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Does Running Make You Lose Muscle Mass?

author image Henry Halse
Henry Halse is a Philadelphia-based personal trainer, speaker, and writer. He's trained a wide variety of people, from couch potatoes to professional athletes, and helped them realize their own strength, determination and self-confidence. Henry has also written for various fitness and lifestyle publications, including Women’s Health, AskMen and Prevention.
Does Running Make You Lose Muscle Mass?
Runners are typically lean but that doesn't mean you have to be. Photo Credit anton5146/iStock/Getty Images

The ideal body type for an elite marathon runner is long, lean and lanky. Rarely, if ever, do you see a bulky weightlifter near the front of the pack in an endurance race. Mountains of muscle simply don't help when you're trying to run for multiple miles.

Even though it's not very helpful for distance running, muscle doesn't melt off of you when you start running. If you're really concerned about keeping your hard-earned muscle mass, don't fret. With proper training and nutrition you can keep all of your muscle and even gain some.

Protein Balance

Your muscle is made out of protein. Throughout the day and especially when you exercise, some of this protein that forms your muscle breaks down and flows into your bloodstream. When you eat a meal with protein it's also broken down and sent through your bloodstream, this time to build up new muscle.

This protein balance is constantly changing. When the balance of protein is negative, it means that you're losing muscle mass. When the balance is positive, it means you're gaining muscle.

Read More: Does Running Give You Muscular Legs?

Weight Loss

Muscle can be very tough to build and when you finally get it you don't want to undo all of your hard work. Whether you've had some experience running or have been running for a while, you might be worried that you'll turn into an ultra-lean marathon runner.

It's true that over time you can lose muscle mass from running, but running isn't the direct cause of your muscle loss. Losing weight is a very common cause of muscle deterioration. To put it simply, you're burning more energy than you're taking in and there's no energy left to build muscle. Your body resorts to tearing down muscle and using its energy for fuel.

Stress on Muscles from Running

Whereas muscle deteriorates very quickly if you're inactive, like being in bed sick, running is stressful for your muscles and can actually make them grow.

When you run your muscles propel you forward every stride. While one step might not be very stressful, you end up doing a mind-blowing amount of repetitions during a distance run. This constant use of your muscles means that they're primed to be built back up following your run.

Read More: What Muscles Does Running Build?

Leg muscles take the brunt of the punishment from running, while your upper body and arms don't have to push against anything. They just have to pump back and forth.

It might seem like you would lose muscle in your upper body since it's not being used, but a 2012 study published in PLoS ONE suggests otherwise. In the study, the researchers found that even muscles that weren't being used during endurance exercise were stimulated.

Diet and Muscle Mass

To preserve your muscle while training as a runner you'll need to watch your diet carefully. It's important to get enough calories in every day to avoid losing weight. Remember that when you lose weight you're in a negative energy balance, which means that your body doesn't want to spare much energy to build new muscle.

On top of that, it will try to take energy from your existing muscle. Adding running to your training regime means you'll be burning more calories, so be sure to balance that out by eating more.

Drinking a beverage with carbs and protein after your run helps maintain muscle.
Drinking a beverage with carbs and protein after your run helps maintain muscle. Photo Credit nd3000/iStock/Getty Images

More specifically, you should have something with carbs and protein after a run. A 2009 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that consuming a supplement with carbs and protein post-run stimulated muscle growth. In other words, if you properly fuel after a run, you will not only prevent muscle loss but you can potentially gain new muscle.

Combining Running and Weightlifting

Of course, there are still drawbacks to running if you want to gain muscle. It interferes with your body's ability to put on pounds of muscle. If you're running a lot, it leaves little time to lift like you need to in order to add muscle. And, if you lift heavy to gain lots of muscle mass, your lifting sessions may leave you too sore to pound the pavement.

Combining weightlifting and distance running in the same program is the best bet if you want to hold onto or focus on gaining some muscle mass while staying in running shape. Combining both means that you won't be able to gain very much muscle or shave a minute off of your mile time, but you will get a little better at both.

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