Although running is a total body workout, you primarily use your core and lower body muscles. It is important that these key muscles remain strong and healthy as they are responsible for the stability, form and alignment of the spine, all of which allow you to perform at your best with maximum efficiency.
Understanding how each muscle works can help improve your running form, technique and performance. Keeping these muscles balanced and working together in harmony will also help you prevent injury.
In this article, we take a closer look at the muscles used when running.
A strong and stable core is the basis for a healthy body and for most movements and activities. Located in your torso and pelvis, your core muscles connect your upper body to your lower body.
A strong core helps maintain good posture, balance, and form while running. It can also help to properly align your spine, pelvis, and lower body. Strong abs help keep your body straight and reduce the impact of shock on your back. A weak core can cause you to compensate with other muscles, which can lead to injury.
The hip flexors are located at the front of your hips, just above your thighs. They connect your femur to your lower back, hips, and groin. The hip flexors help stabilize the pelvis and spine. During running, you use these muscles when you bend your knee and leg towards your body, as well as when you move your legs forward. To ensure mobility, it is important to maintain the strength and flexibility of the hip flexor muscles. A contraction of the hip flexors can compromise the action of the glutes, which can lead to compensation in other areas, or even injury.
Your gluteal muscles are located in your buttocks. The strength of these muscles plays a vital role in running, as they propel you forward and help you run faster. The glutes also help keep your torso stable so you can maintain good posture. As the primary muscles responsible for hip extension, they also help stabilize and strengthen your hips. This helps keep your spine, knees and feet aligned.
The quadriceps are a group of four long muscles located at the front of the thigh. When running, they extend your knee and propel you forward. The energy that begins in the quadriceps is transferred to the hamstrings. Connected to the knee cap, the quadriceps are responsible for straightening and stabilizing your knees when you run.
The hamstrings are located at the back of the thigh, between the hips and the knees. They are responsible for hip extension and knee flexion. The hamstrings also contribute to thigh extension as you move your top leg backward. You activate your hamstrings to lift off the ground with every step and maintain knee flexion, which helps prevent hyperextension. Bending at the knees to lift the feet toward the buttocks helps push you forward. To maintain peak efficiency as a runner, you must have strong and flexible hamstrings. Otherwise, your form suffers and the risk of pain and injury increases. Many people have weak hamstrings relative to the quadriceps, which can lead to overcompensation and imbalances in the hips, knees, and overall stride.
The calf muscles are located at the back of your lower leg. You use these muscles every time you push off and lift your leg to propel yourself forward. The calf muscles are also involved in extending and flexing your foot each time your foot strikes and pushes back. They are responsible for reducing the shock of impact when you land, balance and ankle mobility.
Running uphill or downhill: which muscles work the most?
Running uphill or downhill requires slightly different form because you are working your muscles differently. When running back and forth, be sure to align your torso with your pelvis.
Downhill running is easier on the heart muscles. But the muscles of the hips, legs and ankles need more work, especially the hip extensors, quadriceps and knees. When going downhill, you risk putting too much pressure on your shins, which can lead to shin pain. You naturally use the heel of the foot more, which helps slow your forward motion. Be careful not to lean your upper body too far back.
When you run uphill, you have to work harder and activate more leg muscles to overcome gravity. Compared to running on a flat surface, you activate the vast muscles of your quadriceps more and your hamstrings less. Running uphill requires switching to a midfoot or forefoot strike. This type of impact puts more pressure on your calves and ankles, but it also makes it easier to lift off the ground. This is because some of the impact energy is absorbed by your calves, giving you power as you move forward.
When running uphill, focus on using your hip muscles to propel yourself forward and fully extend your leg behind you. Avoid leaning too far forward when running uphill, as this can make it harder to engage your hip flexors to lift your knee. Running uphill can negatively impact your balance and thrust.
Does running also work the tendons and ligaments?
Running also works your tendons and ligaments, which help absorb some of the impact. Tendons are connective tissues that connect bones to muscles, contributing to smooth movement and shock absorption. Ligaments are connective tissues that connect bones together. By absorbing some of the stress and impact of running, they help keep your body stable and prevent too much movement between bones.
Importance of running muscle warm-ups
According to most doctors, you should warm up before you start exercising for at least 5 minutes before moving on to stretching. Strenuous exercise like running can shorten and tighten your muscles, which can lead to reduced mobility and limit your range of motion. It’s important to keep your muscles loose, flexible and supple to avoid discomfort, pain and injury.
Key points to remember
It’s important to understand the main muscles you use when running, as well as the mechanics of the movements. If you add a strength training and stretching routine that targets key running muscles to your fitness routine, your muscles will work together to help you run optimally and efficiently.