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What leg muscles are used when running?

Understanding the muscles that are involved in running and their function can help to prevent injury, design a balanced training program and improve your overall performance.

What are the main muscles used when running?

Gluteus Maximus and Gluteus Medius are active at the start of the running phase to drive power forward as well as the end during the heel strike, controlling the landing eccentrically.

Tensor Fascia Lata (TFL, hip flexor) is mainly active at the start and the end of the running phase initiating movement and stabilising the hip joint. These can often be subject to overuse injury if there is weakness or underactive in the glutes.

Adductor Magnus is located in the groin and is active throughout the mid-swing as the hip and knee are flexed and swing through.

Quadriceps works eccentrically as you push off from the stance phase controlling the knee as it quickly moves into flexion. As the leg moves through the swing phase the quads work to extend the knee in preparation for the heel strike.

Medial Hamstrings are active almost throughout the whole movement in some capacity and they are so important in running. They extend the hip and control the knee concentrically when the knee bends (flexes) and eccentrically (extends).

Gastrocnemius and soleus muscles are active after the heel strike controlling the landing of the foot then pushing off to provide the initial propulsion.

Tibialis anterior muscle is active for about 75% of the gait cycle when running. When active it raises the front of the foot bending at the ankle enabling the foot to clear the surface as your leg swings through.

 

Lower leg anatomy

Anterior aspect (shin)

This group of muscles are found at the front of the lower leg and their primary role is to flex the ankle (dorsiflexion). When running they are the muscles that help lift your foot off the floor so your leg can swing through.

teachmeanatomy.info

Tibialis Anterior (TA)

The tibialis anterior muscle runs down the front of the shin bone (Tibia)

It is the strongest dorsiflexor of the foot.

Movements: Raising the foot and flexing the ankle (Dorsiflexion) and turning the foot inwards (inversion).

Common injuries of the TA: Shin splints

Extensor Digitorum Longus (EDL)

The extensor digitorum longus is a small muscle that lies underneath the tibialis anterior.

Movements: helps to flex the ankle (dorsiflexion) and extend the lateral four toes.

Extensor Hallucis Longus

The extensor hallucis longus is located underneath the TA and EDL

Movements: Extension of the big toe and helps to flex at the ankle (dorsiflexion)

 

Posterior aspect (calf)

These muscles are located at the back of the lower leg and make up the group better known as the calf. They are one of the main power drivers of the foot and help to propel you forward when running.

teachmeanatomy.info 

Gastrocnemius

The gastrocnemius is the outermost muscle in the lower leg. It has two heads –  medial and lateral, which join to form the “V” at the base of the calf where the Achilles tendon starts.

Movements: It points the toes (plantar flexion). Because it also crosses over the back of the knee it helps at the end range of knee flexion.

Common injuries of the Calf:

Calf strain

Achilles tendonitis

Soleus

The soleus is a large flat muscle that lies under the gastroc.

Movements: Plantarflexes the foot at the ankle joint.

Common injuries of the Calf:

Calf strain

Achilles tendonitis

The popliteus

This is a small but important muscle that is located at the top of the lower leg behind the knee.

Movements: This muscle rotates the base of the femur “unlocking” the knee joint so the knee can bend.

Tibialis Posterior

The tibialis posterior is the deepest out of the four muscles. It lies between the flexor digitorum longus and the flexor hallucis longus.

Movements: Inverts and plantarflexes the foot, maintains the medial arch of the foot.

Flexor Digitorum Longus

The FDL is a small muscle that is located in deep in the middle of the lower leg under the soleus muscle.

Movements: Flexes the four smaller toes

Flexor Hallucis Longus

The flexor hallucis longus muscle is located on the outside of the lower leg under the soleus muscle

Movements: Flexes the big toe.

Thigh muscles

The muscles of the thigh can be split into three sections;

anterior (front),

medial (middle)

posterior (back)

The anterior muscles of the thigh.

There are four main muscles that run down the front of the thigh known as the Quads and are involved in extending and the controlled flexion of the knee.

teachmeanatomy.info

Rectus Femoris

The Rectus Femoris is the large muscle that runs up the centre of the thigh, starting at the hip and attaching to the top of the kneecap (patella).

Movements: The only Quad muscle that crosses over both the hip and knee joint and flexes the hip and extends the knee.

Vastus Lateralis

This muscle is the outermost quad muscle that starts from the bony prominence on the outside of the hip and attached at the top of the knee cap.

MovementsExtends the knee and stabilises the knee cap.

Vastus Intermedius

This muscle is a long muscle that lies under the Rectus Femoris. It starts from the top of the femur bone and attaches to the top of the knee cap.

MovementsExtends the knee joint and stabilises the knee cap.

Vastus Medialis

This is the teardrop-shaped muscle on the outside of the knee. This muscle originates from the middle of the femur and attaches to the patella.

MovementsExtends the knee through the last 10 degrees of extension and stabilises the patella.

Tensor Fascia Lata (TFL, hip flexor)

The TFL is a small muscle that sits at the top of the thigh towards the outside of the hip. It joins with the gluteal muscles to form the Ischial Tibial Tract (ITB).

Movements: Works in support of all the muscles throughout the running gait. TFL also works alongside the glutes to rotate the hip outwards.

Sartorius

The sartorius is the longest muscle in the body and runs diagonally across the front of the thigh. Due to its location, it facilitates movement in the groin as well as supporting the quads.

Movements: It flexes the hip as well as rotating the leg inwards. The Sartorius muscle also flexes the knee joint.

Medial thigh (the groin)

teachmeanatomy.info

Adductor Magnus

Movements: They both adduct the thigh. The adductor component also flexes the thigh, with the hamstring portion extending the thigh.

Adductor Longus and Adductor Brevis

Movements: Pulls the legs together

Gracilis

The Gracilis is a long muscle that runs down the inside of the leg from the pelvis down to the inside of the knee.

Movements: Pulls the legs together and flexes at the knee.

Posterior thigh (back)

The back of the thigh is formed up for the hamstrings and gluteal muscles.

teachmeanatomy.info

Biceps Femoris

Biceps Femoris is the large muscle on the back of the leg towards the outside of the thigh. It starts at the base of the pelvis and attaches behind the knee and to the top of the fibula.

Movements: The main action is to bend at the knee (flexion). It also extends the leg back and rotates the leg out.

 

Semitendinosus

The semitendinosus lies right in the middle of the back of the thigh and has a very large tendon.

Movements: The main action is to bend at the knee (flexion). It also extends the leg back and rotates the leg inwards.

Semimembranosus

The semimembranosus muscle is a large flat muscle that lies directly underneath the semitendinosus.

Movements: The main action is to bend at the knee (flexion). It also extends the leg back and rotates the leg inwards.

The gluteus maximus

The gluteus maximus is the largest of the gluteal muscles and the one that produces the shape of the buttocks.

Movements: The glute is only used when a movement requires force such as running or climbing. It extends the leg out behind you as well as assisting the leg when it rotates out.

Gluteus Medius

The gluteus medius is a smaller fan-shaped muscle that sits just above the glute max.

Movements: Lifts the leg out to the side as well as rotating the leg inwards. It is also one of the main muscles that stabilise the pelvis whilst running.

Gluteus Minimus

The gluteus minimus is the smallest of the gluteal muscles, it is fan-shaped like glute medius and lies deeper than the other two.

Movements: Lifts the leg out to the side as well as rotating the leg inwards. It is also one of the main muscles that stabilise the pelvis whilst running.

Piriformis

The piriformis is a small muscle that lies under the glute muscles.

Movements: It helps to stabilise the pelvis when running as well as rotating the leg outwards.

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