- Running does build muscle as long as you are constantly challenging yourself.
- Running primarily builds muscles in the lower body like your glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
- To build muscle while running, be sure to fuel yourself with carbohydrates and proteins both before and after your workout.
- This article was medically reviewed by Audrey Springer, RRCA certified running coach, BS in Exercise Science, and fitness instructor at Relentless Runners in Knoxville, TN.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
While most people associate building muscle with strength training, it is possible to build muscle while running if you follow the right training and nutrition plan.
And that’s great news if you don’t like lifting weights because building muscle has a ton of health benefits. It strengthens your bones, increases your metabolism, manages chronic conditions, and makes it easier to do everyday tasks.
Here’s what you need to know about how to build muscle while running and become stronger.
How is muscle built?
Building muscle boils down to a simple equation: “stress plus recovery equals adaptation,” says Michael Jordan, DPT, sports physical therapist at MovementX in Alexandria, Virginia.
Stress occurs whenever you work your body harder than it’s used to — like when you hit the pavement while running, lift weights, or work against gravity via bodyweight exercises.
Undergoing physical stress during exercise breaks down tissues in your muscles, which prompts your body to build them back stronger than before.
Recovery is also necessary to give your muscles time to rebuild and become stronger. If you don't give your muscles time to recover it can make you feel sore and unable to perform as well during exercise.
Recovery can mean rest, or it can include low impact workouts like walking or light jogging, says Jordan. If muscles are given the time to recover a couple of days per week, they will adapt to physical stress and become stronger.
Does running build muscles?
Running is one way to build muscle since the repeated impact of your body on the pavement acts as a form of stress. Running mainly works lower body muscles, from your hips down to your feet.
"Your glutes and your calves are really your powerhouse[s] to push force into the ground," Jordan says. Running also engages your hip flexors and hamstrings, particularly when you are speeding up and increasing your strides per minute.
Different types of runs work different types of muscle fibers. There are two types of skeletal muscular fibers in the body: slow-twitch muscle fibers and fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Slow-twitch fibers are those that support longer, continuous exercises like long-distance running. They do not fatigue as easily as fast-twitch.
Meanwhile, fast-twitch muscle fibers support movements that require quicker and more powerful bouts of force. These are the muscles you build when doing sprints or hill runs. They also fatigue more quickly.
It's good to work both of these muscles as a runner because they will help you improve your running distance, endurance, and speed.
How to build muscles through running
Since running is a repetitive exercise, its potential for building muscle can be limited if you do not change up your training plan. So, in order to keep strengthening your muscles, you need to continuously challenge yourself.
In some cases, if you consistently run the same distance at the same heart rate, Jordan says you can actually lose muscle.
In order to become stronger while running, it is important to incorporate different types of runs, each of which works different muscle fibers. For example, strictly long-distance runners may want to incorporate high resistance runs, intervals, and sprints to switch up their routine and build muscle.
Here are some examples of runs to build muscle according to Jordan:
- High resistance interval running: Run with resistance (either on an incline or using a weighted object) for five to 12 seconds, and then switch to 60 seconds of active rest (either walking or jogging). Repeat this pattern 10 to 20 times.
- High-intensity continuous training: Run with high resistance at a low speed continuously for five to 20 minutes.
- Sprint intervals: Sprint for 15 to 30 seconds, then rest for one to two minutes. Repeat this pattern 10 times.
- Long-distance runs: Run at a continuous pace for 1 to 2 hours. This can help you build slow-twitch muscle fibers.
- Recovery runs: Jog or walk for 30 minutes. It's important to incorporate recovery runs to give your muscles a break to repair themselves.
While each person's running schedule may look different, the key to building muscle is ensuring you are pushing yourself and mixing up the types of runs you do. Runners may also want to consider incorporating weight training to further increase muscle mass, Jordan says.
The optimal nutrition for building muscle
Nutrition is important to help you build muscle and get the most out of your workouts. Running — especially distance running — burns a lot of calories, so it's important to eat adequate amounts of nutritious foods to fuel your body and build muscle.
Consuming healthy carbohydrates like brown rice and sweet potatoes before running can help ensure you have enough energy.
Meanwhile, protein-rich options like poultry, fish, eggs, and tofu are great post-run foods that can help rebuild those broken down muscle fibers. In particular, eating protein-rich foods within 15 minutes of exercise will help you restore the calories you've lost and build your muscle.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends eating 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight to gain muscle. So, for a 150-pound person, that equates to 75 to 120 grams of protein per day.
The bottom line
Since running is a repetitive exercise, it is important to constantly challenge yourself and mix up your runs to keep getting stronger. Work in some interval runs — both high resistance and sprints — with your regular jogs, and eat a healthy, balanced diet to get the best results.
Related articles from Health Reference:
- What to eat before a run, according to a dietitian and personal trainer
- 7 ways to run faster, according to expert running coaches
- What muscles running works — and how to prevent injury in them
- 9 tips to run properly, and why your running form matters
- Is running bad for you? The pros and cons of running