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What Leg Muscles Are Used When Running

Updated on September 26, 2013
CyclingFitness profile image

Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. He is also a keen cyclist as well as being a lover of the Derbyshire Dales and Peak District.

Running Leg Muscles In Action

Running is a great exercise and uses a huge number of our leg muscles
Running is a great exercise and uses a huge number of our leg muscles | Source

It's not just simply about running!

When training for running it's ideal to know which leg muscles you use while running. Particularly if you hit the gym, you ideally need a knowledge of which leg muscles you need to target and strengthen to improve your running action. By strengthening each of these agonist muscles you can potentially improve your running ability.

What Are The Primary Leg Muscles Used In Running?

The primary leg muscles used in running consist of the quadriceps femoris (The main thigh muscles at the front of the upper leg, hamstring muscles (to the rear of the upper leg), gluteus maximus (your 'butt' muscle), iliopsoas (at the hips), and calf muscles.

The primary muscles used in running are also assisted by supporting muscles which consist of the biceps brachii, upper abdominals, and lower abdominal muscles which help to provide stability for the body during the running gait cycle.

The Running Muscles In Action

The running leg muscles in action during the 2012 Wolverhampton Marathon
The running leg muscles in action during the 2012 Wolverhampton Marathon | Source

The main agonist (primary) muscles used when running

Hip Flexors (often referred to as the iliopsoas)

  • iliacus
  • psoas


  • The semitendinosus

  • The semimembranosus

  • The biceps femoris (long head and short head)

Quadriceps (Also known as the quads, quadriceps femoris

  • The rectus femoris

  • The vastus medialis

  • The vastus lateralis

  • The vastus intermedius

Calf Muscles

  • The gastrocnemius
  • The soleus

Use Of The Hips Flexors In Running

The initial knee lift phase of the running gait cycle is propelled by the muscles at the hips. The Hip Flexors consist of the iliacus and psoas muscles.

Their contraction commences the movement of the thigh up towards the abdomen to initiate the running action.

Key Muscles Of The Leg Used For Running

A selection of muscles of the leg as using in the running action.
A selection of muscles of the leg as using in the running action. | Source

Use Of The Quadriceps Leg Muscles In Running

Use Of The Quads For Running- Initiating Forward Movement Of The Leg

Your quadriceps muscles are located on the front of your thighs and consist of four different muscles. The rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and vastus intermedius.

The primary function of th quadriceps group of leg muscles for running is to extend the knee. Together the muscles combine at the patella (kneecap) which pull through the patella tendon to straighten the leg at the kneecap.

Contraction of the quadriceps group of muscles also lifts the knee towards the chest which has relevance in sprinting to enhance stride length. However this has little relevance for a long distance runner.

The quadriceps have an additional purpose of helping to stabilise the knee upon the foots impact with the ground and the dispersion of the subsequent shock which passes through the body.

Use Of The Hamstrings Leg Muscles In Running

As your leg continues movement forwards the work switches to your hamstrings muscles at the rear of your thigh. The Hamstrings muscles span two joints (the hips and knee) to act in an opposing manner to that of the quadraceps muscle group to allow extension of the hip and flexion at the knee joint.

The key muscles of the hamstrings used in running are the semitendinosus, semimembranosus and biceps femoris (both the long head and short head). Each muscle has a separate point of insertion at the pelvis with insertions around the rear of the tibia and fibia.

The hamstrings contract to drive the upper and lower legs in a backward direction. This action is greatly exaggerated in sprinting and the greatest proportion of a runners motion is created at the hip, not around the knee as many beginners tend to assume as excessive knee flexion would be detrimental to the running action.

The hamstrings muscles pull the upper and lower leg back as part of the running gait cycle.
The hamstrings muscles pull the upper and lower leg back as part of the running gait cycle. | Source

Use Of The Calf Muscles During Running

Your calf muscles consist of your gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. The muscles of the calf are responsible for primarily movement around the ankle joint and the phalanges. While both muscles are considered separate in the usage by many anatomy specialists both muscles join with the highly strung Achilles tendon.

Contraction of the calf muscles pulls on the calcaneum to pull the foot backwards through the action of plantar flexion.

Learn More About Running Anatomy

Running Anatomy
Running Anatomy
A key descriptive text for any runner giving insights into the runniing action, anatomy and physiology and training exercises to further develop running form


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    • ud1093 profile image


      7 years ago from ?

      do you how much do you have to run daily to make strong thigh muscles.

    • CyclingFitness profile imageAUTHOR

      Liam Hallam 

      7 years ago from Nottingham UK

      Thanks aykianink- this hub is targetted more towards athletes and students looking very very specific information. I've seen a lot of things on the subject on the internet and believe I could improve on it

    • aykianink profile image


      7 years ago

      Pretty cool hub. I think it's over most people's heads though. Good info.


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