Avoiding Quadraphenia

AJWs TaproomOne of the most visceral memories I have of my first race at Western States in 2001 was running into Michigan Bluff at Mile 55. Needless to say, it is not a fond memory. In fact, I recall thinking at the time, “This is supposed to be a celebratory place where I get to see my crew and get psyched for the second part of the race.” Instead, I was thinking, “Is it possible to get a quad transplant?”

The good folks at the aid station didn’t have any fresh quads that day so I simply put my head down and put one foot in front of the other until I got to Placer High School. It was not a pretty picture and upon finishing I pledged to myself to not let that happen again.

As most runners know, the downhills at Western States are legendary. Indeed, over the past 40 years many runners have succumbed to trashed quads, quadraphenia, or any number of instances in which the legs just stop working. Mostly this is due to insufficient preparation, poor technique, or race-day mistakes. So here, in the second of my three-part series on the Holy Trinity of Ultrarunning Hell (Part 1 from last week), are nine pieces of advice divided into three groups of three. The first three cover training, the next three cover technique, and the last three cover race-day tactics:

Training #1: Most successful ultrarunners incorporate some kind of hill training into their programs. What is occasionally forgotten in these programs is that running hard downhill is equally, if not more, important than running uphill. Therefore I strongly recommend running hard downhill repeats immediately on the heels of your uphill repeats right up until your taper.

Training #2: Most mountainous 100-mile races have their aid stations located in transition points between climbs and descents. Most of this is, of course, for practical reasons but it bears consideration in your training. Transitioning from a long climb to a long descent and vice versa requires careful planning and training. To prepare for this I suggest finding training routes that allow for practicing these key transitions particularly because it allows the runner to trash their quads in training without doing lasting damage.

Training #3: In my experience, success in 100-mile races requires the ability to run on tired legs. I believe back-to-back long runs are essential in the last three months of training for a big race. In particular, one must be prepared to run some portion of the last half of the race on trashed quads. As a result, I recommend planning Sunday long-ish runs hot on the heels of hard, long Saturdays to simulate the feeling of running with the equivalent of railroad spikes jamming into your legs.

Technique #1: Running downhill is both an art and a science and requires attention to detail with technique and execution. A simple thing to keep in mind when training for downhills is to keep your eyes on an imaginary target 10 yards ahead of you on the trail and strive to keep your body perpendicular to the trail. This simple focus allows for a natural gait on descents and keeps momentum steady.

Technique #2: While much attention has been paid to midfoot and forefoot striking in today’s world of minimalist footwear and the barefoot running revolution, I believe a solid midfoot strike is essential to good downhilling. Paying attention to planting the foot beneath the hips and not ahead of them keeps the runner from braking and preserves the quads on long, steady descents.

Technique #3: No matter how well trained you are at some point the heinous pounding of running long downhills will bring you to the point of intense suffering. Attempting to absorb the shock with the whole body can help in these moments. Redirecting the focus of the pounding to the hips, core, shoulders and neck can help spread the burden and, at least mentally, ease the pain. In training, practice absorbing shock with the whole body, even when you’re just walking downstairs at work!

Tactics #1: On race day you will be feeling good during the first few hours. The exuberance of the morning combined with post-taper freshness will fill you with vim and vigor and you’ll be tempted to fly downhill. Whatever you do, don’t overdo it on these early descents. Run in the same way you trained and focus on preserving energy up until about halfway. From that point on it’s all pain management anyway.

Tactics #2: Along with the exuberance of race day and the tendency to overdo it early is the easy potential for over-striding. This can kill even the best training programs as everything gets out of whack once you begin compensating for early over-striding and form and function quickly go out the window. Be sure to do a body/form check every 15 minutes or so in the first half of a race and make adjustments as necessary.

Tactics #3: It’s cliché but quite true, run your own race! Many runners, particularly beginners, find themselves swept up in the group, especially early. It can, of course, be alluring, as sharing the trail with others is one of the most enjoyable parts of running ultras. That said, running slightly faster (or slower) than your planned and trained-for pace can cause major problems down the line. Have a plan before the race and stick to it. You’ll have plenty of time to socialize at the finish line.

Next week will be Part Three in the series, “The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of The Feet.” Until then…

Bottoms Up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Foothills Seeing Double IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from North Carolina’s Foothill Brewing Company. Over the past couple weeks I have been enjoying their Seeing Double IPA which at 9.5% is not for the faint of heart but has a nice floral after burn that is a lovely harbinger of spring.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you trashed your quads somewhere before the finish line of a race and death marched it in? What mistakes did you make that day?
  • And, what among Andy’s recommendations has worked for you in the past?

There are 23 comments

  1. Ed Cacciapaglia

    Andy, you are spot on about the downhill training. In the past I've had a tendency to bomb the downhills in ultramarathons. The usual result has been quad soreness for 3 to 5 days afterwards. In my training for the last 3 Westerns States, I did not have that issue, due to specificity of training. I used the climb at Maryland Heights off the C&O Canal across from Harpers Ferry, WV to do hill repeats in both directions. 1,200 feet of climb in approximately 1.3 miles. Work the steep climb, turn around and BOMB down the mountain. Repeat 4 or 5 times every week or other week in May and early June. The other benefit of this Maryland Heights workout was heat training, though our East Coast heat is much more humid than the WS heat.

  2. Brandon

    I would like to add that running hard downhill, albeit with proper form of course, can help you become a faster and more efficient runner overall. And your beer choice this week is spot on!!! There aren't many other DIPAs that I've tried that come close to being as good as this one. When my fiance and I visit her parents back in Winston-Salem, we always try to stop into the brewery and enjoy a pint of this one. I also try and get out to the trails of either Pilot Mountain or Hanging Rock State Parks when I'm back there as well. Excellent mountain trails out there.

    1. Darian

      I'll add that Foothills Pilot Mountain Pale Ale is an excellent post trail run beverage as well! NC trail running = best in the East!

  3. Pete

    One thing that is greatly missed in this article is cross training. Cross training can greatly help the quads especially on the off season or early parts of training for ultras. I am currently training for my first 100 so I cant speak about this on 100's. However for my first 50 miles I did a lot of leg blasters, hip strength exercises, core work, and a few other items 2 days a week. My quads help up great for 50 miles and all of my long runs. I am being even more aggressive with it now and it seems to be helping a lot as I feel my body is taking weekly jumps in terms of performance and fitness. Thanks for the tips I will revert back to this artcile as well. Just think to many ultra runners neglect cross training which really does help.

  4. Kieran

    I strongly agree with tactic #1 and I think it should be particularly emphasized for novice ultra runners. Super easy on the downs in the first half of your first few 100s.

  5. Luke Garten

    Your thought on form on the downhill is good. At the end of long downhill runs at high speed my lower back seems to get very tired. I often find myself not breathing as much as I should on fast long downhill descents by trying to engage my core to keep myself from having bad posture on those descents. It seems to happen at low 6 min mile to upper 5 min mile pace on the fast downhill runs. Probably not an issue if I were to run a 100 mile race, but at 50k and 50 milers it is an issue for me. Do others have this issue on fast downhill runs?

  6. Joel

    "Runners" hardly mention weight-training but there are additional ways to strengthen your quads in a gym. Squats, lunges, leg press…

    1. Pete

      Absolutely many many more runners are starting to use these methods. They have help improved my recovery time and overall running strength ten fold. Pus it helps avoid injury. To many runners stick to old school training of run run run and never cross train. While traditional methods work people could still run a lot and add only 2 days of week of strength training. Takes very little time and won't effect weekly mileage. I run 5 days a week and incorporate 2 days of cross training and haven't had an injury since I started doing this. Plus as the subject of the article is quads my quads are much stronger and rarely get tired. All from thousands of squats.

      1. Jeremy

        "Takes very little time and won’t effect weekly mileage."

        But it will affect weekly quality mileage. When I think strength, I think fast running on steep hills. I do the cross training out of necessity- it's a long Idaho winter and I have few other options for big vertical. However, I am doubtful in its effectiveness for making me a better runner. What I have no doubt about is that the techniques presented by AJW are the gold standard and anything done to compromise the quality of these sessions is energy wasted. X-train if it is your only option for developing strength, but if you have the real thing at your disposal, go to the hills!

  7. J.Xander

    Thanks. This has plagued me before and this year I am trying two things that I hope will help:

    1.) backwards running, I go backwards up a 75' hill and then bomb down it (frontwards). I notice my quads are trashed after a couple repeats of this. My Sports PT says the backwards running is essential to building eccentric strength (to balance the concentric) in the quads. Theory is this will be a big help. (I do this once a week).

    2.) "Foundations" – book by Dr. Eric Goodman and Peter Park – check it out if you experience back issues or core weakness. It is really helping me.

    Curious if anyone else has experience with the backwards running thing and the results?

  8. John

    At first I thought this was an article about avoiding a Rock Album. :) Much appreciated…attacking downhills during training seems like it is key. No sense in lollygagging down them if you are going to try to bomb them on race day!

  9. Jason H

    I've noticed that some of the most successful trail runners today are essentially downhill specialists. Not to say that they aren't good up, just that they are happy to powerhike a long steep climb and then BOMB the descent. Ellie Greenwood, Ian Sharman, and Gary Robbins all come to mind as runners that I interacted with in 12'. I ran right behind Ian at Gorge Waterfalls (he was hiking) only to watch him disappear in 1/4 mile when the trail turned down. Ellie climbed a bit slower than me on the first climb at White River, but flew past me on the descent. Gary postitively disappeared down a short technical descent at Deception Pass.

    It seems to me that the benefit of focused downhill training might be twofold. First is the obvious strength issue highlighted in this article, but the second might be increased competence running fast and or smoothly on technical terrain, and that really comes into play in a 100.

  10. David B

    Totally agree with the downhill running. I did 5 weeks of downhill repeats (once a week) before my first Boston in 2008 and did wonders. Just to add to the strength training, add in some Wall Sits. Skiers know, they are amazing for quad strength and development. Curious about backwards running. Going to have to give that a little try on Sunday's run.

  11. AJW

    With all due respect to those who espouse the importance of cross training to strengthen the quads, in my experience there is is no substitute for running the miles and pounding the downhills in training. And, since success in ultras requires a 12-18 hour per week commitment I have just found that unless I have unlimited time to devote to training something has to give. Thus, I just run. AJW

    1. Pete

      It is an old school way of thinking. Plain and simple one can build strength via cross training. If one has time to train 12-18 hours then they could train 11-17 and be more competitive and have few injuries and be stronger in general by cross training. It is also another way to build fast twitch muscles as well. As runners bodies fall greatly out of alignment and there is a huge imbalance in our bodies. By cross training it can help one over come that and again results in fewer injuries. To do core work and keep the body in alignment really takes only a few minutes a day if done right and will have zero bearing on ones running. There is a lot worth considering when it comes to cross training. I know for me it helps and I am a better runner for it.

      1. CoryK

        It seems that a double edged sword exists when it comes to specificity versus (sport-specific) strength training, and often the two seem to compete for slots in athletes' schedules for the sake of time-management. Many studies affirm that sport-specific strength training not only improves performance but also protects against injury. At the same time, most athletes report that they make the biggest gains when they significantly increase their mileage and consistently engage in their specific sport (i.e. swim, bike, run, etc.) It seems that benefits exist from both approaches, and perhaps one would be wise to assess for possible downsides as well, if they exist. For instance, with significant mileage increase comes increased exposure to natural elements such as traffic, etc., increased opportunity for injury given the increase in training time, and such possible downsides. Nevertheless, it's not like we train with pessimism but rather with determination… I like to train with the mentality of "work hard, consistently, rest hard, consistently… and have fun most of the time."

  12. Evan

    Cycling is great for general quad strength, but it's not stressing the muscle in the same way- downhill running causes eccentric contraction. It is great for recovery and cross-training though, you just need to have downhill-specific/eccentric work as well

  13. Phil Jeremy

    I trashed my quads , 3 times in 3 races. For the next one,60k but about 10,000 feet elevation gain I just trained up and down steep hills for weeks and weeks …and come race day, guess what? No quad problems at all! Simple really :)

  14. Andy Johnson

    So I have been struggling with the "stay perpendicular to the trail" concept. I think I am a faster than average decender especially on technical trails. However, I have recently moved to SLC and have been curious how exactly one avoids braking and overstriding while still going fast and maintaining control on steep descent. Case and point: The west ridge of Grandeur Peak gains or loses 3300' in 2.1 miles. Without maintaining a cadence around 300 steps/min staying perpendicular does not seem possible without gaining an uncontrollable amount of speed. So how does one go about running REALLY steep descents?

  15. Andrew

    I had an interesting experience with downhill running two years ago. One of my early season runs after no real running in the winter (I nordic ski) is an out and back gravel road hill climb that is 5.5 miles/2,000 feet vertical out, and 5.5 miles/2,000 feet back down. After the relatively flat first mile, the average grade for 4.5 miles is probably about 8 percent, with steeper sections of maybe 10-12 percent.

    Normally, after running up, I jog down to limit quad damage and soreness, especially during my seasonal transition back to running and downhill running in particular. Two years ago, I ran the downhill fast in one of my first runs of the year. My girlfriend was riding her bike up, and didn't want to ride back down to avoid being chilled on the long downhill. I booked the 5.5 miles back to the car in 31 minutes(sub-6:00 pace), and was surprised to find that my legs felt totally fine at the bottom. I also didn't have any delayed muscle soreness. About a week later, we did the same run, and I surprised myself by running the 5.5 mile downhill in under 29 minutes, averaging 5:10 per mile, and my legs were again totally comfortable afterwards – no muscle soreness.

    So, for me, the key seems to be to run downhills thinking "sprint". I focused on propelling myself/pushing forward with my legs and tried not to brake except minimal speed checking when I was nearing the limits of how fast I could run. I was probably running 4:30 mile pace in places that were the right grade (not so steep that I had to check my speed to remain in control).

    Unfortunately for me, this doesn't translate to more technical surfaces with bad footing (vs. gravel road in my example). I still get leg soreness running rough trail/mountain downhills where I have to brake constantly or often. In races I'm typically among the fastest downhillers on smoother surfaces, but only average on mountain downhills.

Post Your Thoughts