Protect And Preserve: Quadriceps Training And Race Preparation

Stay the CourseRecently a friend of mine emailed me shortly after running a rugged, steep 55-mile ultra. He placed among the top 10, but his finish was stifled by some seriously traumatized quadriceps muscles:

“…I felt solid with everything through 55k, then my quads started hurting, cramping a little bit, then by mile 40 going downhill hurt like hell! I took it easy on all the up and downhills trying to keep heart rate low and not push too hard, ate well, hydrated well, took a few S!Caps… Likewise I did a good amount of vert in my training, even though the course only had 8[,000 feet] +/- of vert overall. I felt really prepared mentally and physically for this race, and am left frustrated by my performance.”

That reminded me of a Stay the Course column from 2014, where I discussed the insidious leg-muscle stress accumulated from running too hard, too early. In short: running hard in an anaerobic state causes metabolic stress than can ‘chemically tenderize’ a muscle. Once compromised, the muscles are far more susceptible to the physical pounding stress of downhills.

This chemical effect is significant, but even if you run a conservative pace (as my friend claimed), your quads are still susceptible to serious–and preventable strain. Uphill running and hiking alignment plays a critical role in which muscles are activated–or overused.

Just one simple adjustment–making your hill stride hip-centric–may be the key to bullet proof quads:

[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]

The key to quad preservation is in hip loading:

Chest-over-knee-behind-foot. On hill climbs, aim to keep your chest over your knee and knee behind the toes. While this is very difficult to do on most hills, especially steep trail climbs, this alignment places the work in the glutes and removes stress from both the quads and calves.

Lean forward, both up and downhill. A cue of ‘staying tall’ helps prevent excessive knee and ankle flexion, and prevents over-striding–both of which decrease quadriceps stress.

When in doubt, hike (with the hips). It’s far easier to hike in this forward, tall alignment than to run. If the speed difference is negligible, opting to hike in a hip-centric position will preserve the quads.

Preserve, don’t pound! Quad preparation is a lot more than just pounding downhills. Practice every up and down as efficiently as possible. The goal of a ‘quad-seasoning’ session should not be destruction, simply to ‘toughen them up;’ rather, aim to be maximally efficient and hip-centric at all times.

***

The key to quad preservation starts on the way up the hill: run with your hips, save the quads, and keep your stride intact for a finish-line sprint!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are there certain situations that stress your quadriceps muscles more than others, like a specific kind of running that’s difficult for you?
  • Have you found that concentrating on an efficient running stride helps to preserve your quadriceps?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 14 comments

  1. Jay in GA

    How does the use of hiking poles influence posture and alter the load on legs? Proper use of poles v improper use?

  2. OOJ

    Pole actually help because, by forward reaching, they keep the trunk forward! They also aid in full hip extension when you push them behind — all the things our arms are supposed to do (but are often too fatigued to fully accomplish!)

  3. faithdoesmatter

    Thank you so much for the video. That was a huge help. I have heard all the words you said before but the visual is the part I was missing . Can’t wait to put it into use tomorrow. I would like to see more videos like this in articles when they talk technique but the visual is important.

  4. javanorm

    A bit off this topic (maybe a thought for a future column), but since you did mention calves…. If you go straight up a steep enough slope, whether running or hiking, there is a lot of stress on your calves because your heel never even touches the ground. This can be an even bigger issue than quad burnout (it has been for me, anyway, lately).

    1. Tom_bombadil

      Not sure if you have the same mechanics… but I’ve wrestled with this for a long time and I’ve recently found that my issue was a very limited stride (not short, but landing too far back) which essentially forced the calves to land eccentrically loaded. I pulled my stride to land a bit further up under my chest, while still trying to engage my glutes and it helped a lot.

    2. Mark Y M

      I’ve had similar issues with calves giving out on me in longer, hilly runs. I agree that on steeper slopes it’s tough not to overwork the calves when your heels are never touching the ground. I do a couple things 1) I look for rocks, ledges with a flatter aspect that I can use to put some weight on the heel. Even these very brief moments of alleviating stress to the calves can be helpful. 2) I focus even more on activating the glutes and even the quads over exerting the calves. Toeing-off with any force will quickly exhaust the small-ish calf muscles. And as a self-check, I know that I am doing this if I am slipping a little just before I pick up my foot. It’s subtle, but easy to catch once you are paying attention to it.

      1. OOJ

        The stressor of calves going uphill is the same as the quads: too much knee flexion and not enough hip flexion –> the calves get overstretched…at the KNEE!

        Remember, the gastrocnemius crosses not only the ankle, but the knee, as well! So when the knees flex too much — and you’re running upright — the calves overbend at both the knee and the ankle. It is the **over-stretch** that truly stresses the calves — not just the “heel off the ground”.

        Try the above technique — even just the “Standing Test” — and feel the inherent lack of calf stress in the “hip hinge position”!

        Good luck!

  5. Kevin

    Cool post. Ultras are certainly a lot more fun sans blown quads.

    I’ve have had issues with blown quads and blown lower back in separate ultras. For me, hands on knees while hiking uphill in an ultra destroys by lower back. I’ve found hands on hips while hiking uphill with the posture described above works best as preventing meltdown. Also, not seriously engaging any uphills or downhills until the last third of the race has helped a lot — at least for a non-elite runner like myself.

    1. OOJ

      When in the “trunk forward” position, the key to avoiding back pain/overuse is to keep the back in neutral! There’s an iconic B&W picture of Gordy Ainsleigh hiking a steep slope during WSER in ’74 — a perfect example of ideal (back straight-up-and-down, with neutral arched) low back.

      Keep the trunk forward, but also neutral, and you’ll fare better.

  6. Heather bowes

    Great article but interestingly I have been having sort of the opposite issue. Coming back from an ACL recon my PT put a lot of stress on me working on stride by more engagement of glutes, and building up their strength. In doing this I am realizing I neglected my quads a bit, assuming they would be getting stronger as my work increased. Now in my runs I am dealing with overuse of my glutes and hams and feel as though I am not engaging my quads to benefit from them. Odd in that my hamstrings and glutes feel so much stronger than they have ever been but they fatigue before anything else on any sort of uphill. I am training to do the Loon Mtn Race so I may be pushing hills too much. But I am trying to find out how to engage my quads more when climbing…feel completely backwards from where I was before this ACL rupture. Everytime I do strength work to target my quads my hamstrings and glutes scream and fade. Any thoughts? Thanks!!

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