Avoiding Quadraphenia

AJW explains how to prevent blown quads in an ultramarathon.

By on March 8, 2013 | 23 comments

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?
Andy Jones-Wilkins
Andy Jones-Wilkins finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.