The Truth About Sprinters vs. Marathon Runners

119 Comments | Training

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?

The Truth
October 27, 2017

A well rounded athlete can look like a body builder while running long distances and also lifting weights. Believing generalizations is a huge mistake. It doesn’t have to be one way or the other. A long distance runner can also work on sprinting and an example of a well rounded athlete is the boxer. Look at the heavy weight boxer Deontay Wilder. He looks like a body builder and he sometimes runs marathons. People should change their rigid set of beliefs because nothing is impossible. While it will be more difficult to gain muscle while running long distances, it certainly will not destroy muscles as long as the proper diet and strength training is incorporated. I run 6miles and sprint during the run and my muscles only look more defined.

    October 27, 2017

    Agreed but it’s more about focusing your efforts.

    Very few people can be great at a ton of diff things. You might be a world class marathon runner, but chances are, you’re simply not going to have the energy and resources to become a bodybuilder at the same time.

October 13, 2017

Here is my view a d its a peraonal experience.i run an averafe of 6 marathons, 2 x 56km and 1 x 90 race with several 21 km races almost every weekend. I have just increased my protein, carbs and fat intake and still maintain the same speed. Result was that i have the same big legs with 68cm circumference. My weight is a solid 80kg.it boils down to your diet. Btw, i dont take and dont beleive in supplements.everything is from the diet. I have to agree based on my personal experience

August 22, 2017

+Bruce You feel ’embarrassed’ at somebody else’s stick-legs? WHY, since that’s none of your business?

August 7, 2017

Lots of aerobic conditioning and muscle mass can and do go together where it makes sense for the sport. An elite swimmer (think Michael Phelps) will put at least 20 hours of mostly aerobic work in per week – more than an elite marathoner. (Why? Because this much running would injure you. It’s too high impact. Top ranked juniors can swim 6 hours/day without injury). All the top swimmers have plenty of muscle mass. And eat like horses.

The same goes for world class rowers (heavyweight only), cross country skiers, and some cyclists (guys who are the sprinters in the Tour de France – Marcus Kittel, for example – who can ride all day, are fast as hell, but don’t climb well).

All of these are serious endurance athletes, but their competitiveness isn’t weight limited and is aided by more muscle mass.

Running times beyond 400m are seriously limited by weight, so distance runners look to be as whip thin as possible. Elites will lift weights only to the extent needed to reduce injury risk or increase speed. The physics of the sport dictate that the top guys are going to be really tiny and look thin. Someone who is naturally muscular (say 5′ 8″ and 175 with low body fat) who wants to be a world class 5k runner is going to have to figure out how to lose 40 lbs of muscle to be competitive.

June 30, 2017

Excellently put and typed. Right to the point that you get good at what you repetitively train at. Makes you realize you should definitely balance your training so you can be well rounded in all areas of fitness..so you don’t have weaknesses.

June 14, 2017

On average a man burns 135 calories running one mile, A marathon is 26 miles so that’s around 3500 calories it is impossible to eat 3500 calories before a marathon ,let’s also think about where the word marathon came from in respect to running. Pheidippides running to tell the news of a battle from marathon to Athens, About 25 miles …he died from exhaustion. That’s why people log countless miles to train and are going to lose muscle. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. But here is a good way to be, those that are faster than me i am stronger than them and those that are stronger than me i am faster than them. You can be well rounded if you balance strength and endurance.

Ann Stokman
May 22, 2017

Great article

May 16, 2017

Hello.sory but you are wrong.body of a man can be stronger in a short period or weeak in long period both them not works.runing more than 10-20km is impossible to bild muscle.becaus to make big muscle you need to have enough carbo,protein,and amino acid an atlet that run more than 20km spend more carbos,protein and amino acids than hi take from food.even if he add from supplements don t works because naturaly baby of a man is not ready fore that long run.so you are 100% wrong.

May 7, 2017

I think to lose muscles you need to starve yourself. Just running (or other aerobic exercise) will not reduce your muscles. I am a girl and I don’t want bulky muscles and I really don’t want sprinter’s legs. And unfortunately to get the body I want I have to do aerobic exercise (running, barre and yoga) 2 hours a day (every day!) and restrict calories. Still have some muscles :).

April 24, 2017

Bodybuilders who run, run to cut fat from their body. They want a huge upper body. Big leg and small waist. They don’t want to overdo it in running and look scrawny and sick.

April 13, 2017

Extra weight (bulky, useless muscle) is the last thing you want when running long distance. Ever seen one if those top heavy bodybuilders with stick legs run at the gym? Embarrassing.

    August 22, 2017

    Bruce Stop looking at other people’s legs then.. YOU are Embarrassing yourself by getting so easily embarrassed (that too for no reason!)!

Bad article reader
April 9, 2017

Horrible inaccurate article. Waste of time reading it.

February 11, 2017

I believe you have this all wrong. According to an expert on the subject, Doug McGuff, MD, author of Body by Science (2009), muscle wasting occurs when doing a steady state activity (conventional aerobic exercise such a long distance running) for a long period. According to McGuff, long distance running does not produce any metabolic adaptations (engagement of fast twitch fibers) and the price paid is muscle wasting or the destruction of the most productive and protective tissue of your body. McGuff states that when glycogen stores are depleted, muscle tissue is converted into its constituent amino acids and converted to glucose in the liver via the process of gluconeogenesis.

    February 11, 2017

    Never heard of the guy. But does the study take into account calorie/protein intake plus whether or not the person is doing any resistance training in addition to the distance running?


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