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?

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 60 comments
nina - October 14, 2015

You made it seem as though runners don’t do anything but run at all.
I feel as though you should have addressed that they do other things than just pure running or else you are allowing people to leave after reading your article with missing/ wrong information.

    Keith - October 15, 2015

    I’m saying they put the majority of their focus in running. Just like bodybuilders put their focus in weight lifting and sprinters put their focus in sprinting.

Tuxedo Junction 75 - October 9, 2015

Great article, I found it interesting. Most articles like these I read online tend to be in favor of marathons over sprinting. And based on the comments it seems most prefer marathons here as well. So without further ado here are my two cents…

I always believed in working the fast twitch muscle fibers. Everything I do in the gym is geared towards making them fire faster and a bit stronger. Focusing on those helped me maintain fitness during the second half of my military career, particularly after 9/11. I am retired now but continue to run in the 200/400 meters to maintain them in the now and later years. Slow twitch never go away and they tend to get used often enough as far as I’m concerned. I only take it slowly when returning to weights after some time away or learning a new weight lifting technique. Once the neuromuscular system adapts after a week or two I speed it up a bit more every session. Doing that also gives the muscles their definition. Which in turn can keep your metabolism ramped up all day, every day. Also it keeps the growth hormones at optimal levels.

My goal is really to maintain a compact muscular build, which is ideal for sprints. But it’s also practical in day to day activities where I don’t have excess muscle to haul around but more than enough strength to do lots of tasks without great fatigue. In my military career (IT) I spent a good deal of time hauling computer systems and servers so it definitely kept me at the top of my game.

Anyways 48 to 72 hours of rest between sessions I found is ideal. Track work is completed twice a week. I like to train with the college kids where I am taking classes at. It’s hard work but also quite fun.

You can tell I favor the sprinter just a bit more. Nothing wrong with the Prefontaine look. It was the look most military tended to have. I just wanted to do my part to show a little versatility and leaned more towards a Michael Johnson-esque build. But in the end I always say do whatever motivates you to keep doing it. Having a little fun with it can also go a long way too!

Ralph - October 5, 2015

Well i got faster on my longer races (10k,21k) by doing some deadlifts and backsquats to train my hamstrings and m glutes. I had a achilles tendinosis who had been diagnosed because of some major strength inbalances in m calfs and hip muscles. My calfs could develop more strength than m hamstrings on over 20k runs…Now i feel stronger in both my feet and my hips. My stride is faster and more powerfull…plus i run in xero sandals…

Γιώργος - September 13, 2015

I can’t believe how many times Keith had to repeat him self over the same comments/questions about the same thing…

    Keith - September 13, 2015

    lol it’s cool. Some people just don’t read the comments.

NoBroSciencePlease - September 3, 2015

Elite athletes are usually highly talented; in other words, they have genetic advantages that enable them to get more out of training than the average trainee. One shouldn’t be surprised that elite marathoners and sprinters are going to have markedly differing body physiques. Much of this can be chalked to the artificially selective nature of their respective sports and not to training.

I doubt marathon and sprinting training for two sets of trainees randomly selected from the general population would look anywhere near as different as the photo of the marathoner and sprinter above. The winners between the two groups might appear the significantly different, but then we’d once again be artificially selecting for extreme performance, which is likely to be heavily genetics dependent. A better way to assess the effect training has on both populations would be to compare their average muscle mass.

    Keith - September 5, 2015

    You seem to be implying that elite athletes are born “elite.”

    A marathoner typically has much less muscle because they don’t train with weights at the same level of intensity as a lifter or sprinter.

      Ashlee - October 15, 2015

      Elite athletes ARE born elite – it’s a survivorship bias. Obviously, there’s choice in the matter (genetics vs epigenetics), but the elite in any sport are there because they were born with the right tools in the toolshed. I can sharpen my running tools til the cows come home, but I’ll never be Meb K.

        Keith - October 15, 2015

        Why would you ever say that?

          Ashlee - October 15, 2015

          Well, I just wanted to point out that some people truly are born with gifts. Some are naturally a little faster, or a little stronger, or a little more prone to knee injury, etc. I am not good at accepting my limitations – this causes me injuries. I train with people MUCH better than me, but I try to keep up. This takes a physical and psychological toll. I think it’s better to figure out what you bring to the table and maximize that idiosyncrasy… I think I just went off-topic!

Carson - August 25, 2015

I really appreciated this post – when I started my freshman year of highschool, I joined the cross country running team and weighed in at 110 lbs (I was 5’8″-5’9″). I was in great shape, but my physique wasn’t that of a body builder. I toned out, but also put on 20 lbs of muscle (mostly in my legs). Yet I was still very skinny. I finished my freshman year with distance track and was 5’10” at 135 lbs.
Thanks for reminding that runners aren’t weak – we just have different fitness goals.

Steve - August 19, 2015

Ok I’m a bit confused. My understanding is maintaining a high heart rate burns carbs then muscle. A lower heart rate burns fat. So for a muscle builder the diet is hi protein and hi carb, for weight loss its hi protein and low carb. But a runners diet whos frame is obviously tiny is hi carb low protein…so shouldn’t a weight loss person be focused on a runners diet and run a lot?

    Keith Lai - August 19, 2015

    your heart rate isn’t a necessary determinant for burning fat.

    Your heart rate can go up before an interview or before you ask a girl out, but that doesn’t mean you’re burning fat.

    A person who wants to lose weight should get plenty of protein to maintain muscle and a moderate amount of carbs and fats to maintain energy and regulate hormones.

John - July 17, 2015

couple things
1) I used to be 230 pounds at 5’7″- obese. I lost 77 pounds in just over 6 months, roughly 12 pounds a month by eating only 1300 cals a day, a mix of protein and veggies.

I did a ton of cardio (jumping rope above all), but I also did a lot of plyometrics and body weight exercises.(push ups, pull ups etc)

Once I got to 153 i decided that was enough and started to hit the weights to fill out, meanwhile adding in a 5k 3 days a week

Which pertains to the threshold you spoke of. At 170 pounds I can run a 5k at a 7 min mile. If I bulk up above 170, currently im about 180, my 5k time is roughly 8 min to 8:20 a mile. The added 10 pounds of muscle make a difference. I may look beefier, but my running has slowed.

Its all a trade off. During summer I want to bulk and lean, winter I do a lot of indoor cardio to burn off the extra calories im taking due to the winter.

Lana - June 10, 2015

Love reading your stuff. One question: In the article “Extreme Weight Loss: How Much Weight Can You Lose In A Week??” you mentioned an article results of which revealed that “One group only did traditional cardio, while the other group only did weight training. Both groups ate 800 calories a day. At the end of the study, both groups lost large amounts of weight, but the one that only did cardio lost large amounts of lean muscle mass.” You also claim that running does not make you lose muscle, Would that be correct to assume that the runners in the study lost lean muscle because they were on very low calorie diet? I am a runner and I wonder that if I eat an appropriate amount of calories, I should not lose that muscle but I will lose fat? Thanks in advance.

    Keith - June 10, 2015

    running + weight training will not make you lose muscle assuming you have adequate protein intake and strength doesn’t diminish.

    ONLY running will cause muscle loss because you’re not weight lifting.

    make sense?

      Lana - June 10, 2015

      Thank you for the response. Would fat go before muscle though (assuming there is calorie deficit)?
      Looks like I will have to start doing weights. Everything else on your website makes so much sense, I guess you are right here as well: there is no other way around since I want to gain some muscle. I wish there was an alternative to going to the gym and do weight-like training at home (such as in PX90, sorry, I know you hate those).

        Keith - June 10, 2015

        well if you have no muscle in the first place, it wouldn’t make much of a difference…

siva - June 4, 2015

man u missed the most important thing of all
its your diet running long distances burns a hell lota calories and if u dont compensate it you are gona end up losing muscle

    Keith - June 4, 2015

    Diet is one factor, the other big ones are the time, energy, and stress that long distance running takes away from one’s ability to lift super heavy.

      siva - June 4, 2015

      losing muscle or no ,losing fat or no depends only on one thing your damn diet if u ren long distances and still eat like 3500 calories a day and 20% protein it certainly depends ok energy no question diet of cuz u get tired from it but if u compensate tye burned calories u aint gona lose weight or muscle thats my point

Damein - May 23, 2015

So as a runner is there a way for me to run long distance but still look and feel like a sprinter or should I change. I have been running for a few years now, but I refuse to look “Toothpick skinny” that’s just not my me!

    Keith - May 25, 2015

    Start lifting weights, eating A LOT more, and get enough protein. You’ll some muscle but there will be a threshold where your running will begin to interfere with your marathon running.

largo - May 18, 2015

What about the soldiers? They usually run long distances and then they go exercising real hard. They teach them how to survive in worst conditions. But they still stay strong, healthy and focused

    Keith - May 18, 2015

    yeah you’re right. It’s all about context.

    Soliders don’t train for marathons, they do run long distance but not to the extreme of marathon runners.

      Mustafa - August 29, 2015

      So I am assuming a 5k is good? Because that’s what I have in mind for myself, a goal of military commendable 18 minutes or less 5k along with other exercises. My plan is one day running (with stretches before and after) and another day of other exercises like weight lifting, push-ups, squats and so on. I think through this I can avoid the weakness you mentioned in the article.

        Keith - August 30, 2015

        Good or bad in what sense?

        If you need to do it for the military then you need to train for that and I cam definitely not the guy to talk to if you want a specialized running routine.

greg - May 13, 2015

”For a runner, lifting weights is just time wasted that could be focused on improving their running.”

And of course adding some muscle to hamstrings and posterior chain in general wouldn’t make you run faster /have a more powerful stride due to increased force production..
Straw man article: Running long distances doesn’t mean you lose muscle so there’s no need to weight train.

    Keith - May 13, 2015

    Read the article. My point is you can’t focus on lifting and marathon training at the same time. Doesn’t mean you can’t add in some weight lifting.


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