What Muscles Does Running Work?

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on 4 May 2023
Expert Content

Running is a great form of exercise that has many benefits.

But have you ever wondered exactly which muscles running works the most?

We asked a selected group of experts to deliver their insight into the groups of muscles that running is most beneficial for.

We also asked them to share any other things to bear in mind when it comes to this popular form of exercise, such as whether running on a treadmill works the same muscles as running outdoors.

Here’s what they said.

Running Works Most Muscles, Especially The Lower Body And Core

Jordan Duncan, Owner of Silverdale Sport and Spine

Running is an activity that works most muscles, especially in the lower body and core.

If you have ever gone for a run after a prolonged period of time away from running, you know firsthand (especially the next day) that there aren’t too many muscles which aren’t targeted during running, primarily in the lower extremities.

I will highlight a couple muscle groups which are important for both novice and experienced runners, since they help prevent injury as well as improve performance.

The gluteus maximus, the largest muscle buttock muscle, plays a significant role in driving the body forward during running and promoting good posture.

Unfortunately, a lot of people rely more on their thigh muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings) rather than their gluteus maximus when running.

This is termed a ‘thigh dominant’ strategy as opposed to the more optimal ‘hip dominant’ strategy.

Thigh dominant runners, who rely more on their quadriceps and hamstrings than their glutes, tend to overstride and adopt a forward inclination of their torso when running.

Therefore, it is common to see runners with overdeveloped thigh muscles and underdeveloped gluteal muscles.

Because of this, many training programs incorporate strength training for the gluteus maximus.

Good cues for runners, especially beginner runners, include keeping your torso upright and landing with your foot as close to your body as you can while striding.

Both of these tips help reinforce proper gluteal muscle activation, which can improve running performance and decrease the risk of injury.

The muscles that control the toes, primarily those which push the toes down, are very important for runners. These muscles are located under calf muscles, termed the long toe flexors, and in the bottom of the foot, termed the short toe flexors.

They serve to provide stability to the foot when it pushes off the ground during running, as well as to take stress off of the plantar fascia, Achilles tendon, and the long bones of the foot.

Faster runners are able to apply a greater force through their toes, making these muscles very important in performance.

Toe muscles are often neglected in training programs, where the focus tends to be on the larger muscles of the lower extremity, however building toe strength can be of great benefit to runners.

Man Running

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Running Focuses Mainly On The Muscles In The Lower Body

Dan Chojnacki, Wisconsin-based Personal Trainer With QuickQuote.com

Running is a great form of cardiovascular exercise that focuses mainly on the muscles in the lower body.

Other muscles need to be engaged in order to maximize benefit and reduce injury risk, but it is the muscles in the legs that propel the movement.

To start with, the hip flexor muscles are responsible for your legs moving in a forward and backward motion.

As you begin to take each stride, several more muscles come into play. When you push off of your front foot, your quadriceps muscles engage due to the extension of your knee joint.

As the stride continues and your lead foot is beginning to move behind you, your calf muscles engage more strongly due to the extension of the ankle joint.

When the stride is finishing and your foot is now elevating behind you, your hamstrings are engaging due to the flexion at the knee joint.

All of these muscles, with help from the glutes and core, contribute to proper running form.

The speed and distance you run does not affect which muscles you use, however, it can affect which type of muscle fibers you are using.

Our bodies contain slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers, and each is used for a different purpose.

Slow twitch muscle fibers are used for long endurance events. So, if you are running for a long time or for a lot of miles, your slow twitch fibers will predominantly be used.

Fast twitch fibers are used for short powerful bursts, like sprinting. So, if you are running in a sprint or interval type program, you will use more fast twitch muscle fibers.

There are many benefits to running including cardiovascular endurance, stress relief, and weight management.

It is a great addition to any fitness routine and can be either a primary training focus or a supplemental form of exercise.

Woman Running

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Why Running On Mother Earth Is Better Than Running On Treadmills

Len Lopez, Nutrition and Fitness Expert

Running basically uses four groups of muscles in the body.

The quadriceps and hip flexors are needed to extend your leg forward and allow for your lead foot to contact the ground

The hamstrings and hip extensors (your butt muscles) are the muscles that propel you down the road, after your foot makes contact with the ground.

The problem for running on treadmills instead of Mother Earth is that you never use your hamstrings and butt muscles.

This is because the belt automatically pulls your leg back and doesn’t require your gluteus maximus and hamstrings to contract, thus you never firm up the back side of your body.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some benefits to running on a treadmill.

But if you want to get aerobically fit and firm-up your rear-end, it is better to run outside on Mother Earth, so you can use and contract the muscles on your back side.

Running Race

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Anything Else To Consider?

Running is considered to be an excellent form of cardiovascular exercise that can bring a whole host of benefits.

In general, running works the muscles in your lower body more than anything else, but it is also considered to be a ‘full body’ type of workout which has many benefits beyond just fitness.

If you’re just getting into running or are thinking about starting, it may be worth speaking to a certified professional, such as a personal trainer, to get their advice on how to get the most out of your training.

For example, a personal trainer may be able to help you ensure that your technique while running is correct, while also suggesting a range of strength exercises that can help condition the muscles predominantly used during running.

It is worth focusing on your posture and technique during running, as in the long term they can both make a big difference to how you perform.

One of the main potential downsides of running is that it can increase your chances of suffering an injury.

However, if you are sensible with your workouts and plan your training in the right way, it’s possible to get the very best out of your running sessions without getting injured.

If you’re looking to improve your running technique and speed, be sure to check out our separate article focused entirely on how to control your breathing while running. The breathing technique you use while running is an important aspect of the activity which is often overlooked.

Wrapping Things Up – Final Thoughts

So perhaps unsurprisingly, we’ve revealed that running predominantly works the leg muscles.

The gluteus maximus plays a big role in helping to drive the body forward during running. The quadriceps, hamstrings and calves are all also used during running. To a lesser extent, running also works your core and other parts of your body.

If you’re looking for a great cardio workout that focuses on the lower body and core, then running could be a great option for you.

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