Elite runners are not often associated with muscle. They are usually superwaifs – the vision of the wild-eyed and skeletal Mo Farah sprinting for glory is an enduring one.
There seems to be nothing to him as he glides over the ground on his way to another medal. The same is true of other distance runners like Paula Radcliffe and Kilian Jornet.
Reduce the distance, increase the muscle mass seems to the law as we look at successful 1,500m runners like Laura Muir, all the way down to the body-builderesque sprinters like Justin Gatlin.
But what is the role of running in building this muscle?
Essentially, running is usually an aerobic activity, which means the oxygen consumption is enough to fuel the demands put on the muscles. You have to get to sprinting before it truly becomes an anaerobic exercise during which oxygen consumption far outweighs the use.
However, that doesn’t mean that running does not build muscle; it does. The reason that Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe looks the way they do (or Chris Froome if you want to switch sports), is that they choose to.
They do huge amounts of aerobic activity and balance their nutrition to keep themselves as lean as possible as every kilo on the frame makes long distance exercise that bit harder.
What muscles are built from running?
The calves are the muscles that most people think of as being most effected by running and while they will certainly grow, there are other muscles that will be equally impacted.
These include the quadriceps – the muscle on the front of the thigh, the hamstrings on the backs of the thighs, the gluteals in the buttocks, the Hip Flexors, which work when your thighs move toward your stomach, the abs, the tibialis anterior on the front of the shins, and the poroneals on the side of the shins.
That is a lot of muscles that get worked out. Others in the upper body, such as around the shoulders, will be less effected but will still grow, which is why it is important to keep good form so that you develop all muscles evenly.
Is this why runners look so muscular?
Yes and no. Some runners will look particularly ripped and certainly their muscles have been fine-tuned but that aerobic exercise has also trimmed the fat away from over the muscles to leave them looking lean and mean. You can read more about burning fat here.
US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine also conducted a lengthy study into cardio activity’s ability to build muscle and concluded that it produced more growth hormone than classic strength training, and growth hormone is what promotes increase in muscle.
However, you do have to work those muscles to get the growth hormone to take effect so some press-ups, shoulder presses and bicep curls would be required to get the upper body in shape.
Can I look like Wonder Woman or Captain America from running alone?
Sorry, but no. You will have to do some serious core and upper body work to get in that kind of shape.
The good news is that those kinds of exercises are also very likely to improve your running technique and your endurance as you become less likely to slump into a poor form towards the end of a long race.