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Muscles Used When Running

There are three types of muscles used when running:

  • Primary
  • Supporting
  • Auxiliary

The “Primary” Muscles

The “primary” ones used in running include:

The quadriceps femoris — also called the quadriceps or the quadriceps extensor or the quads — is actually a muscle group that comprises several ones on the front of a thigh, including:

  • The rectus femoris
  • The vastus medialis
  • The vastus lateralis
  • The vastus intermedius

A quadriceps muscle group on a thigh moves two joints — the hip joint and the knee joint — specifically to flex (bend) the hip and to extend (straighten) the knee.

The hamstring comprises four on the back of the left or right thigh, including:

  • The semitendinosus
  • The semimembranosus
  • The biceps femoris long head
  • The biceps femoris short head

All four in a hamstring move a knee joint — specifically to flex the knee.

Three of the four in a hamstring move a hip joint — specifically to extend the hip. Because the biceps femoris short head crosses only one joint — the knee — it does not participate in hip extension.

The gluteus maximus is one of the three gluteal muscles, is the most superficial and largest among them, and is the primary contributor to the shape of the buttocks.

The primary purpose of the gluteus maximus is to maintain the trunk of the body in the erect posture — that is, to extend the hip. This explains why other primates, which ambulate on all fours, tend to have much flatter buttocks than the buttocks of humans.

The iliopsoas — also called the hip flexors — is actually a muscle group that comprises two muscles:

  • The iliacus
  • The psoas major

The iliacus, which is the shorter of these two, originates on the iliac fossa of the ilium (on the pelvic crest) and attaches on the femur (the thigh bone). The psoas major originates on the T-12 to L-5 vertebrae (of the spine) and attaches to the femur.

The iliopsoas — with the psoas major doing the majority of the work — supports hip flexion.

The calf muscle — considered by some anatomists to be a single muscle called the triceps surae — is usually seen as a muscle group that comprises:

  • The gastrocnemius
  • The soleus

The purpose of the calf muscle is to plantar flex the ankle and to flex the knee.

The “Supporting” Muscles

The “supporting” ones used in running include:

  • The biceps brachii
  • The upper abdominals
  • The lower abdominals

The biceps brachii — also known more simply as the biceps — is a muscle on the upper arm whose purpose is to rotate the forearm and to flex the elbow. Because running is more efficient when the elbow is bent, the biceps brachii supports running.

The upper abdominals comprises the muscles in the upper half of the abdomen.

The lower abdominals comprises those in the lower half of the abdomen.

Together, the upper and lower abdominals support the core strength that runners need for maintaining good posture, which is crucial for maximizing performance and avoiding injury. Because running can cause a lot of rotation of the spine, it is important to have strong upper and lower abdominals to stabilize the spine and to minimize the dissipation of energy during the transfer of power to the extremities.

The “Auxiliary” Muscles

Some would say that technically there are no “auxiliary” ones used in running. But others would point out that your entire body is involved when running and therefore that you could list ones such as these:

  • The external intercostals
  • The internal intercostals

The external intercostals aid in forced inhalation.

The internal intercostals aid in forced exhalation.

And the list could be supplemented with others in the body, such as those that help you to keep your head erect while running.

What This All Means

The more that you know about the muscles used when running, the better you will become at strengthening and caring for them!

One More Thing

Knowing about the muscles used when running is only part of the key to your happiness as an endurance runner.

I have created a FREE training guide to happiness for endurance runners and walkers, and I want you to have it.

Simply go here now and enter your first name and email address to get instant access to this free training guide!

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39 comments… add one

  1. From South Africa, Well done with your research, Athletes really appreciate your effort

  2. nice

  3. Thank you!

  4. thank you… Great work….really appreciated

  5. Werner, jonny jae, Aaron, and crizmo — You’re all very welcome!

  6. thankyou, your research has helped me hugely with a school project, I couldn’t find anything useful! thanks!

    1. You’re welcome, Bridget. I’m glad that this article was helpful with your school project!

  7. Thanks for the info here. I’m sure that all muscles are used during running. I’m very sore today after running for two miles last night. I probably haven’t run in a month. But I finally got to do it again. Yay! And I’m hopefully going to be able to keep at it. Time is the issue for me, so as long as time lets me. Because it’s so hot, I ran one mile, walked a certain amount of yards, and then ran back the second mile. I’m trying to see about stretching exercises that I can do for soreness. Again, thanks for the info!

    1. You’re welcome, Jennifer. Yeah, I suspect that all muscles are used during any activity, so I could have used “Muslces MOST Used During Running” as the title of this article! Congratulations on starting again after not having run in a month. I like your attitude — that you “got to do it again.”

      That’s interesting what you say about time. I am considering putting together an ecourse about finding time to work out, so let me know whether you would be interested

      With the heat, be especially careful to hydrate properly. (I wrote an article about that recently.) Regarding the soreness, you may want to look at my article about good stretches to do before running.

      “Baby steps” from the movie “What About Bob?” always makes me laugh when I say it, but it is a humorous reminder that sometimes we need to take baby steps — such as when we are running or walking up a hill or — in your case — when we are returning to running. Best wishes for lots of baby steps ahead.

  8. An add on. A well stretched chest muscle is of utmost importance. More than just to be under the head of ‘others in the body”. This is so because the sitting shortens our chest muscles and rotates our back, which causes to pull our shoulder blades in front bringing improper posture and imadequate generation and distribution of energy while running.. Result- injury. Hence Chest muslce is very very crucial.

    1. Thanks, rishabh. Although “chest muscle” is a bit vague, your general point about posture is definitely something to consider! And this explains why I recommend compression tops in a recent article about compression wear.

  9. great i couldnt find anything that would make sense in the internet.

    1. Thank you, mojib. I am glad that this article helped you!

  10. Thanks! Just what I was looking for for my science fair project on running! Really great Stuff!

    1. You’re welcome, Ken. Best wishes for the project…

  11. I have been using this to help me train. I’m in track and field at my high school, and this has really helped me. Thanks!

    1. John, I am glad that this has helped you with your track-and-field training. Best wishes for your running!

  12. Thanks a lot for the post! Help me in my assessment for distinction :) Thanks

    1. Congratulations, Peter. I am glad that this article helped you.

  13. I was wondering if you knew the dorsal and ventral muscles used in propelling the arm to swing while running. Thanks.

    1. Jake, that’s a good question! I would list the trapezius, pectoralis major, lattisimus dorsi, and deltoid muscles among those involved in propelling the arms to swing while running.

  14. I am on the track team for my school. Last year I sprinted, but I was not good at it. I also pole vault, which I am going to continue. But I am going to train this winter so that when the season starts in the spring I will be able to compete in the one and two mile. I am kinda lost on what I should be doing to train. I am getting a treadmill from my grandparents, so I am going to use that, but what exercises should I do to help me build up the major muscles I would need to compete successfully? I have a major goal to make it to districts and place in at least the top three. I know it is a very large goal considering that I have never run distance before I would not consider myself a good distance runner. My brother placed in districts last year (as a junior) and he joined a gym and is training so that he can make it to states this year. We have a sibling rivalry and I definitely want to outdo him. :) It is only my sophmore year, but if I can place this year I think he will respect me more. They give medals to the top 6 places in each event. Last year the girls who placed in the mile were all under six minutes I think. I am not sure about the two mile, but I am setting out to beat my school record. I think it is about 13:06, but I am not sure. I come from a very small school. I want to get my time to about 12:30. Any tips or advice you could give me would be greatly appreciated! Thanks. :)

    1. Hannah,

      First, congratulations on your athletic endeavors! I hope that you continue to set fitness goals for the rest of your life.

      Second, let me suggest that a treadmill is great for training at slower speeds but can be dangerous at a 10MPH (6:00-mile) pace. You need the option to change your pace quickly when training at such a fast pace, and most, if not all, treadmills, cannot instantly change speeds.

      Third, consider doing some more research about each of the muscles listed in the article. Learn how each muscle helps you. Learn which of these muscles matter most to someone concentrating on running a one-miler or two-miler. Then, target your training accordingly. I highly recommend that you work with a coach, to be sure that you fit your training to your age and to your time goal.


      P.S. If you outdo your brother, then please come back here and post a follow-up comment! :)

  15. Great information. Very clear. My problem is a pain in my lower front – at the top of the pelvis. It’s been there all summer. My first few strides are sometimes excruciating, but the longer I run the less I feel it. (I’m not much for drugs, but I’ve been taking advil for long runs the past few weeks.) So, based on your descriptions, I’m guessing the iliopsoas. Does that sound right? And the answer is — stop running until the pain goes away? Unfortunately I’m training right now for the NY marathon.

    1. Alan,

      Thank you! I’m glad that you enjoyed the information.

      I’m sure that the pain must be frustrating, but I am not in a position to give you any specific advice.

      Instead, I recommend that you check with your primary physician or a sports-medicine specialist to get a solid diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription (perhaps for physical therapy).

      I know that NYC is looming, but you could be right about having to take a break from running. Please check with a physician or chiropractor to see how much of a break you will have to take and what you may be able to do to speed your recovery.

      I wish you well for your recovery, and I hope that, if it’s possible and advised, you make it to the NYC marathon and have a successful run!

      Please come back and post how it all turned out!


  16. Hello! i love your article! it is very informative, actually the most informative one i have seen so far. Currently i am not running.. i have been a runner all my life so not running now is really killing me… The reason i am not running is because when i was going to college i injured my knees. Right after highschool (where i was an all around athlete, :300/100m hurdles,tripple jump, long jump, 2/1 mile, 4×1/4×4 relays) i was recruited to trade tech in la and towards the end of the summer, we were at 100 miles a week for cross country.. So every time i would run i was in the point of tears… It was hard for me to go up and down stairs, sit for a long time, stand for a long time… ect… so now its been approximately 7 or 8 months that i haent ran.My knees still hurt with the same amount of pain.. i have tried to run very short distances, but it just kills me. And cold weather? forget about it … I dont know what to do. I cant live without running, but it has become my kryptonite. What do you recommend? please help thanks! :)

    1. Becky, I am glad that you enjoyed my article. I recommend that you look into water running as well as swimming and other cross-training activities. Check with your physician, and see whether you can get a referral to a sports-medicine clinic to get the personalized, professional advice that you need. Best wishes for your recovery!


      P.S. Please post a follow-up comment once you have some news to report.

  17. Thanks, I found this very informative, and very well written. I look forward to reading more articles from you.

    1. Thanks, Jay. Be sure to become a free subscriber at http://www.spryfeet.com/free/, so that you can get notified about future articles!

  18. thanks helped a lot now my teacher gave me an A+

    1. I’m glad that it helped, Joe.

  19. Went for a run 3 days ago after not running for a few weeks. At the moment I’m half crippled with very sore and stiff lumber muscles.. I’m 65. especially when I get up after sitting for some length of time.

  20. Great article. This info is just what I needed for my research paper.

    1. Thanks, Daniel. I’m glad that it was helpful!

  21. What a great article! I’m a triathlete who has her biking & running down pat (the running event is my strongest). However, my weakness is the swimming, particularly endurance. I think just spending more time practicing in the water will improve my endurance. However, I would like to comment on how quickly you respond to each & everyone’s comments with more useful information that targets each & everyone of their problems….a rarity seen in the internet. I look forward to reading more of your helpful comments and even other articles you may write!

    1. Hi, Debby. I’m glad that you enjoyed the article. I have yet to attempt a triathlon, and I admire the athleticism of anyone who can complete one. Although I enjoy swimming, I cannot say that I know anything about preparing for the swimming part of a triathlon such as Mission Bay. Your plan to swim more to build your swimming endurance makes sense to me, though! But, if building one’s swimming endurance is like building one’s running endurance, then you won’t need long-distance swims every single day of the week. By the way, if you become a SpryFeet.com subscriber, then you will get an email notification with each new article published here. Go to http://www.spryfeet.com/free/ to subscribe.

  22. Hey Kirk! I really loved this article because it taught me many things. I needed all this information for my P.E. Assessment! Thanks so much!
    If you recieved this thankyou letter, say ‘pineapples’!


  23. This is by far the best resource I have discovered on the muscles involved in running and it has helped me largely for my assignment. How can I view the training guide after I’ve subscribed?

    1. Andrea, click the bulleted “Get More Clarity, Get More Happiness!” link in the first message that you receive after you confirm your subscription to the SpryFeet.com Readers Club.

      Also, if you want to participate in the birthday-month drawings (and I hope that you do!), then be sure to follow the directions at the bottom of that message, so that I have your birthday’s month and day and your postal address.


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