You’re not alone if you’re wondering: “Does running build leg muscle?” or “Does running build or break down muscle?”
The fact is stronger legs help to boost running performance, delay tiredness and fatigue and boost your running confidence.
So working on and building your strength as a runner is essential.
The good news is that running can be adapted to suit your own unique set of fitness needs and goals.
If your goal is to build strength, then you need to be focusing on other activities such as strength training as well as running.
So what is the best form of running for building muscle in your legs, and what are some of the best strength exercises for runners to accelerate muscle growth?
In this guide we’ll explore:
- Benefits of running for your body
- How running affects your muscles
- Does running build leg muscle?
- How long does it take to build leg muscle from running?
- How to build leg muscle: 4 leg workouts for runners
Benefits of running for your body
There’s no doubt that running has lots of benefits for your body and physical and mental well-being.
Running helps to:
- Improve cardiovascular fitness
- Lower blood pressure
- Improve heart health
- Increase bone density
- Burn calories
- Aid with weight loss
- Increase muscular endurance and strength
- Boost confidence and mood
To experience these benefits, you need to be running consistently and progressing at regular intervals.
This means forming a regular running habit that is suited not only for your fitness goals, but for your lifestyle and running experience too.
Running by its very nature is a form of sustained physical activity.
As such it’s great for improving your cardiovascular fitness.
A key indicator of cardiovascular fitness is your heart’s ability to deliver oxygen to your working muscles.
This is closely linked to your heart health and cardiac conditioning.
Running is also great for burning calories and aiding with weight loss.
Related: 7 of the best running workouts to build endurance, strength and speed
How running affects your leg muscles
Running is considered a high impact sport.
Every time you take a step forward, your glutes, hamstrings, quads and calf muscles work together against gravity to propel your body forward.
Stress is put on the muscles in your legs which creates tiny micro tears in your muscles.
After a run or workout, your body will work to repair these tears and it is through this process that your muscles gradually become stronger.
For this reason, you may feel muscle soreness and stiffness after a run – also called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Whilst some soreness is to be expected after a run, it’s important you take the necessary protocols such as cooling down and stretching to prevent excessive soreness and injury.
Related: What does running do for your body? 10 benefits of running
Does running build leg muscle?
The simple answer: Yes.
Running is good for building muscle in your legs.
But when it comes to building strength and muscle gain, it really depends on the type of running that you’re doing.
In other words, the intensity and duration of your runs matter.
When it comes to intensity, various approaches have been discussed in the running community over the years.
There’s no right or wrong answer, but what we do know is that performing exercise at a range of different intensity levels has the most benefit.
In other words, you shouldn’t focus solely on low intensity exercise as you won’t see any muscle gains in the long term.
Studies have shown that high intensity training like interval training helps to build muscle compared with low intensity running alone.
A study of 30 male amateur runners, for example, found that of those 30 runners who ran long distances had the highest levels of muscle protein breakdown, causing significant muscle damage.
This is because low intensity running like long distance running can inhibit muscle growth.
High intensity activities like interval training and hill sprints will help to counteract muscle loss.
The key takeaway? If you want to build muscle, you must be doing high intensity, short duration running alongside low intensity efforts.
Related: How to get thicker thighs: 5 game-changing leg workouts
How long does it take to build leg muscle from running?
The amount of muscle you are able to build is highly dependent on a number of factors, including:
- How often you train
- How intensively you train
- Your diet
- Your genetics
General guidelines tell us that it takes between 3 to 4 weeks to witness any noticeable difference in muscle gain.
At the end of this guide, you will find 4 workouts that are great for building muscle.
In the meantime, more on these areas below.
How often you train
You need to be training consistently at least 3 to 4 times a week if your goal is to build muscle.
As we mentioned before, the focus on these sessions should be high intensity training, interspersed with low intensity training like easy efforts.
And remember to include rest days in your weekly routine – these are just as important as training itself.
How intensively you train
Studies have suggested that muscle-building capabilities of runners are associated with shorter distances run at a faster pace.
So if you stick with low intensity training for the majority of the time, you are unlikely to see the desired gains.
Aim to include 1 to 3 high intensity sessions in your training plan each week. This could be in the form of interval training, hill sprints or strength training.
You should also be following a healthy, balanced diet with a focus on protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats.
If you’re a long distance runner you’ll know the importance of carbohydrates and of processes like carb loading before a run.
When it comes to muscle gain, you’ll need to shift your focus slightly away from carbohydrates.
While it’s still important to include carbs in your diet, aim to consume more protein-rich foods, especially after a run or workout.
Protein is a building block of life and it is an essential macronutrient to build and repair muscles.
As with most things, your genetics play a large part when determining how fast you can gain muscle and keep it.
Your genetics impact everything in fitness and performance, including muscle strength.
Some runners, for example, have genes that allow them to develop the muscle fibres required for high intensity exercise much more efficiently – which gives them an advantage over runners whose genes are more suited to low intensity exercise.
Related: Does running make your butt bigger? 20 butt building exercises
How to build leg muscle: 4 muscle-building workouts for runners
As we mentioned earlier, to build leg muscle, you need to combine low and high intensity training.
High intensity training should be the focus of your training plan, with low intensity efforts sprinkled in between.
Let’s look at some examples of high intensity training that are good for building leg muscle:
#1 Interval training
Interval training is short bursts of running intermixed with periods of walking or jogging.
These types of runs will push you out of your comfort zone and should be done at 80% to 90% of your maximal effort.
An example interval training session could look like this:
- 30 seconds of sprinting
- 2 minutes light jogging
- Repeat 10 times
#2 Hill sprints
Does running build leg muscle? Hill sprints are also one of the most effective ways to build leg muscle.
On a flat surface, your body is working against gravity to propel your body forward. On a hill your body has to work twice as hard to reach the top, meaning more muscle gains.
Find a steep hill near you and sprint up it for 20 to 30 seconds.
Once you finish, walk back down the hill and repeat.
An example hill sprinting session could look like this:
- 30 seconds of uphill sprinting
- Walk back down the hill
- Repeat 10 times
#3 Treadmill running
You may be wondering: “Does running on a treadmill build leg muscle?”
The answer is yes!
Treadmill running is so versatile when it comes to improving your running performance.
You can change the variables of your run – speed, distance, incline – in a matter of seconds.
Running on an incline mimics hill running so has positive impacts for your strength.
Interval training is also made simple on a treadmill as you can pre-program the intervals into the treadmill then off you go.
#4 Strength training
Strength training is essential for any runner looking to improve their strength and build muscle.
Running is a high impact sport and can take a toll on your muscles and joints, so it’s important you take the measures to keep your bones, joints and muscles strong.
It also helps to significantly reduce the risk of injury and improve your running form and economy.
Runners that perform strength training consistently alongside their running report better race times and fewer injuries.
One study looking at the effects of strength training on performance indicators in distance runners found that 40 weeks of strength training can significantly improve:
- maximal and reactive strength
- running economy
- VO2 Max
You may be wondering: “What is strength training?”
Exercise that involves the use of resistance – either in the form of your own bodyweight or weights like dumbbells and ankle weights – can be classified as strength training.
Here are some sample strength exercises that are great for building leg muscle:
- Goblet squat
- Romanian deadlift
- Dumbbell lunge
- Box step up
- Bulgarian split squat
- Calf raises
- Side lunge
- Curtsy lunge
- Banded donkey kick
- Banded glute bridge
Related: Strength exercises for runners: 7 exercises to do everyday + 3 bonus workouts