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How to Gain Muscle as a Runner

The desire to "get in shape" typically conjures up words like losing weight, getting toned, gaining muscle, looking good in a bathing suit, and being stronger. When a person sets a goal and creates a plan to achieve this desire, running is often thought of as a go-to exercise. After all, it burns more calories per hour than other popular forms of exercise.

If a person chooses running to accomplish these goals, the next question they should ask is, "What is more important, weight loss or muscle gain"?

Running is a fantastic option for weight loss. Studies have shown that it targets harmful belly fat, can help you feel less hungry and more full, and burn calories long after your run is over.

If the goal is to gain muscle by running, it is essential to know that not every calorie burnt while running comes from fat. As runners, we risk losing the very thing we want to keep, muscle. However, the duration and pace you run make a difference in preserving this cherished tissue.

Research has shown that long-distance running can break down muscle instead of building it. But, it also proves that adding sprints into your run workouts 3x/week can help you gain muscle while losing fat.

We also know that the best type of exercise to build muscle is strength training. This knowledge, combined with the information on muscle breakdown with long-distance running, can often steer people and strength coaches from running. Runnings' ability to reduce weight and its many other health benefits (including my favorite on mental clarity) make it difficult to pass up.

The good news is that by running within specific parameters and adding strength training to your routine, you can lose weight while gaining muscle.

The other important piece of the muscle-building puzzle is nutrition. When we run, our body burns considerable energy (about 805 calories/hour for a 155 lb person). This energy is sourced from our food and our body's fat and muscle storage. The calories from our consumed food and fat are easier to access and will be used first. However, longer runs may start to burn calories from your muscles if your other sources are depleted. This can lead to muscle shrinkage.

Women's Health Magazine agrees, stating that participating in a running regime without considering nutritional intake or complimentary strength training may cause muscle and fat loss.

So, with all of this being said...

What is the ideal combination of running, strength training, and nutrition to gain muscle?

If you want to gain muscle and reap all the other benefits of running, consider the following guidelines:

  • Run 3-4x/week max

  • Run 30-45 minutes at 70-80% heart rate (but still be able to hold a comfortable conversation to minimize injury risk from running)

  • Include some sprints within or at the end of your run

  • Lifts weights 3x/week

  • Eat well

    • Include adequate protein in your diet

    • Recover after each run with a high protein snack and some carbohydrates


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