Ultrarunning: Preventing Quadriceps Injury

October 17, 2011

This article is part of Endurance Planet’s ultrarunning article series. If you have questions, comments or feedback about “Preventing Quadriceps Injury”, please leave it below in the comments section…

You’re going downhill and you’re feeling a little relief despite the fatigue because it’s the last hill of the course. Then the pain in your legs suddenly shoot up and the next thing you know you’re practically hobbling across the last few miles.

This acute pain and tightness on the front side of your thighs is likely an injury to your quadriceps muscles or what is typically called a ‘dead quad’. You know you’re in trouble when there’s a tear or strain on what are considered to be your strongest and leanest muscles. Sometimes this kind of injury is manageable enough to let you plow on through to the end. At other times this spells out D-N-F.

There is a way to prevent or at least minimize the occurrence of this particular leg injury. It begins in training. Here is a short explanation of its typical cause and how a particular type of workout can serve as a solution.

Eccentric actions

This is the term sports medicine experts use to describe an action wherein your muscles simultaneously flex and extend. Despite the given name, a lot of common and natural movements actually involve this combination. In the act of running for example, every step makes the quadriceps elongate to support the flexing that happens at the knees but at the same time the muscle group also automatically tries to shorten in order to prevent excessive flexing. However given enough repetitions of these inherently high-tension actions, your muscles are going to be strained beyond their limits.

The one place in an ultramarathon where this kind of action is asked of your quadriceps at a very high volume is on the downhill sections. Trail 100 milers with a lot of hills are the most common settings for war stories that center on dead quads.

Downhill running

One of the aims of strength building workouts like those in weight lifting is to help your muscles adapt to eccentric actions. Through continuous but controlled application of stress, your muscles will eventually produce more of the cells that make up the fibers, enabling them to take on more of the strain you put them through. Thus for the ultrarunner, the effective way to prevent quadriceps injury is to make them stronger and that means including downhill running in the training.

The process of course has to be gradual. Push yourself too hard at the beginning and you’ll likely injure yourself and possibly spend more time recovering than training. Your running form will play a major role in this workout. Be conscious of how you stride, move your hips, and land your feet. Downhill running has the additional advantage of specificity as it also teaches you the additional skill of navigating trails at a quick pace.

In case there aren’t any equivalent types of terrain in the area where you live, you can always resort to cross training activities such as cycling or weight lifting exercises for the legs. Interval workouts can achieve the same purpose too. It’s usually the hamstrings that get more developed in typical training run sessions. When you focus work on your quadriceps as well, you can get balanced leg power.


Do you have questions about quadriceps injury prevention, or what you’ve read so far? Do you have any ultrarunning pointers of your own to add? Please leave your feedback, comments and questions below, and we promise we’ll respond.

Comments (4)

  • Seleke says:

    I have found your article quite informative. I must say I have been suffering from quadriceps pain during long races ever since running my first marathon in April 2010. The pain starts after 25kms (16miles) and I believe has prevented me from running fast times. The times for my first three marathons, see below, were identical because of this problem, usually a fast 20kms until the pain starts then a slow second half

    Gaborone City Marathon, April 2010 4h 32min
    Phikwe Marathon, July 2010 4h28min
    Deloitte Pretoria Marathon, February 2011, 4h30min

    I have to say the first two races were flat races while the Pretoria Marathon was hilly. I ran my first ultra marathon, Comrades marathon (89km) in May 2011. I had a good first 38kms and believe was in a way to bronze finish when the quad pain in both legs started. I had to run at low pace and managed just to get a finishers medal with a few minutes before cut off. contnd

  • Seleke says:

    My training and pace improved for 2012 as I set my sights to running my second comrades marathon in Jun 2012. On my first marathon in February 2012 that quads problems once again started. The Mafikeng marathon is a flat race… I once again had a flying first half and then the quad pain started around the 25km mark. After 30km I had to run and walk to make the finish. I finished in a time of 4h 17min.

    It was after this race that I introduced some strength training, being squats and lunges to my training programme. I must say it helped as in the next race which was the 50km Om die dam marathon (march 2012), though the quad pain started around the 25km mark, I managed to hold through it till the 42km mark. From there on I had to walk and run to make it, I finished in a time of 5h 13min.

    I maintained the squats training up until Gaborone City Marathon 2012 in April, I was able to run the first 30kms without quad pain. It then started after 35kms… I was able to walk and run and finish the marathon in 3h 52min (A PB). I believed from this point that with increased strength I could even do better times. contnd

  • Seleke says:

    The thought of the quadriceps pain spoiling my first Comrades marathon was in my mind when i changed my running style in early May 2012, to foot striking instead of heel striking. I had read that with foot striking the quadriceps work less instead it is the calves that take the load from landing.

    I believe this was the worst mistake I made mainly because I cut down on my quad strength training believing that it will be the calves taking the load. I skipped rope to strengthen the calves instead. Then came race day this past Sunday…. 1st June 2012. From the 21km mark I started to experience some quad pain in both legs… by the time I reached the 30km I had to run and walk. The strange thing is that i could manage to run at a low pace going up the slopes but going down was a problem, I had to do it at a very low pace. From the half way mark. I was stopping at every physio station, I fought on well but I realised that with my very slow pace I could not make the 12hrs cut off. It was by the 2km mark that I realised I was not going to make the cut. I made it to the stadium in approximately 12hrs 12min.

  • Seleke says:

    Sorry for giving a long story…. just wanted to show how I have been plagued by the quadriceps pain. You advise will be helpful

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