Does Running Build Muscle? The Age Old Question

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If you have ever asked the question “does running build muscle” on one of these FitBit or MyFitnessPal forums, you might have regretted it, since people will have probably said something along the lines of “low impact or slow burn cardio sessions burn your muscle to use as fuel”.

And you might have wondered if they have any proof of this. Then they will have come back at you with a “have you seen marathon runners man? They’re as thin as a stick!”. Sad times..

It seems like a brilliant notion as soon as you submit your query but you quickly discover that everyone has different opinions. This is not helpful. 

But, let us be the light at the end of your dark tunnel by telling you that this is just a myth. Your body will not use its muscle mass as exercise fuel unless you’re massively cutting your protein consumption or simply starving yourself. So, those runners you see that are rake thin, this is due to malnutrition. In fact, low impact or slow burn cardio (like running) can aid you on your quest to build muscle.

What Does Low Impact Cardio Actually Do?

Scientific studies and research have found that low impact or slow burn cardio like running will help you to build muscle, reduce soreness after exercise, improve your stamina and recover quickly. It might seem like a lot since you are just running, but you can’t argue with science (well you can but, you won’t gain many friends).

Reduce Soreness

We all hate that post-workout paralyzed feeling (especially on leg day). It happens to the best of us but there is indeed a way to reduce the pain.

Running increases blood flow to your working muscles. This can help to get rid of that horrible sore feeling after your workouts all while keeping your muscles fully oxygenated and revived throughout your running sesh. 

Improve Recovery Speed

Did you know that it’s your nervous system that controls how quickly you recover from exercise? Well, if you didn’t, you do now. 

While high-intensity workouts increase fatigue (of course), low impact activity like your good pal running is great at “pushing the reset button” on your recovery. Basically, it gives your central nervous system a boost.

Boost Fitness Readiness

For those of you who have a preferred exercise, training just for this gives you pretty poor readiness. Over time, this will cause bad bodily stuff like fatigue, injury and limited results. However, improving your readiness by running will ensure you stave off all the boo-boos and gain muscles evenly throughout your body.

Aid in Muscle Building

Yes, this is the one you’re probably most excited about; muscle building. This probably comes as quite a surprise (and a great one at that) for people who can’t get enough of running and the free feeling it gives you.

While people will still say that we are wrong about running building muscle, science has proven it and, as we said, we can’t argue with that! 

But, Why Are Runners Thin?

thin runner

Okay, although we can’t argue with science, there may still be a little niggle in the back of your heads saying “but all the runners you see are super thin! So, what’s the deal with that?”. 

Yes, runners tend to be a pretty slender group. But, this is not because they are burning their muscle away. Usually, they’re skinny because they do far more cardio than weights

Even though slow burn cardio training does aid in muscle gain, you have to perform both weight training and this type of cardio to see the right results.

When runners do hit the weights (on the rare occasion they actually do), they tend to just concentrate on their legs (naturally). You might be surprised to know that this is a huge issue in the running community and top coaches have begun pushing them to engage in regular weight training.

Ultimately, It’s All About Intensity

From all the research that has been done into running and its effects on muscles, the conclusion is that you need to worry about the intensity more than muscle loss.

If you are aiming for the “it’s all high intensity” or, equally, the “nah, just low intensity is great” you’re quite literally asking for no results. When all you want is high-intensity runs, you don’t know how long you’re running for which ultimately, reduces the intensity. Likewise, if you’re seeking low-intensity exercises then you will probably boost your speed because you aren’t “feeling it”.

As you can see, finding the middle ground can be pretty tricky. There’s no need to fear though guys, we have a few top tips to get you where you need to be.

Workout With A Pal

workout with friend

Taking a workout buddy on your runs with you will give you someone who can periodically check your intensity. This will also help to maintain a steady pace by running alongside your friend.

Switch It Up

Switching up your type of cardio can also help keep your intensity at a good mid-range since your body won’t be used to the new exercise. There is so much you can try, but we’ll cover the best two options here for you:

Rowing

Okay, so this one does focus on your lower body (like running) BUT it packs on the muscle, we promise.

Until now, you may have thought that it was primarily an upper-body affair but this is actually false. To use a rowing machine properly though, you should be focusing all the power into your lower body. 

For building up quads and glutes, you can’t go wrong by doing a good session on the rowing machine. But, make sure you have the right form and everything before you get started.

The Form

Whatever you’re wearing on your lower half, it’s likely that you’ll need a better grip on the seat. Bring a towel or a tiny little yoga mat to pop on it before you sit down. This way, you won’t slip when you’re trying to go all out hulk on it.

Once you’re sitting comfortably, strap your feet in securely. Don’t rush this step (as trivial at it may seem, it can lead to injuries if done improperly).

Okay, now you’re all strapped in. Fantastic! Let’s get rowing. Make sure you perform a full range of motion through your knees and hips while keeping your abs in nice and tight. Then, just keep this rhythm smooth throughout your workout and job done!

Please bear in mind though that this is a tricky exercise when done right. Yep, we’ve seen many athletes throwing up their pre-workout shake after a go on these bad boys so treat it with respect.

Cycling

Again, cycling will pack on muscle in the lower half of your body. If you’re primarily a lifter, you will have (most likely) overlooked the bikes in the gym when really, you should be making use of them.

The Form

Unlike the rower, it’s pretty much a case of getting on the bike and going. Having said this, you will have to adjust the seat to the right height for you. All you need to do though is bring it up to your hip height and secure it. Et voila; you’re all ready to get down to business.

The best type of bike to use is the Airdyne-style since it incorporates the handles which allow you to pump your upper body too. Of course, this does make it more challenging but why else would you be on your fitness journey, right? 

So, saddle up!

Breathe Through Your Nose

Forcing yourself to breathe only through your nose is another great way to keep at a steady intensity when you’re working out. This can feel a bit like mild suffocation at times though (especially if your nose is blocked) so, if this is the case probably steer clear of this method!

Have We Still Not Convinced You?

does running build muscle

If you are still worried about running inhibiting your bread loaf biceps then there are some other measures you can put in place to ease your mind.

BCAAs (Branch Chain Amino Acids) are great to put into your pre-workout shake since they stop your body from breaking down protein and using it as fuel. Not to mention that they ensure your body burns stored fat instead of anything else during your workout too. 

It’s best to take it around 30 minutes before you exercise (run, cycle, whatever you feel like) so you can be sure that your muscles will not be affected.

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Mark Carnell

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