The 3 Muscle Building Essentials To Help Skinny Runners Gain Lean Mass Without Bulking Up or Slowing Down
So, you’re a runner and you want to build some muscle, but you don’t want to end up looking like the Incredible Hulk. And you’re not afraid of short shorts, but you’re not planning on stepping out on stage in a Speedo anytime soon. I get it. You want go muscle, not show muscle. You want to build some lean mass, but you don’t want to “bulk up” and slow yourself down.
The good news is that it can certainly be done. The bad news is that it won’t be easy, but that’s never stopped you before, has it?
Oh, by the way, if you’re looking for a secret or “1 weird trick” to help runners build muscle, you won’t find it here. There is no magic or miracles to building muscle. It takes the combination of a few key factors, a lot of trial and error, and a lot of hard work.
Before we get to the “how to” stuff, let’s dispel a common myth.
Myth: distance runners cannot build muscle.
Truth: building muscle is very hard for anyone, and doing it on top of a strenuous running program is even harder. But it is possible, and with the right approach, you can start to get results immediately – regardless of who you are.
Note: it will be more difficult for females who have lower testosterone levels (among other things) and older runners whose recovery needs are greater (among other things). But it’s still possible for any runner to build lean muscle!
The 3 Bare Essentials To Help Runners Gain Lean Muscle. Plus, Some Tips To Help You Get Started.
Below, you’ll learn three of the essentials for hypertrophy (i.e. muscle building). These are critical to your success. So, don’t bother moving on to any other tips or strategies until you have these down rock-solid. Because if you don’t get these right, you can forget about building muscle. It just won’t happen without these fundamentals in place.
1. You need to be in a calorie surplus and make sure you’re eating enough protein to fuel muscle growth.
Trying to build muscle without a calorie surplus is futile. Your body cannot build muscle if it doesn’t have the nutritional building blocks to do so. Eating enough food (i.e. calories) is the obvious first step, but this is easier said than done, especially for runners who have fairly high calorie needs already.
So, before you do anything else, make sure that you’re eating enough food to bump you into a calorie surplus each day. And don’t just “wing it” and tell me three months later that you’re eating like a cow and still not gaining weight.
Fact: If you’re in a calorie surplus, you will gain weight. And if you’re not gaining weight consistently, then you have not been in a calorie surplus consistently – no matter how much you think you’re eating.
It’s physics, and you might be surprised how much you have to eat to gain weight, especially since you already burn a lot of calories from running. Fortunately, most of the runners I know can really pack down the food. So, don’t lose hope. And hey, being required to eat more great food is a good thing. Am I right?
Now, you’ll need to be sure that you’re getting enough calories each day. So, you’ll have to figure out your daily caloric “maintenance” level. You can do that using any common calorie calculator available online (like this one). Whatever method you use to estimate your daily calorie needs, make sure that the calculation takes your activity level (i.e. your running!) into account.
So, let’s say you need 2500 calories per day to maintain your weight. That’s your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). If that’s the case, you’d want to eat somewhere between 2600-2800, which will be roughly a 5-15% surplus. That slight surplus will be just enough to get your body into anabolic mode to enable muscle building.
After you’ve got the calorie surplus squared away, it’s time to focus on protein, which is the primary nutrient necessary for building muscle. If you don’t eat enough protein, you won’t build muscle.
Dr. Peter Lemon (aka “Dr. Protein”) is a well-known scientist who says that consuming .8-1.0 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (per day) is a good baseline for most people interested in hypertrophy, but that the optimal amount depends on many different factors. Generally, you shouldn’t go less than .8 grams per pound of weight, but sometimes, eating more that the standard recommendation can be helpful. So, if we’re going with the 1 gram per pound formula, it’s pretty simple. If you’re 150 pounds, you try to eat roughly 150 grams of protein each day. And if you eat three meals a day, that’s 50g per meal, on average – assuming you don’t have any protein-containing snacks.
So, that’s your starting point. Achieve a calorie surplus and eat enough protein each day. Think of these as the primary nutrition strategies for building muscle.
Note: keep in mind that calorie calculations and protein requirements are estimates, and there are tons of factors that influence the actual amount you need – not to mention what’s optimal. So, use your daily goals as a starting point for experimentation and adjust course as necessary. For example, if you’re 100% sure that you’re hitting your daily calorie and protein goals, but you’re still not building muscle, try increasing them slightly to see if it improves your results.
Additional Nutrition Tips
- When you eat your protein is also very important. For the best results, try to get a good amount of protein immediately following your workouts, before bed, and first thing in the morning. Having a serving of protein at each meal is a good rule of thumb, too.
- Lean animal protein (e.g. poultry, fish, lean cuts of red meat, etc.) is a superior choice over non-animal proteins for hypertrophy purposes, but there are many vegetarian options available, too (supplementation is recommended, in that case, and whey, casein, and hemp proteins are generally good choices).
2. You need to perform a whole body progressive strength training program that places significant overload on your major muscle groups.
If you want to build muscle, you need to get stronger. And if you want to get stronger, you’ve got to challenge your whole body to adapt. Some gentle calisthenics, Pilates, or light weight lifting probably won’t cut it. You don’t have to kill yourself to build strength, but you do have to get out of your comfort zone and stay there long enough to stimulate an adaptation.
At the very least, you should plan to perform some strength training at least 2-3 days per week, do compound exercises (e.g. squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, etc.), and train with moderately challenging loads (e.g. in the 5-12 reps range). That’s a good general framework that can get you a long way, but there’s a lot more to successful, sustainable hypertrophy training.
So, if this is Pig Latin to you, my recommendation is to find a full body strength training program that will cater to your needs (e.g. how much equipment you have access to, how much time you have to train, your skill and experience level, etc.). If you don’t know what that looks like, find someone who does and get the help you need. A strength coach would be the best option, but there are other alternatives, too.
Keep in mind that your body only knows resistance. It doesn’t care where that resistance comes from (whether it’s from a barbell, a kettlebell, or your own bodyweight). So, you can accomplish your strength training with free weights at the gym, or calisthenics at home. It’s all in how you program it. So, figure out the method that will be most convenient and effective for you.
Tip: If you’re a beginner to strength training or haven’t done any in several months or years, some basic calisthenics would be a great start. Pushups, pull-ups, planks, squats, and lunges can go a long way, and they’re great for building a foundation of strength before moving on to weightlifting. And contrary to popular belief, calisthenics can absolutely be used to build a lot of lean muscle.
3. You need to get plenty of rest and recovery (especially sleep) to help your muscles grow.
If you don’t get enough sleep, you’re going to have a very hard time building muscle. And if you’re a runner who is chronically sleep-deprived, then I’d say it’ll be darn-near impossible to build muscle at all. There are a zillion reasons why everyone – and particularly, runners, along with all other athletes – should strive to get enough quality sleep. And you probably know them all too well. But for runners interested in hypertrophy, this is a basic requirement. Ignore it at your peril.
Now, the average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep. The average athlete (which is what you are) needs more. And the average athlete who is trying to achieve a very difficult body composition goal on top of their athletic training needs everything working in their favor. So, try to get at least 8 hours of quality sleep each night. And ideally, you’ll get as much sleep at your body needs – however long that is (click here to figure out how much sleep you need).
Also, make sure that you’re doing everything in your power to ensure the quality of your sleep. Here are a few of the basics…
- Go to bed at the same time each night
- Get up at the same time each day
- Sleep in a pitch black room
- Avoid electronic use before bedtime (TV, computer, phone, etc.) – at least 30 minutes, and ideally, 1-2 hours
- Don’t eat or drink close to bedtime – at least 1 hour, and ideally, 1.5+ hours for drink and 2-3+ hours for food
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, or other stimulants late in the day – at least 3 hours, and ideally, at least 6+ hours
Other Keys to Success
Building muscle is an art and a science. And this is even more true for athletes – like runners – who have very specific needs. So, here are a few additional tips to help you succeed with muscle building. Start thinking about these after you’ve got the basics down.
Eat a balanced diet with a good ratio of proteins, carbs, and fats – a good general ratio is 50% carbs, 30% protein, and 20% fat. But like all things, the optimal ratio for you depends. Some people do better with higher carbs, and others need more protein or more fat. It just depends. So, once you’ve got the basics down, start thinking about optimizing the types of foods/fuels that you’re giving yourself.
Focus on getting great post-run and post-workout nutrition, with adequate carbs and protein – A good rule of thumb for muscle building is to eat a 2:1 ratio of carbs and protein (e.g. 50g of carbs, 25 grams of protein) immediately following your workouts. This could be part of a meal or even something as simple as a post-workout shake.
Don’t run more than 3 times per week during your hypertrophy phase (if you want to prioritize your muscle building goal) – It’ll be much easier to build muscle if you’re running no more than 3 times per week.
Building muscle is one of the most difficult body transformation goals, and especially for runners. Some people even say that it can’t be done. Too bad for them. The truth is that if you want it badly enough, you can do it. Integrating the three strategies above (i.e. eating, training, and sleeping for hypertrophy) will be the foundation you need to succeed. You won’t necessarily end up looking like a musclehead, but you absolutely can build significant lean mass as a runner. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If you’d like to see some more articles on this subject, let me know by hitting the Like or Tweet buttons below (or by using the other Sharing buttons in the left sidebar).
Health-First Fitness Coach
Photo credit: 1.