Experts Explain How to Get a Distance Runner’s Body

A runner’s physique has a lot of appeal.

It’s lean, strong, and extremely functional.

Best of all, it’s actually quite attainable, even for beginners who are just getting started working out.

If you have a lot of extra bulk on your body, it may be challenging and take some time to achieve the look you want, but it’s definitely doable with the right approach.

So how can you get a body like a runner?

A runner’s body is typically extremely lean, with a toned lower body that features exceptional endurance. The upper body is usually well-toned but doesn’t carry a lot of muscle mass.

The best way to get a runner’s body is to run, a lot! Dial in your diet to bring your body fat down as you train, and don’t neglect some high-rep strength training to improve endurance and muscle tone.

With high amounts of time, patience and a good set of lungs, anyone can obtain a distance runner’s body.

What Are the Hallmarks of the Runner’s Physique?

There’s no one “runner’s body” you can obtain.

In this instance we’re going for the distance runner’s body — think Olympic distance runners and marathoners.

More casually, the distance runner usually runs a few miles at a time.

They’re the ones you see doing marathons and going for daily jogs or runs.

How a Runner’s Body Looks

A marathon runner with a classic distance runner’s physique. Photo by CHarlie Llewellin/Flickr

A runner’s body doesn’t always have a distinctive look when it’s hidden under clothes.

Runners tend to be thin and lean, with somewhat larger legs if they’re wearing tight pants.

Once you see them in running shorts you’ll see those toned, defined legs that come with running frequently.

The upper body is less defined.

The arms are lean and have solid definition, but carry very little extra muscle mass.

The reason for the visibly less powerful upper body is that you don’t use it much when you run. 

When shopping around for a runner’s body you might have people telling you that you’re going to lose arm muscle, and they’ll become limp and unappealing.

They say it’s because you’re not working out the muscles, so they atrophy—but that’s nonsense. 

It’s a complete myth that running and other cardio kill your gains, so don’t let the gym bros scare you!

If you’ve lifted weights in the past and developed muscle in your arms and upper body, you won’t magically lose it all when you start running.

How a Runner’s Body Functions

Distance runners don’t have bulging muscles and intense strength.

Instead, they focus on their endurance.

So while a distance runner may not be able to squat 315 pounds, they have exceptional stamina and work capacity in their lower body.

Distance runners can also endure a ton of cardio and perform well in HIIT.

It comes from the years of training to withstand being out of breath and pushing the body to its limits. 

5 Training Tips for a Distance Runner’s Body

So it’s probably not a surprise that distance runners run a LOT to achieve their physique.

But if you’re a beginner — or maybe you’ve been working out for a while but you’re ready to set some more specific goals — what specifically can you do to achieve your own runner’s body?

#1. Drop the Extra Weight

The less you weigh, the more ergonomic you are — and usually, the faster you can move.

It takes less energy to move a smaller body, so you have more to spend on endurance. 

As Sean Orlando, personal trainer says:

“Any weight beyond necessary hinders performance, often leading to an incredibly lean body type.”

So to achieve the runner look, you’ll need to bring your body fat percentage down.

The good news is that running itself is fantastic for calorie burning and weight loss. You’ll hear different figures thrown around, but they’re all high.

Some say you’ll burn 100 calories per mile, others say you’ll burn 200–500 in 30 minutes. 

Truthfully, how many calories you burn depends on:

  • Sex
  • Weight
  • Height
  • Age
  • Heart rate
  • Speed

There are many calorie burn calculators online for various exercises.

None will be perfectly accurate, nor will any wearable fitness tracker, but they can give you a decent ballpark figure.

Just a warning: you’ll gain weight when you first start, it’s one of cons of the many running pros and cons.

This is because you’re building muscle, especially in your lower body, which weighs more than fat.

However, running one month consistently can bring fantastic results, including up to 10 pounds of weight loss, as long as you’re in a calorie deficit, too.

While running alone can be enough to get leaner at first, it’s best to start eating cleaner if you haven’t been.

Don’t do one of those restrictive diets that people rave about—become more mindful and build better eating habits.

Use a calorie calculator to figure out how many calories you burn in a day at rest, and learn how many calories are in your usual meals.

Try to stay within your range, and eat fewer calories than you need so you can lose weight. 

Ensure you still get all your essential macro and micronutrients, though — especially plenty of protein to help you recover from your running workouts.

To reduce your calorie intake, you can cut out:

  • Liquid calories
  • Fried, fatty foods
  • Processed foods
  • Oversized portions
  • Frequent takeout meals
  • Extra sugar

Once you get your diet on track you’re hitting that extra weight from two angles, so you’ll slim down for the leaner physique in no time.

#2. Run, Run, Run

According to Sean Orlando, you should be running 3 to 5 miles, 3 or 4 times weekly.

(If you want to look like a distance runner, you’ll need to train like one.)

However, that’s quite a workload for beginners.

Thankfully, there are three things you can do that will help you stay motivated.

Get a Treadmill

A treadmill is wonderful motivation.

If you spend a decent chunk of change on the treadmill and never use it you’ll probably feel guilty.

The guilt factor can be an excellent motivator to run on it.

(Learn more about cardio motivation here.)

While running for real is often better as there are hills and valleys that vary in slope, debris you have to doge, and you get some fresh air, a treadmill is effective, efficient, and convenient.

Putting at a 10-degree incline increases your calorie burn as you run, too, while challenging your stamina.

Use an App

If self-accountability isn’t enough, consider an app.

Strava has a whole community of runners you can talk to.

It lets you view peoples’ performances, it shows local leaderboards and it has training plans you can use to help you, too.

There’s some of that cost-induced guilt with Strava, too. I

t’s pricey, at $60 for an annual subscription or $15 monthly.

Of course, there’s a limited free version you can use if you want to try it out first.

If Strava isn’t for you, no problem.

Here are a few more of the best running apps, as recommended by real runners on Reddit.

Join a Gym

Here’s another that combines cost-incentive with community accountability.

Gyms aren’t cheap to join, but sometimes they have running clubs, or you’ll meet other runners there that you can go out with some time.

If there’s no running club, you’ll at least find some workout buddies on the treadmills who can keep you in check and ensure you show up for every workout.

#3. Do the Right Kind of Strength Training

Speaking of the gym, you’ll get the best results in your quest for a runner’s physique if you supplement your running with other kinds of workouts.

After your treadmill training at the gym you can start working on the essential muscles that can improve your running performance and physique.

Start getting leaner by doing a few full full-body workouts.

This will build muscle, but not excessively, and that muscle provides more energy for your runs. 

Start with:

  • pushups 
  • squats
  • lunges 
  • burpees 

When you’re ready, you can incorporate weighted movements at the gym, including both upper and lower body compound movements.

Think bench press, squats, and more.

Sean Orlando recommends two full body strength workouts per week, focusing on high reps (15-20 per set) with low rest intervals (around 30 seconds).

The goal isn’t to pack on size but to improve muscular endurance, in addition to your frequent cardio work.

#4. Build Stamina

Stamina is a huge component of the runner’s physique — without it, it’ll be tough to achieve the look and performance you want.

You want to know that your newly defined muscles can withstand a lot before exhaustion.

Here’s what personal trainer Nathan Lloyd has to say on achieving more stamina:

“Resistance training in the gym with high reps and less weight can help you achieve the kind of muscle strength you need.

“Resistance training will fuel your body and efficiently divide your energy exerted when running, increasing your endurance and stamina.”

Instead of focusing on building up to heavier and heavier weights, look to lower your rest intervals or perform more reps with the same weight without stopping.

That’s the key to building incredible muscle stamina.

While getting your muscles in gear helps your running a ton, you need to work on specific running training, as well.

As noted above, you should be running at least 3 or 4 times per week.

But you may eventually plateau or struggle to see any more physique changes from regular, static runs.

Sean Orlando advises mixing your workouts up into a few different styles to challenges you endurance on all fronts:

Work through all of these different methods to master intensity and long running durations.

#5 Strengthen Your Core

Finally, one unfortunately neglected part of obtaining a distance runner’s body is working on your core.

This won’t add to the physique beyond perhaps a bit more definition in the abs, but it’ll improve your running performance and help prevent injuries while you workout.

When you run, you’re prone to stitches — or pain in your side and abdomen.

Nobody knows exactly why we get stitches, but there are two popular theories:

  • Running tugs the ligaments attaching your organs to your diaphragm;
  • Your trunk muscles tire out and your back muscles engage, pressuring abdominal nerves.

Doing some planks can strengthen those core muscles, making your ligaments and trunk muscles stronger.

Incorporate lots of challenging core work like farmer’s walks, bird dogs, glute bridges, and more.

You’ll avoid running pain and develop a crisper looking mid-section.

Wrapping Up

A runner’s body is arguably one of the easier physiques to obtain successfully, but the training can be long and disheartening.

It takes time to bring your body fat levels down to Olympic runner levels, and even longer to build up marathon-levels of endurance.

The key is consistency and smart training.

Run several times per week, and incorporate tempo runs and fartleks to avoid plateaus.

And don’t neglect strength training. It will improve muscle tone, endurance, and your overall performance when done right.

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Hope this helps!