Does Running Make You Lose Muscle Mass?

Sprinting can trigger the anabolic processes you need to build muscle. (Image: jacoblund/iStock/GettyImages)

Going for a run remains a popular form of exercise. Running improves your aerobic endurance, but you might wonder how to do cardio without losing muscle. While running may cause weight loss, it can also cause weight gain. Learning how to properly structure your running routine will help you reach your health goals.

Tip

Running can help you fight the age-related loss of muscle mass, according to a 2018 review in the International Journal of Geriatrics and Gerontology.

Understand Anabolic Processes

Your body strives for a balance between muscle building and muscle breakdown every day. If you want to keep or increase your muscle mass, it's important to stay ahead on your muscle protein count. Physical activity and diet are equally important for muscle growth. The key is to avoid overtraining and maintain a well-balanced diet.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends doing at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of intense exercise each week. You can do this with 150 minutes of light jogging throughout the week. If you run, you'll need to exercise for only 50 minutes.

The guidelines also suggest having a diet rich in healthy carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Be sure to eat plenty of vegetables and fruits so you get all the nutrients you need for muscle building. If you're doing a lot of running, consider taking a leucine supplement to make sure you get appropriate doses of amino acids. These nutrients play a critical role in the anabolic processes needed to build muscle tissue.

Increase Muscle Mass by Running

Some people think that cardio burns muscle, but it can also build mass. Keeping the intensity high is the critical variable. Sprinting, for example, will typically increase your muscle mass. A 2014 article in Applied Physiology showed this effect in younger women.

Participants did sprint interval training three times a week for six weeks. This protocol caused a 1.3 percent increase in lean body mass. It also caused an 8 percent decrease in body fat. So, intense running can decrease your body fat and increase your muscle mass.

Treadmills offer an excellent way to do a sprint workout and reap these benefits. Start with a 10-minute jog at 5 miles per hour. Then, do a 30-second sprint at 7.5 miles per hour. Return to the jog for 90 seconds. Repeat this cycle as often as you can, and try to do more cycles each week. Completing this routine for 30 minutes three times a week will yield the best results.

Running in Space

More evidence about the anabolic power of running comes from studies on muscle-wasting. Extended bed rest causes your muscles to break down. For example, a 2018 report in the journal Diabetes showed that healthy adults lost more than 3 pounds of muscle mass in a single week of bed rest.

A similar problem happens during space travel. The lack of impact loading in space causes muscle loss in astronauts. These changes occur even when the astronauts do conventional forms of exercise. However, running on a space treadmill can attenuate these losses.

Cardio Burns Muscle

However, there's some truth to the idea that running can take away your muscles. Olympic distance runners, for example, have very little muscle and fat. That's because long-distance running breaks down muscle instead of building it. A 2017 report in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise showed this robust effect in ultra-marathoner runners.

In this study, middle-aged men had their skeletal muscle mass measured before and after a 31-mile race. Results indicated that they lost more than 2 pounds of muscle mass during this race. This loss of muscle mass has many negative consequences. For example, having a greater muscle mass in your lower body protects your bones, meaning that losing muscle can increase injury risk, according to a 2015 article in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

The good news is that you might be able to stop this muscle loss by making wise dietary choices. A 2017 paper in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition showed that the daily intake of a beef protein beverage for 10 weeks prevented muscle wasting in master triathlon athletes.

Improve Your Health by Running

Running can positively affect your health in other ways as well. In a 2015 review published in Sports Medicine, researchers noted that running enhances aerobic capacity, increases muscle mass, promotes good cholesterol and decreases body fat in people with a sedentary lifestyle. These results typically follow a dose-response curve, with more running leading to greater benefits.

Road racing offers an easy way to improve your health. In an article listing unique races to run, the author describes a bucket list of road races around the country. The social and fun side of these events will help you overcome the barriers to exercise that make so many Americans inactive.

Fight Aging by Running

Age-related changes in your body cause your muscle tissue to gradually degrade. These changes begin at age 30 and cause a group of symptoms known as sarcopenia. This medical condition will eventually affect your day-to-day life. It's important, therefore, to have a plan for combating muscle atrophy. A 2016 report in the European Journal of Translational Myology discusses the positive effects of running on aging.

Researchers point out that running helps maintain the neural connections needed to stay functional as you get older. They also suggested that it helps preserve lean muscle mass. Studies that involved testing laboratory animals support this idea. For example, a 2016 paper in Skeletal Muscle showed that giving middle-aged mice access to an exercise wheel prevented their muscles from decaying as they grew older.

In The Best Running Workouts for Beginners, the author suggests starting with a 30-minute brisk walk before progressing to walk-run intervals. After a short warmup routine, alternate between one minute of walking and one minute of running. Keep these cycles going for 10 minutes, then eventually extend them.

Read more: Running at 60

Protect Yourself While Running

You can use running as a way to improve your bone health. For example, running three times a week for seven weeks increases bone mineral density, according to a 2018 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. It's important, however, to do it in moderation as high-intensity exercise might cause bone damage.

Running can also damage your cartilage. This soft tissue doesn't have blood vessels or nerves, making it impossible to repair. A few minutes of running causes a 9 percent deformation in your cartilage, so you might want to keep your runs short to avoid long-term damage. Making this change will decrease your risk of developing arthritis.

Water treadmills let you enjoy the benefits of running without these risks. A 2017 paper in Gait and Posture describes the effects of water depth during treadmill running. Having the water above the waist decreased the impact without altering the physiological challenges of running.

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