The Truth About Sprinters vs. Marathon Runners

97 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?

Elizabeth Egbert - January 16, 2017

Your article on sprinter and distance runners is completely wrong and totally bias towards sprinters. Distance runners do have muscle but it is lean, long muscle that is geared towards running long distances. Sprinters alike in fact have the same amount of muscles as distance runners, however, it is developed differently. Know for being fast, sprinters have type 2 muscle or fast twitch fibers, which is explosive, and runs out of steam quickly. They also need to tear through the air, therefore are bulkley. Distance runners like sprinters train their muscles, but in a different way. Working largely on their aerobic system( needs O2), distance runners have muscle that is tailored toward endurance training. In developing this system, distance runners have mostly slow twitch fibers( do not tire quickly, but are not as fast) which allow them to run incredible distances.
In your article, you also say that distance runners do not weight lift. Distance runners in fact do weight lift, for purposes of building core, gluteal, and hip strength. In fact, for some professional athletes, it is part of their regular training schedule. Like sprinters, they need a stable core as it helps maintain form and posture. Ultimately, you are no where near correct on this point.
In your article, you say that distance runners are typically skinnier than sprinters. Yes, this is true, but not for the reason you state. Sprinters at max, race the 400 meter this is less than 1/8th of the distance of a marathon. Distance runners race 1-over 20 miles(you will see the body type differences in people who run the 1500, and the marathon), therefore need to be light, as it takes less energy to propel the body if it is lighter. Lastly, you state that distance runners are pale. This is an untrue statement that has no evidence to support it. Anyone can sprint, or run long distances regardless of their skin color. Yes, you see a lot of african americans competing in sprinting events, but you also see a lot of very successful distance runners of the same color. Take Mo Farah and Mare Dibaba for example. Dibaba happens the reigning world champion in the olympic Marathon and Ferah is the olympic champion in the 10,000. Are they black?
Although you do have some valid points in your article, much of it is incorrect and you need to re-educate yourself. Clearly there is no present knowledge about the physiology and anatomy of different types of muscle, therefore the points you make cannot be supported logicly. You are making false statements and lying to your readers.

    Keith - January 16, 2017

    Dude you’re looking way too deep into this.

    All i’m saying is, if you want to build substantial amounts of muscle, you prob can’t do that while training for a marathon. You only have so much energy to use, and you need to decide if you want to dedicate that to running or weight lifting.

    And the black person thing was a joke about the pic people have reposted a million times. I don’t think only black people can be sprinters.

Bon - August 12, 2016

Just recently some long distance runners appear emaciated. No visible fat and thin muscles. Heads not proportioned to the rest of their body. Clearly they could be from a third world starving population. Human anatomy and physiology sciences explain why this body type is far from healthy. The general USA population has a percentage of people suffering from eating disorders. They die young from inadequate nutrition, organs are damaged, sometimes permanently. There is a trend to acquire this look in our population, athletic or not.

John - August 7, 2016

The easy and intuitive way to think about this is car sizes. A small car will need less fuel to cover the same distance as a larger car. If you have a lot of muscle mass your heart has to work harder to pump blood around your whole body.

Jeanine - August 2, 2016

This is so interesting! I have ran marathons for several years and never had fast times, or the “runners” body type. I’m more curvy. Then I started putting my focus on weight training, and sprints. Once I was conditioned I slowly increased my long runs, one time per week. The rest…sprints and weights. I got my best marathon time, and totally te shaped my body. I’m doing research to get more info on people who bodybuild and run. It can be done! I didn’t lose the muscle I worked hard to gain. ((Plenty of my friends warned me I would!)) 😉

    Vijay - September 10, 2016

    Hi Jeanine.

    Why u r saying makes sense and caught my attention when u said u got the best marathon time.
    I think u r going in the right direction.
    Kindly explain when u said u slowly increased long runs one time per week after u got conditioned.
    I think the strategy shud be. Endurance training and muscle gaining or weight training to get best marathon time.
    But the question remains. How much of endurance training and how much of weight training.?
    How to find the balance.?
    Let us try to find out.
    If u can mail me at vijay.lanj@gmail.com.
    May be we ‘ll find a way.

Amanda - July 12, 2016

There is no misconceptions, marathon type cardio tends to prioritize muscle mass due to the length of the work. Your body can’t simply access fat stores over great lengths of time, that’s when gluconogensis kicks in (or however you spell it) and muscle is burned for fuel. That’s why marathoners are skinny and weak

We were designed to sprint, as if we were hunting our dinner, not go out for long drawn out jobs over 5km-25km.

    Keith - July 12, 2016

    What? There are huge misconceptions on this topic.

    Most marathoners don’t even put a focus on weight lifting, and that’s the primary reason they are skinny.

    Alex - July 26, 2016

    Pretty sure you have that completely the wrong way around Amanda. We aren’t cheetahs; even Usain Bolt couldn’t sprint down a gazelle. Early humans (and modern tribal hunters) use two things to hunt: their brains and their ability to run for hours in the midday sun without dying of heatstroke. A gazelle will outrun you when you first go after it, but over hours of chasing it’ll get hot and tired until you can chase it down and finish it off.

    So yeah, no offense but basically the exact opposite of what you asserted.

      Ben - September 3, 2016

      We didnt use our ability to run to hunt prey, we used our ability to walk / slow jog, we stalked our prey, like you say for hours at a time and wore it down but we didnt run whilst doing this we walked. For the last 10,000 years we got dogs to do the our running for us.

    JOHN - August 17, 2016

    I agree with AMANADA

    Aroy - September 19, 2016

    Educate yourself please with this link below. Cheer up!

    “We were designed to sprint, as if we were hunting our dinner, not go out for long drawn out jobs over 5km-25km.”


Adam - May 27, 2016

It dosent Matter what you look like – im married and couldnt give a damn what people think. All that matters is i reach my goal of 2.45 marathon this year

Victor Peters - May 24, 2016

I’ve been a long distance runner for over 40 years and thru these years I really never lost muscle mass. I was also well proportioned. I only noticed losing muscle in my 60’s. I do believe too that one do lose muscle mass as u age.

Sakhile - May 23, 2016

I like to run and do other types of workouts like Pilates and dumbbell workouts. When I train for 21 km races I lose some wight every time, even if I continue with the other workouts. I love to run and I would like to run a full 42 km marathon one day, but I am afraid to increase my distance because I get thinner when I run longer. That is the truth. I want to run longer without getting thinner ( no offence but I do not like the look). So should I increase my weight training as well?

    Keith - May 23, 2016

    Yes I believe all people should be weight training in any sport if they can.

    Vijay - September 10, 2016

    Hi Sakhile,
    I wud like to dig some facts and rediscover something from yr experience Can u pl elaborate on yr trainings schedule when u trained for 21 km.
    Did u give sufficient rest to yr body?
    Did u take enough proteins?.
    Please reply.

N Rogers - May 7, 2016

Its well known that when your bodies glycogen/glucose is used up, your body breaks down muscle tissue for energy. This is just fact.

    Keith - May 8, 2016

    Not really. Your body will break down body fat first. Just because you start running, doesn’t lead to a loss in muscle.

    Viktor - July 21, 2016

    Losing glycogen in the moment of your run is a fact indeed. What you forgot to mention is that when you finish let’s say a 10 mile or more run and you eat a big plate of spaghetti your glycogen reserves are being restored. You’re burning carbs during the run but after the run you replace them by eating correctly. This is the main reason why bodybuilders especially think they are losing muscle. Right after the cardio workout they look flat. Try eating correctly and then look again 2 days later.

    JOHN - August 17, 2016


    Laura - January 10, 2017

    Yes but I and most distAnce runners bring glycogen/glu c rose treats along with them on long runs to keep going. I personally bring figs I eat them like at mile 6 or 7.

Mike - May 5, 2016

It’s low testosterone due to you body creating a chemical called cortisol which comes from stress it prevents testosterone from being made. these athletes bodies can get really stressed out. I’ll explain it like this some marathon runners may run around 200 or more miles. Put that into perspective do you even drive that much in your car every week I don’t. Obviously this will stress out your body, but there are many ways for you to help your body create testosterone more. You can lift, sprint, hit the heavy bag, push-ups etc.. The point is you will not look this skinny unless you run that much, running is great for you body it can make you stronger and and give you better cardio so when someone else may be gassing put in a flag football game you are still feeling great. I personally think if you want to lose weight and get lean running isn’t a bad idea at all. Make sure you are responsible about it of course get a good diet eat your carbs protein whatever. Just don’t run 200 miles of course and when you do run attempt to do it in the morning this helps your body learn to burn fat as energy because usually early morning your doing empty stomach cardio, my step father is a body builder and I’ll tell you this there is not one body builder that doesn’t do cardio. You must understand that there is other runners that run a lot of miles and still look great. For instance Nick Simmons a great middle distance runner who was a world champion in the 800 he actually runs 70 miles a week on his pre season but also incorporates weights and explosive exercises as well. Look him up his body may surprise you. Also remember a lot of runners bodies also have a lot to do with genetics i am a highschool runner and there is a distance runner who’s name is Isaac Green he probably weighs close to 200 pounds of course he’s tall but he also looks like a football player with a lot of mass on him. He has ran a 14:55 in the 5k as well as a 4:19 in the 1600 and 1:52 in the 800. So look up some of the names I included and come back and tell me how skinny these athletes are

Mike potere - April 30, 2016

I am no expert on this subject but I believe that a very important point needs to also be brought to light. And that is the production of testosterone. I have read several times over the years that a long distance runner may not have much muscle mass in his legs as well as his upper body because his body has decreased the production of testosterone because the body knows that running long distances with alot of muscle mass is inefficient. On the other hand, Sprinters can have quite a bit of muscle mass because a sprinters body increases the production of testerone because it is more efficient to have muscle mass when performing sprints. If u look at it from a weight lifters point of view, it is common knowledge that one technique to increase the production of testosterone is to do sprints. This increase in testosterone, from doing sprints, not only yields an increase in muscle mass in a weight lifters legs but also in the upper body because the testosterone is distributed, to all muscle tissue, through the bloodstream. Your body may be making decisions for you without discussing it with you first!

Nancy - April 14, 2016

I find that having a combo of 2 mile run ( on treadmill ) then 30 min weights and finish with 30 min swim works well for me. I keep my weight steady, have energy, and my bone scans have improved ( I have osteoporosis )
I’m turning 60 soon and have kept a 108- 110 lb frame.
It’s a great routine I try to keep up 2-3 times weekly. I eat sensibly, no restrictions !

    Keith - April 14, 2016

    That sounds like a fantastic plan, keep it up.

Jamie Mattinson - April 6, 2016

I’m so glad to see the myth about skinny runners being debunked – just look at all the marathon runners that are well rounded and big like hunter Cameron Hanes!

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this idea – since using it my feet and calves are worked and strengthened a lot more: http://www.eternalgreatness.com/running-barefoot/

Jorge Guerrero - April 1, 2016

I have done both distance running and sprinting at the intercollegiate level. The main reason that distance runners don’t gain weights in muscle is because it slows them down. Muscle makes the body heavy. Sprinters need the muscle to gain as much “thrust” as they possibly can to accelerate as quickly as possible.
Muscle mass in runners is put on or left off for utility’s sake.

Vargarita - December 11, 2015

I like the statement that we train for our sport and not for our look. It really should be like that. We chose our sport because we like doing it and not because we want to be thin or something.
But I don’t agree 100% that we don’t have muscles or that we have less muscles. I run two marathons a year and I can say that I have muscles in my legs etc. Of course my upper body is weak, sure, because even if I do some cross training it’s not enough to build up massive muscles – like a body builder has. On the other hand to be honest I don’t care 🙂 I don’t because I accept my body as it is now because I can rely on my body during my races. These legs took me to the finish line when I messed up my tactic for example. I was menthaly broken, but my body did not give up for me. Obviously even if I do sometimes some strengths trainings but it’s for my cross training. And I am ok with it. I can confirm that I do have muscles because without muscles you can’t run a marathon. That’s obvious. But I don’t think we should compare as sports are different and every sport requires different skills and muscles and training. The main thing is that we are passionate about the sport we do. 🙂

    Keith - December 11, 2015

    Compared to a bodybuilder, marathonn runners do in general have less muscle and always will. Not a bad thing but it’s an opportunity cost. You simply can’t put in the same amount of effort into maximizing muscle growth while maximizing performance as a runner.

      ellerunner - July 31, 2016

      It’s not about not having time lol! Also what world do you live in? Look at most marathoners at the Olympics! You will notice that most are strong and lean! Most do strength training and no one is interested in gaining muscle mass because it slows them down! Also the “marathoner” in the photo is not a pro so not a valid comparison.

        Keith - July 31, 2016

        Depends on how you define “strong.”

        A marathoner is not strong compared to a powerlifter.

        But hey, if you’re happy with the way you look, that’s all that matters.


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