The Truth About Sprinters vs. Marathon Runners

September 16, 2016 | 166 Comments

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?

166 Comments - Leave Your Thoughts

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  1. Long distance cardio is terrible for your health, especially your heart. It’s a tremendous strain plus it weakens your immune system. I do only HIIT and interval-style cardio and weights. I’ve had three babies and I have a abs and wear a size two. Oh, and I eat. A lot.

    1. Wow. Just wow. I can’t stop laughing. No offense…you’re not the sharpest tack in the box if you really believe that.

    2. I was overweight and was sick and tired all the time. Now i cycle for 60 miles a day for work for an year. And i feel great. Lost a lot of weight and havent felt healthier.i also run 2 days a week and 1 time i do the gym. And judo training on saterday. And long distance cardio helped me lot in gains, stamina and endurance in my sport and life.

  2. this article has a very distinctive flair to it. i wonder (((who))) is behind it. I mean the editor, not the puppet writer

  3. I don’t think whoever wrote this article is very educated. Long distance runners have little muscle mass because if you’re running a long distance, you need to be as light as possible. For sprinting, however, during the short 100 meters in a race, weight won’t carry you down so sprinters build up muscle to have as much power as possible to go the short distance.

    1. not what i said. I said, people have different goals. If you want to train for a marathon, you typically don’t have the energy/resources to maximize muscle growth as well.

    2. The main reason is that there are different type of muscle fibres. Sprinters have mainly type IIb whereas long distance runners have type I and type IIa. Type IIb uses anaerobic metabolism and is very bulky. Type I uses aerobic metabolism and is not bulky.

  4. Great article! I’m so tired of people body shaming marathon runners. As a female, I would never want to look like I could bench press my own weight. I personally don’t find extreme body building physiques attractive. I don’t go around shaming them for the way they look. If you’re not into endurance sporting, don’t run long distances. If you aren’t into heavy weights don’t lift. What a marathon runner may lack in physical strength, they make up in endurance and the opposite goes for body builders. These are two completely different ways to exercise. Sheesh!

  5. I came here looking for information for my persuasive essay I am writing. Keith, you have a good start, I am a body builder personally but both my parents prefer the distance route and have run multiple marathons. Distance running does in fact burn muscle fiber though. Our bodies adapt to what it’s thrown into. I think one of the biggest reasons, which while reading this article I was waiting for, is supplying oxygen to a muscular frame is far more extensive than a thinner one. A muscular person can be good at running but they will never be as good as Dathan Ritzenhein for example, who is freakishly skinny in my opinion. If someone runs as much as a distance runner has to in preparation for a marathon, their bodies would immediately start eliminating it’s muscle which makes it easier to supply more oxygen to it.

    This is also highly dependent on ones VO2 level, which is the rate that someone can consume oxygen. All humans have a peak and that’s roughly 85 ml/kg/min, where as a horse for instance has a maximum of 200ml/kg/min. This is why they can run so much longer then we can. Our muscle requires high amounts of oxygen while it’s being used and running by far requires the most when it’s for that long, the only way for the body to adapt to that much running at some point is to simply eliminate muscle so it doesn’t need to fuel as much of it.

    Great concept to write on but I’d get a little more information though.

  6. Well, I must say, my muscle mass has diminished quite a bit over the past year, since beginning long distance running (about 25-30 miles per week on average). That said, my waist is slim, bodyfat at all time lows, and I feel great. What is equally puzzling is, my strength is up some-despite the loss of mass. So, am I experiencing muscle loss due to the running, or some sort of restructuring of the fibers, etc? It is odd I would lose so much volume, but still benching and curling the same amount of weight.

  7. A smart person will utilize the benefits of sprinting, long distance and weight training and not engage in silly, non sensical debates. It’s like trying to argue which is better, fruits or vegetables.

    1. Are you mentally handicapped? The author is just trying shoot down misconceptions that were spread by idiots like you.

  8. Nobody, nor this article has mentioned that there are 2 different types of muscle fiber. Marathon runners have a less-bulkier type of fiber which is why they appear to be leaner than sprinters. Long-distance training is the only sport that lengthens lifespan, but extreme endurance training may cause cardiovascular problems:

    1. Long distance running is the only sport that can increase life span? What utter bs. Where exactly did you get that nugget of information from. Your statement is not even supported by the article you posted. I know of no research that reaches this conclusion from gathered data. If you are going to make contentions like this you need to back them up with relevant longitudinal studies published in peer reviewed journals. I challenge you to present even one.

  9. Just out of curiosity, why does it seem that those who develop eating disorders and develop an unhealthy relationship with exercise tend (not always) to run for long periods of time as if training for a marathon that never comes? They could just as easily do repetitive sets of sprints and achieve the same effect if their body is not being fed properly. Also, why is it that in most cases of exercise induced eating disorders it is distance runners and not sprinters?

  10. Iam a long distance runner but also do weight lifting as part of my training and have no problem with it.

  11. I wonder why all running communities are so fixated on endurance running, from 5ks to ultras? The science suggests that endurance running has diminishing wellness effects after age 50. High intensity interval training has been shown to be more conducive to wellness after age 50, by both supporting and stimulating hormones, and strength. The natural loss of muscle fiber due to aging (sarcopenia) isn’t going to be improved much by long slow plodding distance runs. Sprint intervals on hills or the track are far better. HIIT has been shown to be a more effective way to burn fat, and has even been linked to disease prevention.

    Also, the sport of Masters Athletics (Track and Field competition) is extremely well organized with national, regional, and world championships every year; along with a world ranking system (

    Numerous studies have shown the diminishing returns on longevity and wellness of endurance running past the age of 50. In a study involving 52,600 people followed for three decades, those who ran a lot—more than 20 to 25 miles a week—lost the longevity advantage.

      1. It’s also a challenge to ‘run your age’ in the 400m when you get in your 50s. I first did it at age 55, just missed it at age 54. It’s definitely an elite status. Now at 58, I’m trying to run my age minus 3, 55 in the 400m. Long sprint intervals … HIIT is the fountain of youth if there ever was one.

        1. well then you have the people come in and say “age is just a number.” 🙂

          I don’t care if people run. THey can do what they want. I agree, people should try sprints, but hey, their life their rules.

          1. Have you noticed, the suddenly growing ‘fitness/wellness industry’… mostly young people trying to make a buck as trainers, nutritionists, etc…?

            I think there is a vast difference between elite athletics and ‘fitness.’ Most of the fitness industry seems totally consumed by body image.. ‘getting ripped.’ I never really understood that. I never really understood body building. It all seems so narcissistic. I guess that’s the difference between athletes and ‘fitness enthusiasts’. Athletes train solely to achieve a performance objective. Often that objective is empirical, i.e. time, distance, height, etc… I guess that’s why everywhere else in the world, the sport of track and field is called ‘athletics’. … the original sport, since 776 BC.

          2. again, not my place to say.

            People want what they want. And what most people want is to look good, have some muscle, feel good, and still be able to eat like a semi-normal person.

            Only 1% wants to achieve elite status in anything and that’s how it will ALWAYS be.

          3. Agree. Those who are elite are elite because than can be, for reasons that are a combination of genetics, work ethic, and opportunity. But I do admire those who will never medal in an event but choose to compete.

            BTW… I loved your 40 random thoughts. Brilliant and mostly agree.

  12. This article has failed to account for the different muscle TYPES than sprinters/weightlifters have compared to marathon runners.

    There are three main types of muscle fibres: type I (slow oxidative), type IIa (fast oxidative-glycolytic), and type IIb (fast glycolytic). They each have different characteristics that makes them more suitable toward a particular sport. Type I fibres are thin, and dark red because they are rich in myoglobin to provide a working muscle with enough oxygen to perform aerobic metabolism. They fatigue slowly and are not very powerful. These types of fibres are useful to marathon runners.

    Type IIb fibres a thick, and white because they lack appreciable amounts of myoglobin. These types of fibres do not require myoglobin to provide the muscle cells with oxygen because these muscle cells preferentially undergo anaerobic metabolism. Anyone who’s taken high school biology knows this means these types of muscle cells will produce lactic acid as a result of this type of metabolism, causing these muscles to fatigue very quickly. However, the benefit of this is that these muscles are very powerful – can exert a large amount of force – which would be very useful to a sprinter or weightlifter.

    Finally, type IIa fibres are intermediate between these two groups. With endurance training, type IIb fibres get converted to type IIa fibres, which helps people who are training for a marathon prepare their body to sustain aerobic metabolism in their muscles for long periods of time.

    My point is, the author of this article makes it sound as though marathon runners don’t have hypertrophied muscles because they don’t want to “waste time” on weight lifting. This is untrue. The issue with a marathon runner developing hypertrophied muscles is that these muscles would contain more type IIb muscle fibres, which would fatigue within the first couple of minutes of a marathon and be absolutely useless to the marathon runner. In fact, not only would they be useless, they would hinder the marathon runner’s ability to perform well because they would contribute to a large increase in body mass. It would be somewhat equivalent to the slim marathon runner on the left trying to run a marathon with weights strapped onto his quads, hamstrings, calves, biceps, etc.

    I realize the development of these muscle types is not a cut and dry, hard and fast rule – most muscles are mixed with different types of muscle fibres. But its the PROPORTIONS of each of these muscle fibre types that is important.

  13. This is the most subjective article I’ve read about the differences between runners, and the writer is obviously biased trying to get a reaction. Yes, running long distance burns muscle and there’s plenty of statistics and science that prove it. Also, most sprinters buff up on peds, creatine, and other substances which enhance their muscle, strength and ability to perform optimally in the gym and on the track!

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