Walking and running are both great ways to get and stay fit. These activities are free to do, can be done virtually anywhere, and require very little additional gear or specific training to get started. But is one activity better than the other? It depends. As runners’ legs vs. walkers’ legs develop, people can experience similar health benefits, and even similar injuries.
These activities rely on the same muscle groups, so in many ways, runners’ and walkers’ legs are similar. However, for those who want to increase the intensity in their workouts, the entire cardiovascular system starts to change and stronger running muscles begin to develop to meet the needs of efficiently delivering and processing oxygen through the body.
Once you get moving and start seeing and feeling the benefits of walking and running, it’s motivating and can even feel addictive. Here we’ll explore how runners’ and walkers’ legs are similar, how they differ, and offer tips for how to maintain healthy, happy legs so you can stay on your feet and keep the good momentum going.
How Are Runners’ Legs and Walkers’ Legs Similar?
Both walking and running are whole-body workouts that offer a cardio boost to help burn calories, and can help build endurance and tone the body. As you start dropping some weight, your muscles will look more defined. Adding in targeted weight training or hiking with a heavy pack will help define those muscles even more.
Walking and running both use the quads, hamstrings, calves, hips, and glutes, while also engaging the core muscles in your abdomen, obliques, and lower back. Even the muscles in your shoulders are engaged during a walk or run through natural arm swing to keep your balance. The faster the stride, the greater the arm swing.
Both runners and walkers use slow twitch muscles. These muscles support long-distance activities such as walking and marathon running. Everyone has slow twitch muscles, but they’re more developed in endurance runners and walkers. These handy muscles are resistant to fatigue, support aerobic metabolism, and offer stabilization and posture control.
How Are Runners’ Legs and Walkers’ Legs Different?
Runners’ legs and walkers’ legs are different in a few ways. Walking is gentler on your joints due to lower impact affecting the ankles, knees, and hips. Running has forces of up to 8x your body weight on the knees. Similarly to muscles and tendons, with proper training, joints can adapt to the loads placed on them.
The primary difference between runners’ and walkers’ legs is which muscles propel the body forward. In walkers and runners who heel strike, the hamstrings and hip flexors work a little harder to pull the body forward, whereas fore- and mid-foot runners rely more on the quads and calves to push the body forward. Additionally, for sprinters and runners tackling speed workouts, fast twitch muscles are engaged.
Everyone has fast twitch muscles, but they’re more developed in people who engage in powerful movements. These develop for explosive activities, such as sprinting and jumping, and are quicker to fatigue than slow twitch muscles used for walking and distance running.
Running muscles become more efficient at circulating oxygen throughout the system than walking muscles. This is because they change in three major ways. Muscle cells increase in number and size (resulting in increased strength and definition), they increase the rate at which delivered oxygen can be processed, and more capillaries become active to distribute blood and more oxygen.
Which Is Better – Runners’ Legs vs. Walkers’ Legs?
When considering runners’ legs vs. walkers’ legs, they can offer similar and different benefits. Walking engages multiple muscle groups and helps keep bones strong. You must walk before you can run, so walking builds a foundation for running.
Running can boost your cardiovascular fitness, increase bone density, and further define the muscles, especially in your legs.
Walking is a low-intensity, low-impact activity, while running is high-impact and high-intensity. Walkers who want the well-defined legs that some runners have should expect to do the same mileage, and mix up walks with flat surfaces and hills to increase strength. Runners can also benefit from mixing up terrain types to increase strength and reduce the chance of injury by helping muscles, tendons, and joints to work in different ways through training.
As training increases in duration and intensity, it’s important to note that runners and walkers are both susceptible to injury. Overuse injuries are especially common, and runners and walkers alike need to be aware of the signs. This could include pain in the heel or arch of the foot, around the knee, on the front of the hips, and more. If you are experiencing muscle, tendon, or joint pain, don’t run through it. Running through pain can cause injuries that take a long time to heal. Take a break for a few days, then ease back into the activities you were doing. If you continue to feel pain, see a doctor.
It’s common for a primary-care doctor to tell you that running is bad for you and to tell you to stop. If you want to keep running or walking for fitness, it’s best to seek out the opinion of a sports medicine doctor who focuses on athletes who run to see if there’s any flexibility to keep going.
Additionally, partnering with a professional running coach will help ensure that you’re increasing speed and/or distance at a rate that will reduce the chance of injuries. For example, adding both volume and speed at the same time increases the risk of injury. A coach can help you maintain leg strength while slowly introducing speed by managing the volume (AKA: miles) you’re running.
When it comes to runners’ legs vs. walkers’ legs, there is no actual competition. Walkers and runners engage the same muscles, but with different forces and intensity levels. Walking is the foundation for running, and is an excellent way for runners to get running-specific cross training done when they need a low-impact, low-intensity activity.
On the flip side, running is a great way to get the blood pumping and strengthening the legs even more. Runners and walkers can both experience injuries, especially from overuse, so recognizing the signs and seeking medical attention early on can help reduce the time you’ll spend off your feet.