What muscles do you use when running?

Oliver Willis explains which muscles you work and use when going out for a run

runner using muscles

The main muscles that are working the most when you run are your quads, hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles.


Running also works and tones your core muscles (these are basically the muscles of your torso, from the pelvis to the shoulder, and include the abdominal, lower back, buttock, pelvis and hip muscles), to keep your spine aligned as you run. Running is an effective core workout, thanks to the consistent spinal rotation that occurs when your arms and legs come forward with each stride. Run on uneven surfaces to further challenge them.

Strong core muscles also increase stability and help maintain good form throughout. It is therefore worth working on your core away from running as a strong core can help the main running muscles work at their optimum efficiency.

Running also requires you to swing your arms which works and tones the biceps and triceps.

Endurance running helps aid the development and efficiency of slow twitch muscle fibres, so their aerobic capabilities improve and they become more resistant to fatigue.

When you run as a triathlete, your hip muscles have greater demand placed on them, compared to your leg muscles, causing them to fatigue quicker. The importance of hip strength, particularly the ‘glutes’ has become more well known, yet most triathletes don’t focus on training this, despite research stating that poorer hip strength is related to: - Increased risk of injuries - Poorer running mechanics and performance What are your hip muscles? The main muscle groups in the hip are your gluteals, hamstrings, adductors, psoas muscles and the anterior core (consisting of multiple abdominal muscles), while the three main ligaments are the illiofemoral, pubofemoral, ischiofemoral. What's the difference between muscles, tendons and ligaments? Which muscles do I use when running and cycling up hills? What muscles do you use when running? Running biomechanics: What are the different stages of your run stride? Your hip muscles play a major role in maintaining an efficient body position when you run. In particular as you run, your gluteal and hamstring muscles help to extend your hip, alongside controlling rotation and inward movement here. Essentially, reducing a lot of the undesirable running techniques characteristic of poorer run performance. But why can improving this aspect help you as a triathlete? Why strong hips can help prevent injuries We all want to minimise our time out injured as triathletes, so its valuable knowing there is extensive evidence showing weaknesses in certain hip muscles are linked to common injuries. For example, runners who had iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome were illustrated to have poorer strength in the muscles which prevent the knee and hip ‘rolling and turning in’ during running (Freidricson et al. 2000). Also, those with weaker muscles which extend the hip were reported to be at greater risk of kneecap pain (Souza and Powers, 2009). Hip pain: diagnosis and causes Consequently, you as a triathlete can minimise your risk of sustaining common injuries, by improving the strength of muscles which extend the hip and prevent inward motion. Interestingly, it has even been suggested that female’s have a greater demand placed on their gluteal muscles which creates an even greater risk of adopting poorer running mechanics compared to males (e.g. inward motion of the hip and knee) (Wilson et al. 2012). Therefore, the benefits of this training are not only limited to certain triathlon populations or abilities, everyone can benefit. How strong hips can improve your run performance Links between the strength of your hips and your running performance have been shown. For example, greater hip strength was associated with maintaining a more superior stride length when running (Hayes et al. 2004). Also, if you increase your hip strength, you are more likely to avoid undesirable run mechanics which are associated with less efficient running, including hip drop, over striding and excess toe or heel striking. There are not just benefits to running. Performing lower body strength training each week, which includes exercises to train hip muscles, is also linked to greater power outputs and time trial performance in cycling over various distances (Mujika et al. 2015). How can you strengthen your hips? Resistance training is the best method of building hip strength, particularly exercises which focus on extending, rotating and pushing out your hip. However, a current problem in triathlon strength and conditioning is the lack of information and understanding of how to do this practically. For example, by only seeing the above movements in isolation, creates strength programmes often with excess numbers of exercises and therefore repetitions/volume. This is critical as excessive volume increases the likeliness of significant delayed muscle soreness, in addition to unnecessarily lengthy training sessions. The breakthrough comes from understanding the movements and muscles noted above, can be trained at once. Particularly during single leg exercises you’re competent at performing. For example: - Split squat - Single leg squat - Reverse lunge That said, we do commonly find in triathletes, certain muscles or movements can be such a weak link in the overall movement of running, that they do need specific isolation. This is where strength exercises to isolate the gluteal muscles can work well, for example: - Crab walks - Cook hip lifts Equally also for the hamstring, examples being: - Single leg hamstring slide outs - Single leg Romanian deadlifts Evidence clearly shows the value of engaging in strength training as a triathlete to improve running and other elements of performance, alongside maximising your availability to train with quality via less injuries. The need to be able to do this in a focused manner, using exercises which address all aspects is a key factor when as triathletes, training time is limited, alongside our want to minimise fatigue from training. Like with any health issue, if you have any concerns at all, seek medical advice from a qualified medical practitioner, whether that’s a doctor or physiotherapist. Dave Cripps is the director of TriTenacious, a leading online strength and conditioning resource for triathletes, and Coalition Performance. He holds both BSc and MSc degrees in sport and exercise science and is a fully accredited strength and conditioning coach by the UK Strength and Conditioning Association. He’s worked professionally as a strength and conditioning coach for over a decade, in over 20 sports at both world class and amateur levels, including triathlon, cycling, running and swimming.
A schematic showing some of the skeletal muscles of man. The schematic was based on an image in the book “The human body” by Linda Gamlin
(Licensed under Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Skeletal_muscles_homo_sapiens. JPG)