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.

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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.