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If You’re Thinking of Swapping Leg Day for a Run, Can Running Help Build Leg Muscle?

Even if you haven’t taken up running yet, chances are you’ve heard stories of races and challenging training runs from someone you know who loves running. One thing you might have noticed is that runners tend to have well-developed leg muscles.

The miles of training that runners put in help to strengthen the lower body, focusing on muscles like the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

But, does running actually contribute to enhancing leg muscle? What if you’re considering replacing your leg workout at the gym with a run? Will your legs still see improvement? To get some answers, we consulted with Mindy Solkin, a running coach certified at USATF level 2 and the founder of The Running Center.

Comparing Running to Resistance Training

While running does help to tone the muscles, it may not be the most efficient method for building leg muscle. Conventional resistance training routines that involve exercises like squats, deadlifts, step-ups, and glute bridges tend to be more effective, especially when using weights such as dumbbells. This is because running primarily relies on your body weight, whereas lifting weights adds an extra load that better targets the muscles, initiating muscle protein synthesis, which is crucial for muscle growth.

Due to the repetitive nature of running, it can lead to uneven strength distribution among muscles, with some muscles working harder than others. Solkin advises incorporating strength training exercises that engage the opposing muscle groups in order to ensure a balanced development of all leg muscles.

“It’s essential to strengthen opposing muscles in coordination with each other,” she explains. “For example, when performing calf raises to target the gastrocnemius muscle, the runner should also include exercises for the anterior tibialis muscle (located in the front of the lower leg) to establish a well-rounded lower leg strength, reducing the risk of injuries.”

Can Running Alone Boost Leg Strength?

If you’re considering whether solely engaging in running is enough to enhance your leg strength, Solkin suggests that the answer hinges on your objectives. In simpler terms, strong for what? Strong enough for a marathon? Strong enough to squat a certain weight? Strong enough for everyday activities?

It’s important to note that the leg strength you develop through running is influenced by factors like the terrain you run on, the duration and frequency of your runs, your running speed, and your body weight. “A person running three times a week on a flat course at a moderate pace won’t achieve the same leg strength as someone running six times a week on hilly terrain at a faster pace,” Solkin points out.

The type of running activities also impacts whether your training primarily enhances muscular endurance or strength/power. “Marathon runners, with their long hours of running, develop stamina, which is the result of prolonged strength application,” Solkin explains. “In contrast, sprinters, with their short bursts of running, focus on generating power through rapid and forceful muscle contractions.”

Regardless of the running regimen you follow, integrating strength training exercises can help enhance your running performance, prevent injuries, and cultivate a more powerful stride. These strength workouts need not be overly intense. For instance, Solkin has devised Runditioning, a strength and conditioning program tailored for runners. “Many of the exercises involve balancing on one leg on a balance board while the other leg alternates forward and backward movements, mimicking the running motion. This ‘one-legged running’ approach enhances balance, stability, and strength in each leg independently.”

One crucial point to remember: While runners often focus on the strength of their legs, it’s equally vital to not neglect the rest of the body. “While the legs and core play a significant role, it’s important to ensure your arms are strong as well,” Solkin emphasizes. “Strong arms contribute to your form and also assist in climbing hills with more efficiency, relieving some of the strain from the legs.”

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