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7 Types Of Muscles Groups Running Activates

As we run, many different muscles work throughout the body, and running helps to strengthen and tone our muscles.

It’s not a replacement for strength training, but it will really help us to get muscle definition and power that allows us to move through life with ease and live longer.

Why We Should Focus On Our Muscles

  • Improve our running form (think posture and stride)

  • Improve our running technique (think speed and efficiency)

  • Improve our running endurance

  • Eliminate common running injuries

  • Maximize our race day performance

And while running focuses largely on our legs, it’s hitting all our major muscle groups including our core and upper body muscles.

What Muscles Does Running Activates

As human beings we are made to run.

Running has two key phases that influence how each muscle is activated.

  • Swing Phase: Moving the leg forward and up

  • Foot Strike Phase: Creating power off the ground

These two phases make up the gait cycle. The swing is when our foot is in the air, and our foot strike or stance is the phase when our foot is on the ground. And none of our muscles work alone.

This is why having a weakness, tightness, or muscle imbalance can affect our stride.

What Each Muscle Does While Running And How To Prevent Injuries.

1. Quadriceps

The quads are often one of the most overworked muscles in runners. Quads are a group of four muscles that run along the front of our thighs between the pelvis and knee.

These four muscles that running uses, include the rectus femoris and the vastus lateralis. The rectus femoris runs down the centre of the thigh from the hip to the kneecap, while the vastus lateralis is on the outer side of the front of the thigh.

The other two muscles are the vastus medialis and the vastus intermedius. The vastus medialis runs along the inner part of the front of the thigh, and the vastus intermedius runs down the middle of the front of the thigh.

These muscles are a key part of bringing our leg forward and assisting in the knee drive during the swing phase of the leg swing.

They also help us run downhill and protect the body while working against gravity and our body weight.

Weak glutes and tight hip flexors mean that the quads start to take on too much of the running load. This often results in runner’s knee and fatigue in distance running. Our glutes need to activate to support our running form.


  • Stop Overstriding (learn to land under your body)

  • Learn how to activate your glutes

2. Hip Flexors

Combined with the quadriceps are the hip flexor muscles which are a group of muscles that connect the pelvis to the quadriceps providing a key muscle in moving forward and stabilizing our body.

There are three main muscles that make up our hip flexors, the iliopsoas, psoas major, and iliacus, these run along the front of the hip. The rectus femoris that makes up part of the quads also help in hip flexion.

During the foot strike phase, they help our feet push off as they flex and extend while we run, we should drive our leg forward for the next stride and assist while we transition from the foot strike phase to the swing phase.

Hip flexors run into two common issues:

  • Tightness that inhibits the glutes

  • Weakness that limits leg swing power

If our hip flexors are weak that can cause low back pain, groin pain while running, IT Band syndrome, and even shin splints.


  • Hip Flexor Stretches- try performing some each day.

  • Glute Bridges for total hip strength- do this pre or post- running.

  • Bird Dog Movement (stability ball strengthen more the core)- do this pre or post running.

3. Hamstring Muscles

On the back side of the thigh is our hamstring, this muscle is the powerhouse for pushing off the ground and preventing the knee from hyper-extending during this movement.

We get so focused on the knee drive, that we often forget about the power that comes from the quick ground push-off.

If we’re planning to run faster and more efficiently, having strong hamstrings is key.

Many women are quad-dominant which makes our quadriceps overcompensate. This is why it’s essential for all runners, and especially women, to work on strengthening their hamstrings and increasing the range of motion.


  • Stop overstriding- this places more work on the hamstrings

  • Hamstring curl with stability ball- improve muscle strength

  • Resolve hamstring pain or tightness

  • Perform Best Post Run Stretches

4. Calves

Located in the lower leg, the calves take on a lot of load during each stride of the run. They consist of two main muscles, the gastrocnemius and the soleus right underneath it.

The muscle that runs down the front of our shin is called the tibialis anterior, which helps lift the heels off the ground during the swing phase.

The calf is part of absorbing the impact through our foot, then lifting the heel to push onto our toes and power off the ground. Our calves may lift our heel up to 1000 times per kilometres.

Our calf muscles will fatigue faster than other muscles due to their size, which is why it’s not uncommon to have calf cramps for running or tightness if our form is wrong. Also, any weakness in this area can lead to ankle or Achilles tendon pain or even shin splints. And when our hip flexors are tight or we have weak glutes, our calves will overcompensate for them.


  • Stop running on your toes and overtaxing the calves

  • Stretch calves after runs

  • Calf raises on a stair or holding weight exercises- 1- 2 times per week

  • Improve your shin strength

5. Glutes

The glutes are a primary force in injury-free running. They are made up of three muscles, the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus.

All three are important for helping to raise our leg during the swing, push off the ground and stabilize our hips to prevent knee, ankle, and hip pain.

These muscles also work together as a group to help stabilize the hips and pelvis in all three planes of motion.

Weak glutes lead to many problems and are one of the most common issues that affect running injuries.

When our glutes are weak they allow our knee to fall inward during every step of our run which leads to knee pain or ankle pain.

We should not ignore them in our strength training or our warm-up routine. Having strong glutes can assist us in having a powerful stride and even help us when running uphill.


  • Continue with the glute activation exercises

  • Resistance Band exercises for hips and glutes

  • Use a PT ball to release tight glute muscles

  • Do more incline walking or running to force glute work

6. Core Muscles

If we think our legs are doing all the work then we’re missing strong muscles that will power in running. Our core muscles are more than just about having six-pack abs.

A strong core will improve our speed and prevent all kinds of pain. Core muscles worked when running include the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, pelvic floor muscles, and also diaphragm.

Since our core is essentially our entire torso, it allows our body to work efficiently together. They stabilize and support the torso and spine while you’re running.

Having a strong core not only improves our running form by helping with our posture, but also improves breathing mechanics, and helps provide a stable base for our arms and legs..


  • Consistently include core workouts

  • Use a dynamic warm up to ensure muscles are engaged and firing

  • Work on not swinging arms across the body while running

  • Think about engaging the core when running hard, do not keep your abs tight during all runs

· Learn exactly what muscles are involved in your core

Can We Get Abs From Running?

Yes, but not just by running more distance or more runs.

There’s actually a process that’s going to make abs from running more likely:


  • Strength training with heavy weights

  • Consistent core workouts (even with weights)

  • Running sprints and intervals

  • Less distance running (too much running increases cortisol which leads to belly fat)

7. Upper Body Muscles

Even though running primarily works the lower body, our upper body also plays a significant role in the whole process. Upper body helps us drive forward and our arms move while running.

They help build momentum and maintain pace. The upper body muscles that are most involved in running include the latissimus dorsi, deltoids, and shoulders.

Strength training for runners allows us to maintain good posture as our fatigue over long kilimetres, stabilize the core, and find power on our uphill.

It’s not working our muscles like a bicep curl, but if our muscles are weak and begin to fatigue then that will mentally work against us


  • Strength train at least twice a week while base building

  • Alternate between heavy weights for muscle building and light weights for endurance

  • Work on posture correcting exercises while working all day

A strong arm swing means we can power uphills better and a strong back means we maintain form as our fatigue, so running is not just focused on the legs.

Running is a full body exercises which is one of the reasons it can be useful when people are looking to get stronger, healthier and lose weight.

Strengthen And Stabilize All Your Running Muscles, Feel Good And Strong, No Injuries, And Enjoy Great Runs!


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