger. Runner’s knee is often a direct result of weak quads. 

When the quads aren’t doing as much as they should be, that pressure and stress goes to the knee, which can knock out your running for weeks or even years. 

Strong quads prevent dead legs or heavy legs. When you run long distances, you start to feel your legs getting heavier and heavier. If you have to make it up a hill, you may as well collapse. 

But if your quads are strong and healthy, your legs will keep moving the body steadily forward, even when you reach hills or stairs. 


What Muscles Does Running Work Glutes

These large muscles in your butt are usually associated with squats. But the gluteus maximus plays a huge part in running too. 

Where the quad pushes your legs forward, the glutes raise your leg from behind the thigh. They lift the knee behind the leg after you’ve already pushed off. 

The main role of the glutes is stability for your pelvis and knees. They reduce side to side motion while you’re running, and help you push forward instead of swaying through the movement. 

If the glutes are weak, the pressure of running spreads to other areas of the body and creates an imbalance. 

Any time you have imbalanced muscles throughout your body, you create an opportunity for injury. 

Hip Flexors

What Muscles Does Running Work Hip Flexors

Normally, you don’t give a thought to taking a step forward. But so many muscle groups are involved in making that happen. You wouldn’t be able to do it without your hip flexors

They help bring your thigh toward the stomach. Hip flexors are responsible for the energy of your leg swing. They create forward and upward motion during the run. A powerful stride and speed come with strong hip flexors. 

But on the other spectrum, weakness or tightness in that area causes an exaggerated pelvic anterior tilt. What is that? It means you arch your back and stick your butt out. Again, that strains areas that should be protected and prevents you from making progress in your training program


What Muscles Does Running Work Calves

Your gastrocnemius and soleus muscles are your calves. They’re smaller than other muscles in the legs but they also shoulder the burden of lifting the leg and carrying bodyweight. They work lower in the leg, lifting the heels up and shifting your weight onto your toes. 

During running, walking, and climbing up stairs or hills, calves push your legs upward. 

Have you ever experienced swollen ankles or legs? That’s because your calves play a bit part in blood circulation. 

They pump blood from the lower legs back up to the heart. So if you’re dealing with swelling, it’s because your calves aren’t strong enough to circulate the blood. 

Because the calves are smaller than the glutes or quads, they tire out faster than other leg muscles. That can be dangerous because the calves take pressure off your Achilles tendon. 

If they’re not strong enough, more stress and pressure hit the tendons, causing tendonitis. 



Or abs, as we fondly call them. Everyone wants a strong core because everyone wants a 6-pack. Or even a 4-pack. 

But strong abs are so much more than a sexy body. Abdominals keep your posture straight. They’re the foundation of strength for your entire body. 

Strong abs allow your pelvis, hips, back, and legs all to work together smoothly. They keep you stable, preventing the body from wobbling. 

When you’re running and you hit a rock, a bump, or a small hole, your abs keep your balance, allowing you to recover from the bump in the road and keep on running.

A strong core is essential when you’re running long distances. Good posture means good running form. 

If your core is weak, it won’t keep your running form strong. That means you’ll end up pulling on your back and neck to keep you going. 

When you pull strength from the wrong places during a run, you lose muscle where it should get stronger. You put unwelcome strain on areas that need to be protected. 


What Muscles Does Running Work Hamstrings

Located on the back of your thigh, hamstrings are the force behind pushing your leg off the ground. They also control the slowing of the leg when you’re about to stop. 

So hamstrings are involved in the beginning and the end of every step of your run. 

In the meantime, they also keep your knee from collapsing when the foot hits the ground. When your reflexes are caught off guard, and you fall quickly without warning, that’s because your hamstrings didn’t get the chance to back up the knee and hold it steady. 

As the biggest muscle in the back of your thigh, they’re responsible for energy transfer to your calf. 

Are you starting to notice a pattern here? Every leg muscle is connected to another leg muscle. If one muscle group is weak, it weakens them all. 

Tips For Getting Toned Through Running

Can I Get Toned From Running? 

You can, but it’s more complicated than that. While many people successfully lose weight by running, it’s mainly a cardio exercise. But there are two things you can do that will burn more fat and build more muscle:

1. Run Faster

High-intensity workouts always burn more calories than low-intensity. 

Even though burning fat doesn’t necessarily tone your muscles, it does allow you to see the results of your workout faster. Getting rid of the fat around the muscles will show the ones you have more clearly. 

2. Run With Resistance

Face the wind when you run. Don’t shy away from hills. If you see stairs, run right up them. 

Embrace every obstacle in front of you while running. Every challenge is an opportunity to build muscle and add resistance to your workout.

It’s the sure-fire way to get stronger while running. 

How to Make the Most of Every Run

Let’s face it. Running is a lot of work.

Sure, you grow to love it and even get addicted to that runner’s high, but you have to put in the work first. 

So you may as well get the most benefits from running. What do you want to improve in your run? Endurance? Speed? Strength? 

No matter what the question, the answer is the same: crosstraining. Now that you know the muscles used in running, make the effort to strengthen them outside of the run. 

When you’ve consistently done your bodyweight workouts, fartleks, or hill sprints, you’ll finally get over that hump that’s kept you from seeing the progress you’re craving. 

If you haven’t started training for a race, that’s a great way to get more out of your run. 

Our free training plans are fully customizable, leaving room for you to plan crosstraining days every week. 

Once you set the goal and download the plan, you’ll truly commit to a scheduled improvement. 

No more haphazard starting and stopping. 

Mia Kercher

Mia Kercher

Mia Kercher is a hiker, cyclist, and runner. After finishing her first marathon in 2013, she continued the sport but found a new passion in trail running. She now explores the glorious mountains in Portland, Oregon where she works as co-founder of Evoke.

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