Will You Build Muscle When Trail Running

two runners going uphill

When I started trail running I was surprised at how different terrains would affect my body during and after a run. One thing that I knew for sure was that I was certainly getting a workout after a few miles.

I had seen various questions online as to whether trail running would build muscle, so I decided to do some research into this question and I must admit I was fairly surprised at what I found.

So does trail running build muscle? Due to the terrain when running on the trails you will find that your muscles are worked differently to running on the road. Trail running not only builds endurance and cardiovascular system, it also strengthen your glutes, calves, quads and core amongst other things.

With this is mind I wanted to delve a little deeper to understand what muscles are strengthened by trail running, and also understand if there was any strengthening exercises I could do to improve my running overall.

Lets take a look at what I found during my research.

How Does Trail Running Help To Build Muscle

Before we get into it, let’s be completely clear about one thing. Running and Exercise alone will not make you lean. Yes, you can build muscle, but diet is also a major factor in losing fat and should work hand in hand with your fitness goals.

Now we have got that out of the way, let’s have a look at how trail running can build muscle over time.

Leg Muscles Will Certainly Get Stronger

One thing I noticed after running on the trails for a while was that my legs were getting stronger and there was far more muscle definition than I had previously.

Now I must admit, my legs were always quite strong and defined through playing soccer in my younger days, but trail running seemed to take them to a new level as I reached my late 40’s to early 50’s.

The reasons that trail running has so many additional benefits to just running on tarmac is that you are out on far more difficult terrain, there are most certainly going to be a few hills, and you are probably doing some fairly long runs.

But which muscles are used and when during a trail run.

Quads, Calves & Hamstrings

As a general rule, your leg muscles are going to activate as you push off the ground as you power along running.

Now think of a trail run with uneven ground and hills. Adding hills into your runs is going to give your muscles a real workout, especially when you consider that you might be going up and down steep hills that require a lot of control due to the surface under your feet. This control really requires those muscles to activate and work differently than running on a flat surface.


glute muscles

Something I learned after having niggling injuries in the knee, calf, and hip was how important it is to have strong Gluteus muscles for running.

As the Gluteus Maximus muscle is the largest in the body it makes sense that it needs to be strong right. I wrote this article on how to strengthen glutes.

Of course, to avoid injury we need to have a balance of strength across all of our muscles, but in my opinion we often overlook our glutes.

One thing I did notice after trail running for a while was how tight my glutes were becoming and how I felt more powerful in my running. Again, hill climbs are great for strengthening your glutes for sure.

Core Strength Will Improve

You can spend hour after hour doing sit-ups that are boring or you can get out on the trails and build amazing core strength doing what you love.

Remember, doing crunches and v-sits wont burn fat so your hard work might never actually be on show. Would it not be so much easier to trail run and burn fat during your workout?

By running on the trails you will build strength over your whole core – this isn’t just your abs. Remember, a lot of your core is what stabilizes you.

There are up to 35 muscle groups that connect into your pelvis from the spine and hip area. These come from 4 regions:

  • Back Extensors
  • Abdominals
  • Lateral trunk muscles
  • Hip Muscles

So as you can see, there is a lot more to your core than you might imagine. So by running the trails with the variety of terrain and hills, your whole core is being used whilst burning fat – now that’s a workout.

Your Heart Will Become Stronger

That’s right, your heart is indeed a muscle and as trail running is an aerobic activity your heart will get stronger.

Think of it this way – when you run, especially on hills, your breathing gets much harder. This requires your heart to pump more blood around the body which in turn will make your heart stronger.

I remember when I first started trail running and I was so out of breath sometimes due to the fact I wasn’t used to the different terrain and the length of my runs.

At that time I had just bought a running watch and was tracking my heart rate. I was surprised to see how often I was in the red zone at 160 – 170 BPM and it was a struggle to run for long periods.

As I ran more I found that my heart rate was dropping to around the 140 BPM on the same type of run, but I was also running much further as well.

The other noticeable things were that my recovery was vastly improved. I could finish a run at say 140 BPM and within a minute my heart rate had dropped to under 70 BPM.

When I was overweight at the start of my fitness journey my resting heart rate was around 75 and I had palpitations. Today my resting heart rate is around 50 BPM. I believe this is mostly due to trail running and dietary changes that I made.

The point here is that your heart will indeed not only get stronger, but the long terms benefits will be there as well.

Will I have Muscle Definition

I truly believe that you will have muscle definition, however, whether those muscles are on show is completely up to you.

By this I mean that exercise alone won’t always show the benefits of your hard work. If you are overweight like I was then there is a layer of fat that might be covering your muscles.

Exercise alongside a diet that works for you will reap the rewards in my opinion. I tried a few along the way and two of them seemed to work.

I initially started on the Paleo diet which helped me lose weight quite rapidly but was only sustainable for around 5 months for me – although I did lose 40 pounds in that time.

I then moved to a Plant Based Diet which seems to have worked wonders for me in terms of energy, sleep, and overall health.

If fat loss is your goal then try to find the right diet that works for you and your training.

But to answer the initial question, yes trail running will give you muscle definition, especially in the legs.

Should I Do Any Other Strength Training

One of the things I learnt very quickly was that strength training to compliment your trail running is essential. Especially if you want to avoid injuries like I had.

Even if it’s only twice a week I would recommend doing a workout that incorporates the following exercises:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench Press
  • Overhead Press
  • Barbell Row

These are the only lifts you will need to do as they incorporate all the muscle groups for a complete workout. I would advise splitting the routine as follows:

Workout 1Workout 2
Squat 5 sets of 5 repsSquat 5 sets of 5 reps
Bench Press 5 sets of 5 repsOverhead Press 5 sets of 5 reps
Barbell Row 5 set of 5 repsDeadlift 5 sets of 5 reps

You can do 3 days a week if you desire but that just keeps you off the trails right? However, it might not be a bad idea in winter.

In Summary…

We asked if trail running built muscle and I believe we answered that we a resounding yes. Trail running will build strong legs, core and heart.

Trail running alone is not the overall solution and we should always aim to do some kind of strength training along with a diet that works for us.

Do this and you are likely to notice strong and defined muscles over time.


Hey! Mark here. Welcome to my blog. At the age of 47 I was a 212lb unhealthy mess. At the age of 50, I had run an 86 mile trail ultramarathon and converted to a Plant-Based Diet. I had turned my life around in 3 years. This blog is set up for those of you who want to make that change and I'm here to help.

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