The Truth About Sprinters vs. Marathon Runners

If you’re even slightly into fitness and have been interneting on the internet for the past few years, you’ve do doubt come across the picture below.

sprinting body

To summarize the picture above:

Marathon runners = skinny, weak, no muscle, pale.

Sprinters = lean, ripped, muscular, dark and handsome.

But there are some huge misconceptions about sprinting and running which I cover below.

Running does not make you lose muscle.

This is the most popular myth that a lot of fitness pros love to spread. Their argument is that due to the long distance nature of running, you’re burning your muscles for fuel.

But there’s really no proof to back this up. When asked for proof, all anyone says is blah blah blah look at the pic above.

Dude…look at marathon runners. They’re so skinny and weak, obviously they’re burning muscle when they run.

Truth: Just think about it logically. Maybe the reason a marathon runner is so skinny and doesn’t have any muscle is because they’re not trying to build any muscle and they don’t have much muscle in the first place.

Marathon and long distance runners train for their sport and that sport is running for a very long time without stopping. For a runner, lifting weights is just time wasted that could be focused on improving their running.

Marathon runners can gain muscle…if they want

You’re right, I’ve never seen someone look like Arnold Schwarzenegger compete and win in a marathon but there’s a damn good reason for that.

Here’s what you need to know:

1) Running is an aerobic exercise and doesn’t involve the explosiveness of sprinting or weight lifting. It’s all about endurance and running for as long as you can.

2) Runners don’t try to gain muscle. Their focus is on running fast and far.

3) Train for your sport. Bodybuilders train to look as lean and muscular as possible. Sprinters train to run as fast as possible over a short distance. Runners train to run as fast and far as possible. You train for your sport so you can’t criticize a runner for the physique they have.

Pick your battles

Sprinting and running are 2 very different sports. Sprinting is usually done in conjunction with weight lifting and runners tend to be laser focused on well…running.

A person who’s running 10 miles a day will simply not have the energy to hit a heavy weight lifting session as well.

It’s not that a runner’s body lacks the ability to gain muscle, it’s simply that runners don’t try to gain muscle. It’s counter-intuitive to their goal.

Also note, runners tend to have a diet that is much higher in carbs and lower in protein, so once again this is the polar opposite of most sprinters/weight lifters who put a larger focus on eating massive amounts of protein which you need to maintain muscle mass.

So should you be running or sprinting for the best look physique?

Obviously, most of you guys are not marathon runners.

I know most of my readers simply want to look and feel good and that’s great. And if that’s the case, just stick with a couple heavy lifting sessions per week and maybe throw in a quick workout finisher at the end.

My main point that I want to drill into your head is – don’t believe that doing a little or even a lot of cardio will cause you to lose muscle. The act of running itself doesn’t cause muscle loss, but it does take your focus and energy away from things like weight lifting.

What are your thoughts? How do you incorporate running or sprinting into your workout routine?


  1. john says

    Not sure how much help this article really is. I expect most of your readers probably just want to get fit and healthy, and want to know if sprinting or endurance running is better for them.

    Perhaps you could follow up by looking into the other commonly held belief (or myth?) that endurance running is bad for you – ie. endurance running makes you heart efficient rather than strong (like a sprinter), and efficient things tend to break if you stress them – hence the number of times you see news reports of someone “young and fit” falling over of a heart attack, then cut to friends and neighbours who express disbelief as “he was so fit and was always jogging…”

    I heard this morning that another runner died in the London marathon yesterday – will be interesting to see if he was a couch potato that suddenly decided to run a marathon or a “fit and healthy” runner…

    • Keith says

      thanks for the comment, John.

      I’m not an advocate of long distance running, I just wanted to make a point that running isn’t the devil that everyone makes it out to be.

  2. Artimus says

    Thanks Keith for the clearing up that myth. I’m new at weight-lifting and my passion is running so my concern was losing the muscle that I was working so hard for it. I’m no long distance runner either, the most I’ll do is 8miles (working up to 10) but it is true, that you’re just damn tired after a long run to do much of anything else.

    P.S. I usually just run the standard 5k (3.20 miles) like 3-4x a week.

    btw: your Stephen Amell workout brought me here, since that article I’ve read a few others. Great stuff man! Thanks for all the helpful information!

    • Keith says

      Exactly, the act of running itself doesn’t cause muscle loss, but it really tires you out so you won’t have the energy to do anything else.

  3. says

    But you completely skipped the fact that after about 30-45 minutes your body starts breaking down your muscle for fuel..especially if you don’t have much fat. I mean this can be avoided if you have enough carbs so they wont get totally depleted before you are done and if you fuel your muscle properly with protein to sustain themselves. But still, it is possible for your body to attack your muscle.

      • Hosea says

        Do some research on that. It may my good for your next article trust me. The system is already in place to happen in your body. Fuel yourself properly and it won’t make it to that last resort but It can still happen on 500kcal or 5000kcal. Quality over Quantity man.

  4. Tk01 says

    Great article! As a runner I completely agree, train for YOUR sport. As a female training for a half marathon I am constanyly seeking nutrition, training and sleep goals to push me further and further than the last mile! Up to running 16 miles at 1:58:07 is NOT bad for not being a professional runner. How’d I do it? Listening to MY body, researching MY sport and choosing My battles. I don’t get into conversations with people who are one minded about nutrition and training. You can’t becuase at the end of the day there is no “one size fits all” plan. I can’t skip carbs because they give me endurance, I can’t skip protein because I have to rebuild muscle and I can’t skip fat because it helps to oil the squeeky joints. MODERATION and ANTICIPATION (for your day full or low of activity) is the best thing you can do. Work on form, core, strength, endurance and over all NUTRITION, this my friends works across the board with ANY and ALL sports. When my friends ask me silly stuff like “what do you eat?” I give them the truth “FOOD”. lol! Sometimes the best results will speak for themselves, if you’re constantly explaining your results and not displaying them, well that may a sign that your results are not speaking for themselves. Don’t allow your friends to be lazy and rely on you for goal advice, if they are serious they need to research, plan, prepare and take action for their own lives. What works for me is not going to work for you, and that’s the truth.

  5. Trailrunner says

    As a trail runner, and marathoner, and former sprinter and pole vaulter, I will say that not ALL marathon runners are small and thin and “look weak.” The longer I ran, the stronger and bigger my legs got, especially while running in trails (mountains, valleys, etc). True long endurance athletes train all round (weight lifting to prevent injury), have good nutrition habits, and TRAIN FOR THEIR SPORT. I’ve seen skinny sprinters, and built marathoners running sub 3-hour marathons. It’s all on how you train. Body physique (genes) just helps you get to that 1% that makes it to the olympics. So unless that’s your goal, just do what makes YOU feel good.

  6. expatv says

    If you look at sports that require explosiveness AND endurance over a long period of time you will see bodies that are muscular but not bulky. I think for lower body, soccer/football is a good example because there is no time stoppage or substitutions like in American football or basketball. For upper body lower/body combos, singles tennis players are a good example, they need to be able to play 3 hour matches and still be explosive. These athletes definitely train distance (not as extreme as a marathon) but are definitely not weak looking because of it. I agree that you should train for your sport and if your goal is general fitness that you need to be doing both cardio/endurance/distance and weights/sprints

  7. Jon Melson says

    Unfortunately running does ‘burn’ muscle in a simplistic sense.
    Now given sufficient fuel (carbs and fat) your body shouldn’t have to resort to breaking down muscle for fuel, but running is extremely catabolic. It does very little to promote muscle gain and a hell of a lot to cause breakdown.
    When running at anything less than a sprint you’re recruiting only a very small number of muscle fibres at a time, and to increase strength or size you need maximal simultaneous recruitment.

    All exercise elicits a training response with various adaptions. Hormonal and chemical messengers trigger adaptations within muscles, except that with running the positive, anabolic, adaptations are so minimal they are more than countered by the catabolic responses brought about by hormones such as cortisol.
    The net result is muscle loss. It’s not the act of running, it’s the recovery and adaptive response which comes after.
    Furthermore the nature of running on the flat is highly eccentric- your muscles are forcibly lengthened. Whilst eccentric training can be a useful tool for promoting muscle growth in the body building arena, for the average Joe it’s a damaging practice which reduces concentric strength.

    Lest we also not forget that fast twitch fibres are those with the greatest potential for growth. With distance running you’re shifting the balance from fast to slow twitch dominance, and muscles which ultimately will not be as big.
    We also shouldn’t forget the positive hormonal effects of strength training which are negligible in endurance training. Test and GH levels will often decline after a long run, whereas after sprinting or weight training these may often increase.

    And finally…
    ..there’s good old fashioned common sense and natural adaptation. If each pound of weight is worth 2 seconds per mile, and muscle is metabolically active (so has a high energy cost), and you’re stressing your body through running, what do you think the adaptations to that stress will be?
    I wish you’d just burn fat magically to make you lighter but fat is stored energy- physics dictates it can’t be created or destroyed, just converted from one form to another- so it’ll dump the muscle.

    In the real world anybody who is muscular and started running knows you lose muscle.
    I’m not a scientist or a doctor, but I’m a personal trainer who over the past 10+ years has gone through running, cycling, boxing and bodybuilding. Just 5 years ago I did a photoshoot for a popular Men’s magazine and weighed circa 92kg at single digit bodyfat.
    So not huge but bigger than most with the normal style of physique you see in these mags.
    Prior to that I was big into mountain biking with a few good results at regional level, and right now I’m training for 2 fell running events. First is 15 miles, second is 21 miles.

    Let me assure you I’ve always trained hard and been spot on with my diet and programming but when I was cycling I could never get ‘big’ and now I’m running regularly I’ve lost kilos from all my major lifts and my weight is around 88kg with higher BF.

    Everything is relative but without incredible genetics or drugs you will NEVER be a fast, muscular, endurance runner.

  8. simplegirl says

    You mean runners can also build muscle? Okay. I don’t have big muscular thigh. I am 14 and a girl. I weigh 48 kg and my sister is about 80 kg. I just want to lose fat I don’t want to have any big thighs of any factors — muscle or fat.
    So, please tell me.. I promise I will build enough muscle and eat proteins but I will run instead of sprinting. Because I don’t feel like the muscular manly thigh in a girl’s body. Please help me suggest?
    Will running help me lose “FAT” in thighs?

    • Keith says

      You are still so extremely young.

      If you want to lose fat just focus on cleaning up your diet. Don’t do any extreme diets. Just start replacing more unhealthy processed foods in your diet with more whole, nutritious foods.

  9. JRozenboom says

    I’ve been reading a fair amount of articles in this site recently, and I must say we’ll done! As a whole your articles make the best possible effort to take a non-bias approach (an approach that seems to be lacking on most fitness sites). The only one I seem to have disagreed with so far was your article on p90x, and that was only on how the premise of you not recommending it (the article was written well, had a non-bias approach, and didn’t overly bash. That’s why I have kept up reading and following this site) now that’s out of the way.
    Just to give everyone an idea of my workout routines, i strength train around 3-4 times a week, with cardio on those days as well “running anywhere from 5-11 miles). I tend to run daily. Even on my “off” days I run 2-6 miles (not all at once of course). I’m by no means small or large. 6’1 200lbs, 40″ chest, 32″ waist (measurement not pants size, I can fit into size 30 jeans) I just tend to have a very large frame (broad shoulders and a small waist). Running does wonders on my overall feeling of well being, from my lungs to my mental health. That being said, I didn’t get to that type of mileage without some pains along the way. If you’re going to run like that I highly recommend doing ankle and arch strengthening exercises. All in all though, running is a great first step in getting in shape.

  10. markp says

    I take my hat off to anyone who excersises on a regular basis…i know people have died on marathons like the other guy said….but i suggest more people die because they didnt excercise at all.we all love our sports be it sprinting or endurance and both sets of prople should be proud of not sitting on thier ass.

  11. Joe O'Reilly says

    This article is about as useful as a chocolate hairdryer. All you are saying is that a marathon runner “could put on muscle if they want to”.

    What? You mean if they stop concentrating on running and started lifting weights?!!

    I really don’t think the point of these type of pictures is to say a marathon runner CAN’T put on muscle.

    They are to show what type of training is best for getting in good shape.

    In that sense the picture absolutely tells the truth:

    If you want to be skinny but good at marathons, then run a lot.

    If you want to get in good shape then lift weights and do sprints.

    What is wrong with people that they always have to try over complicate things….

    • Keith says

      I don’t know what you’re talking about but chocolate hairdryers are delicious.

      It’s all about where you put your focus.

      People who run marathons can very well put on more muscle than what stereotypes portray but most simply have no desire to and doing so would take focus away from their marathon training.

      • Joe O'Reilly says

        Delicious? Yes. Useful? No!

        Maybe I should have gone with the screen door on a submarine analogy.

        Either way your entire argument was based on a picture you say people use to show that marathon runners “can’ t put on muscle” where as that is not what these comparison pics are for.

        They are to show what type of training is best for getting you a better body composition.

        Marathon running – No.

        Sprinting/Weight training – Yes.

  12. Ryu Hirakashi says

    This article does speak volumes about the kinds of people who sprint or run long distance. I am a long distance runner. I was told to sprint when I was in high school, but I HATED every second of it.. Over the years I’ve learned that my body is good at running fast miles. I can’t change that.

    That being said, I’ve had no desire to join a gym to look like a gym rat. I’ve just never understood people like that. I can’t relate to them in any way. Looking at me, you’d think I’d spent some time in the weight room, but I’ve got the type of body I have because of my genes and long distance running. Who needs to look like the terminator when you’re running 60-70 miles a week.

  13. Leo says

    Awesome article. Another reason why long distance runners don’t have much muscle is pretty much the same reasons why birds have hollow bones. Extra muscle equals more weight to carry during long runs. The body adjusts.

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