One of the most common complaints or initial hurdles that beginner runners have to clear as they get their bodies accustomed to running is muscle soreness.
Although excessive muscle soreness or acute muscle pain can indicate an overuse injury, mild muscle soreness after running serves as a reminder that running provides more than just a fantastic cardiovascular workout—running works numerous muscles as well.
Of course, any runner could tell you that running builds leg strength, but few runners know what muscles running works in detail.
Knowing which muscles are worked when running can potentially improve your running form by helping you actively engage the muscles you should be using when running for a more powerful and efficient stride.
Additionally, awareness and understanding of the muscles worked when running allows you to improve your strength training program because you can identify your muscle imbalances and address these relative weaknesses.
In this article, we will take a trip around the body and look at all of the muscles worked when running. We will cover:
- What Muscles Are Worked When Running?
- Here Are The Muscles Worked When Running
Let’s dive in!
What Muscles Are Worked When Running?
Most people tend to think of running as a predominantly lower-body activity. After all, your legs support your weight and propel your body forward when you run.
Indeed, the leg-strengthening benefits of running are undeniable; running strengthens all the muscle groups in your legs.
At the same time, running truly earns its designation as a total-body exercise. In addition to using the muscles in your legs, running works muscles in your core and upper body, providing a full-body workout.
Let’s look at the muscles worked when running in more detail.
Here Are The Muscles Worked When Running
There are at least 600 muscles in the body, but many of these are small muscles, such as those controlling the eye or the smooth muscles lining blood vessels and the digestive tract.
In terms of the running muscles worked, we are referring to skeletal muscles, which are those attached to bones to help move the body.
Although running uses most of the major muscles in the body, the primary groups of muscles worked when running are the glutes, quads, hip flexors, hamstrings, core muscles, and calves.
The glutes also referred to as the gluteal muscles or the gluteal muscle group, are the strong, powerful muscles in your buttocks. All three gluteal muscles: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus, are muscles worked when running.
There are also many other smaller muscles in the gluteal region, such as the piriformis, obturator muscles, and gemellus muscles, that control and stabilize the hip.
The glute muscles work together as a group to stabilize the hip and pelvis in all three planes of motion.
For example, when you land on one leg during your running stride and load your body weight onto that leg, your glutes, particularly gluteus medius, contract to keep your hips and pelvis level from side to side even though one leg is weight-bearing, and the other leg is up in the swing phase.
If you notice that the hip on your supporting side seems to drop down or that you sink into that leg when you land (known as the Trendelenburg sign), it’s a good indication that you have weakness in the gluteus medius muscle.
Perhaps more notably, the glutes play a key role in extending the leg at the hip to propel you forward when you run.
Strong glutes help drive a powerful running stride and are particularly important for helping you run uphill.
The smaller glute muscles also work to support the femur and keep the leg from collapsing in at the knee when you land. In this way, the glutes help maintain alignment between your hips, knees, and ankle during your running stride.
Finally, the glutes also work in conjunction with the core muscles to provide stability to your trunk.
The “quads” or “quad muscles” are common terms that refer to the quadriceps, a group of four muscles that run along the front of your thigh between the pelvis and knee.
This group of four muscles worked when running includes the rectus femoris, which runs down the center of the thigh from the hip to the kneecap; the vastus lateralis, which is on the outer side of the front of the thigh; the vastus medialis, which runs along the more inner section of the front of the thigh; and the vastus intermedius, which also runs down the center.
The quad muscles work together to flex the leg at the hip, extend the knee, and stabilize the knee.
The quads play numerous roles when you run, but one of their key functions is to support your body weight and prevent the knee from collapsing when you land.
Essentially, when you land on your foot (especially when running downhill), the quads are working eccentrically or lengthening as they work against the gravity and your body weight that would otherwise be trying to flex the knee.
In other words, the quads prevent your knee from buckling or collapsing under a load of your own body weight when you land.
The quads also flex the leg at the hip, which helps you drive your leg forward and up into the air for the swing phase to propel the next stride.
The quads work in opposition to the hamstrings, a group of three muscles that run down the backside of the thigh and extend the leg at the hip and flex the knee.
Runners often experience muscle imbalances between the quads and hamstrings, which can increase the risk of injury and reduce your running economy.
#3: Hip Flexors
The hip flexors refer to a group of muscles along the front of the hip and pelvis that help flex the leg.
The primary muscles in the hip flexor group are the psoas major and the iliacus (together called the iliopsoas), but the rectus femoris (one of the quad muscles), sartorius, and pectineus also are involved in hip flexion.
The hip flexors play an important role in forward movement during running because they flex the hip so that you can drive your leg forward for the next stride when transitioning from the stance phase of the gait cycle to the swing phase.
#4: Core Muscles
Core muscles refer to more than just the abs or the muscles that form your “six-pack.”
The muscles of the core include all of the muscles that help support the trunk and maintain proper pelvic, hip, and lumbar spine positioning and posture.
You use your core muscles when running because these muscles have to work together to stabilize and support the trunk and spine while the arms and legs move in opposition.
The core plays a key role in stabilizing and protecting the spine and absorbing some of the shock and load from impact from being transferred to the spine.
A strong core improves your running form by supporting an upright posture, improving your breathing mechanics, and providing a stable base of support for your arms and legs.
Core muscles worked when running include the diaphragm, rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, transversus abdominis, pelvic floor muscles, erector spinae muscles, quadratus lumborum, and multifidus muscles.
#5: Hamstring Muscles
The hamstrings are one of the main muscle groups worked when running, which is why many runners experience sore hamstrings after a hard workout or when they increase their mileage.
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles—the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris—that run along the length of the back of your thigh from their attachment at the ischial tuberosities (sit bones) at the bottom of your pelvis to the back of your knee.
The hamstrings work in opposition to the quads on the front of your thigh.
When you run, your hamstrings play a pivotal role in the transition between the stance phase (when you’re weight-bearing on the leg) and the swing phase (when you drive the leg forward up into the air).
In this role, the hamstrings work with the glutes to extend the leg at your hip when you push off and propel yourself forward for the next stride.
They also allow you to bend your knee during this leg drive in order to clear the group and move forward.
The hamstrings are also activated at ground contact, where they slow down the forward movement of your lower leg and prevent your knee from hyperextending when your quads contract.
The calf muscles, or calves, are technically called the gastrocnemius muscles. These muscles are found behind the lower leg, running from the back of the knee down to where they taper and connect to the heel in the Achilles tendon.
There are two distinct muscles that form what we typically refer to as the calves: the two-headed gastrocnemius, which is the larger muscle, and the soleus.
The stronger of the two, the gastrocnemius, helps flex the knee and plantarflex the ankle (like standing up on tiptoes).
The soleus is a smaller, thinner muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius. It helps plantarflex the foot and stabilizes the tibia when you run so that your shin remains upright.
Together, running uses the muscles in the calves when you land on your foot during several points in the gait cycle.
The calves absorb the impact when you land on your feet and help decelerate your leg so that you don’t collapse from forward momentum. They also play a vital role in propelling your leg forward as you drive your leg up between the stance phase and swing phase.
#7: Upper Body Muscles
Although the muscles worked by running are dominated by those in the lower body and core, running also uses upper body muscles.
Muscles in your arms (biceps and triceps), shoulders (deltoids and rotator cuff muscles), chest (pectoralis muscles), and upper back (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and rhomboids) are worked when you drive your arms for the arm swing and to support an upright posture with your chest up and shoulders back.
Your arm swing not only provides propulsive force but also helps balance and stabilize the body.
As can be seen, running truly is a total-body exercise because it works most of the major muscles in the body.
Make sure you’re also doing your strength training workouts to correct any muscle imbalances and ensure you are able to effectively activate all the muscles you need for optimal form over the duration of your run.
For some help to get started, check out our strength training for runners guide.