Can Running Count As Leg Day? (In a Strength Training Program)

If you ever find yourself out of reach of a gym, you might consider running as a leg day replacement. But will a few miles of jogging really offer the same workout benefits as squats and deadlifts? Can running count as leg day?

Running does not count as leg day because it is primarily a cardiovascular exercise and does not provide the same intense muscle workout as weight-lifting. Running consistently will help build muscle, but it is more likely to tone legs than strengthen them. Leg day typically includes intense, focused exercises like lunges, squats, and deadlifts.

Keep reading to learn about the different effects of running and weight lifting!

Is running enough for leg day?

Running is a wonderful form of exercise, and at this site, we are big fans of the habit. However, there are some results that it cannot produce. One of these is consistent muscle gains. While running may help tone the muscles you already have, (especially the calves) it does not produce the same effect on the muscular system as weight-lifting

Running isn’t a great substitute for leg day because it offers a more limited range of motion and fails to isolate large muscle groups with the same intensity as weight-lifting. Though running consistently will help build some muscle, the results will be much more marginal than a dedicated weight-lifting routine. 

Aerobic exercise, such as running, does have other benefits. Chiefly, running is seen as a heart-healthy practice. It has repeatedly been shown that this form of exercise decreases the risk of death from heart-related illnesses. 

There are some things to consider, however, for ultra-marathoners and those who consistently participate in extremely vigorous forms of running. In fact, the American Heart Association only recommends that athletes participate in 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week. This is because the strain put on the heart by extended, intense aerobic activity can actually cause the heart to wear out more quickly than it normally would.

Leg day vs. running

Leg day workouts are vastly different from the results one can expect from running.

Some of the differences between leg day and running include:

  • Muscular isolation
  • Aerobic output
  • Recovery time
  • Necessary equipment

Let’s look at each of these and see the differences between leg day and running.

Muscular isolation

Running engages most of the body, but to a less extent than targeted workouts.

A typical leg day workout will consist of a series of movements to be completed under weighted resistance, which isolates specific muscles in the legs (i.e., hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, hip flexors, etc.). These movements will be attempted in a static environment and will be completed by forcing the muscle to move the weight using that muscle’s full range of individual motion. 

Running, by contrast, is a total-body, dynamic workout that repeats the same movement repeatedly. This movement will usually not tax the muscles by pushing them to the full extent of their range of motion, and it will not isolate one or two muscle groups but will involve all of the muscle groups of the body: both the upper and lower body. 

Aerobic output

Whereas running is not an intense physical workout, it does require extreme endurance and heart and lung strength.

The aerobic output required by runners is much greater than that of the average weightlifter. As mentioned above, the American Heart Association considers running a heart-healthy activity and should be a regular aspect of any exercise routine. 

Weight resistance training, however, fails to produce this type of aerobic output, and thus its benefits are largely relegated to the building of muscle mass. 

Recovery time

Regular runs – such as a few miles in the morning, not races or marathons – typically require relatively little rest. Lifting weights taxes the muscles in a way that running does not.

After a session of moderate weight lifting, a person may need 2-3 days of rest to allow their muscles to fully recover. This is why most experienced weightlifters separate their weekly routines into “arm days” and “leg days.” 

Running, on the other hand, can be practiced more often. The recovery time between light runs can be as quick as 24 hours; however, more intense runs might require 72 hours

Necessary equipment

While leg day can be completed without equipment, most would consider leg day to be an activity that requires a gym with weights, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and weight belts. This means, to practice leg day, you either need to have a home gym, or belong to a community gym. 

However, running can be completed with only a quality pair of tennis shoes. This makes choosing running as a form of consistent exercise much more practical. 

Although runners can also get carried away with purchasing additional accessories, the sport of running is a relatively simple one. 

Can I substitute leg day with running?

For most serious weight lifters, running will not be an adequate substitute for leg day. 

In fact, anyone used to training regularly with weights should not attempt to run in place of their usual programming. Interrupting training with a long-distance run will not allow for optimal muscular development and may inhibit gains. 

Running is a completely different form of exercise with a different focus and different benefits. Athletes should treat running as a separate tool in their toolbelt and should thus only use it for appropriate tasks such as building heart health and aerobic fitness.

What counts as a leg workout?

Running can certainly be a leg workout for someone not already involved in a resistance training program. However, the benefits of running on leg muscle development will be minimal.

Here are a few types of workouts that you may want to try if you’re more interested in building muscle:

  • Bodyweight static exercises (air squats, lunges, one-legged squats, airplane RDL, calf raises)
  • Bodyweight dynamic exercises (frog jumps, jump rope, box jumps, split jumps, hill sprints)
  • Weighted exercises (squats, deadlifts, Power cleans, snatches)

Keep reading to learn more about each of these leg exercises.

Bodyweight static exercises

Static, bodyweight exercises such as air squats, lunges, one-legged squats, and airplane RDLs can help isolate various muscle groups and provide body weight resistance to help build muscles. 

These exercises are safe and practical, as they do not require any equipment. Consistent participation in these exercises will increase lower body strength.

Bodyweight dynamic exercises

Dynamic bodyweight exercises have a similar effect to static bodyweight exercises; however, they also have the added benefit of taxing the cardiovascular system. 

If you’re looking to spice up your strength training routine, try adding some frog jumps, jump roping, box jumps, split jumps, or hill sprints to your workout. 

Weighted exercises

Strength resistance training is the fastest way to grow muscle and improve muscular output/efficiency. 

While cleans and snatches especially encompass the whole body, squats and deadlifts are relatively isolated movements focusing on the body’s lower half.

Weighted exercise is one of the most traditional forms of leg workouts. Specifically, most consider a few Olympic lifts essential to a well-rounded lower-body lifting routine. These lifts include squats, deadlifts, power cleans, and snatches. 

Should you run after a leg workout?

Completing your gym and endurance training on the same day may impair the development of muscular endurance. This is because recovery from typical forms of weighted-resistance training can take up to 2-3 days. 

Since this is the case, any attempts to perform endurance training within the same 24-hour period may produce more harmful effects than positive ones. Instead, you should consider spacing your resistance and endurance training throughout the week for the best results.