In the world of endurance sports, the quest for a perfect balance between strength, speed, and stamina is a never-ending challenge. Building lean muscle is a crucial component of achieving peak performance for athletes competing in marathons, triathlons, and other endurance events. But are there any other benefits that come with having muscle mass, and how can you effectively develop it?
In this article, we are doing a deep dive into how to build lean muscle for endurance athletes. From resistance training to supplements, here’s how you can boost your muscle gains to go the extra mile.
But before we share some nutrition recommendations, let’s first start by understanding why muscle mass is important and how it can benefit endurance athletes.
Why is muscle mass important?
Muscle mass is essential for maintaining overall health and well-being, as it contributes to functional strength and quality of life. Increased muscle mass also aids in maintaining healthy body composition, reducing the risk of chronic diseases, supporting mobility and balance, and promoting independence in daily activities, especially as you age. Furthermore, studies have also found that muscle mass may help prevent injury, increase bone density, boost metabolic rate, and help maintain overall mental well-being and cognitive function [1
While muscle mass is important for everyone, it’s especially vital for endurance athletes, as it provides the necessary strength and support for efficient, sustained movement over long distances. Additionally, increased muscle mass helps improve metabolic efficiency, allowing athletes to maintain optimal energy levels and delay the onset of fatigue, ultimately contributing to enhanced endurance capabilities.
Importance of protein for endurance athletes
Protein is crucial for endurance athletes due to its multifaceted role in promoting optimal performance and recovery, including the repair and growth of muscle tissue.
Endurance activities (such as long-distance running or cycling) place significant stress on the muscles, leading to micro-tears and cellular damage. Consuming adequate amounts of protein helps to repair this damage and maintain muscle mass, thus preventing injury and promoting overall strength [5
]. Furthermore, protein provides the body with essential amino acids that cannot be synthesized endogenously, supporting various metabolic functions critical for athletic performance.
Does running build muscle?
Running at higher intensities (such as hill sprints or interval training) can build muscle and strength in the legs, as these activities incorporate elements of resistance [6
]. However, strength training is essential for runners and endurance athletes as it provides additional benefits that can enhance performance, reduce the risk of injury, and improve overall physical conditioning.
Here are some other benefits of strength training for runners.
May improve muscular balance.
Running predominantly targets the lower body and can create imbalances between the muscles used for propulsion and those responsible for stabilization. Strength training exercises that focus on the core, hips, and lower body (such as squats, lunges, and planks) can help correct these imbalances and provide a more stable foundation for running.
Can further develop power and speed.
By incorporating exercises that target the fast-twitch muscle fibers (such as plyometrics or high-intensity interval training), runners can improve their ability to generate force quickly, leading to more explosive starts and faster sprints.
Might improve overall muscle coordination.
As runners become stronger, their bodies learn to recruit muscles more efficiently, using less energy to perform the same movements. This increased efficiency allows runners to cover greater distances or maintain a faster pace with less perceived effort.
May help prevent injuries.
By strengthening the muscles, tendons, and ligaments surrounding joints, runners can better absorb the impact forces associated with running and reduce the likelihood of common overuse injuries such as stress fractures, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis.
How to build lean muscle
Building lean muscle requires a combination of proper nutrition, strength training, and recovery. To effectively build muscle, it’s important to prioritize consuming adequate protein, engaging in consistent resistance training, and allowing for sufficient rest and recovery. By striking the right balance between these elements, you can develop lean muscle mass while minimizing body fat accumulation.
How much protein to build muscle?
Protein intake is critical in building lean muscle, providing the essential amino acids required for muscle protein synthesis. The amount of protein needed to build muscle varies based on factors such as age, sex, weight, and activity level, but here are some general guidelines [7
Additionally, studies show that consuming 20-25 g of high-quality protein immediately after exercise and at regular intervals throughout the day maximizes muscle protein synthesis and recovery [9
How much muscle can you gain in a month?
Experts suggest that most healthy individuals can gain 1-2 lbs of lean muscle mass per month [10
]. However, the rate of muscle gain can vary from person to person, as it is influenced by age, genetics, training experience, and nutrition.
Best supplements for muscle growth
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to muscle growth, several supplements have been widely studied and shown to be effective for enhancing muscle development when combined with regular strength training and a balanced diet. Here are some of the best-researched supplements for muscle growth.
Adequate protein intake
is essential for muscle growth, as this macronutrient provides the necessary amino acids for muscle repair and synthesis. Furthermore, research continues to show that it can positively affect post-run recovery and increase lean body mass, muscle hypertrophy, and strength.
While you can get protein from dietary sources, protein supplements (like whey and plant-based protein powders) can also be effective in supporting muscle growth. Interestingly, research shows that whey protein may improve muscle strength and size in resistance-trained individuals [11
Elo Smart Protein
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is one of the most popular and well-researched supplements for muscle growth–and for good reason. It works by increasing the availability of phosphocreatine in the muscles, which is used to produce energy during high-intensity activities, thus enhancing performance and promoting muscle growth [13
You can get all the creatine you need from what your body naturally produces and through some key dietary sources (such as fish, meat, and other animal products). However, if you lift extremely heavy weights, participate in high-intensity workouts, or eat a plant-based diet, you may want to consider a creatine supplement since studies have found that supplementation is associated with significant improvements in muscle strength, power, and lean body mass [14
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that has been shown to improve muscle endurance and reduce fatigue during high-intensity exercise. Studies found that beta-alanine supplementation improved exercise performance, particularly in activities lasting 1 to 4 minutes [15
]. Beta-alanine is thought to work by increasing the concentration of carnosine in the muscles, which acts as a buffer against muscle acidosis during intense exercise.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs (such as leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are essential amino acids that play a role in muscle protein synthesis and recovery. Research has found that BCAA supplementation can reduce muscle soreness and improve recovery following exercise, which may contribute to muscle growth over time [16
Meal plan for muscle gain
A meal plan for muscle gain should prioritize a balance of high-quality protein sources, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Here is a sample one-day meal plan for muscle gain.
3-egg omelet with spinach, tomatoes, and 1/4 cup shredded cheese
1 slice of whole-grain toast with 1 tbsp natural peanut butter
1 cup mixed berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries)
1 cup green tea
4 oz grilled chicken breast
1 cup quinoa or brown rice
1 cup steamed broccoli or green beans
Mixed green salad with cherry tomatoes, cucumber, shredded carrots, and 2 tbsp vinaigrette dressing
6 oz baked salmon or tofu
1 medium baked sweet potato
1 cup steamed asparagus or Brussels sprouts
1/4 medium avocado, sliced
Evening snack (optional):
1 small banana
Disclaimer: This plan is designed for someone with moderate physical activity levels; however, individual needs may vary based on factors such as age, gender, weight, and exercise intensity. Consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian before implementing any meal plan.
Research continues to show that muscle mass plays a large role in athletes looking to achieve peak performance. From a reduced risk of injury to a delayed onset of fatigue, there are many reasons why muscle mass is beneficial.
While there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to muscle growth, it’s important to prioritize nutrition (especially from protein and supplements), consistent resistance training, and sufficient rest and recovery.
Disclaimer: The text, images, videos, and other media on this page are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to treat, diagnose, or replace personalized medical care.