Blown Quads – How to avoid them

With TNF100 (and 50) over for another year, we’re wondering how many of you woke up to very sore quads on Sunday/yesterday? Even if you weren’t racing TNF at the weekend here in Australia, sore quads is a very common occurrence for many after a hard race. It’s something that many runners have experienced, particularly in hilly ultramarathons but also in marathons and even shorter races with significant downhill sections. Here we welcome back one of our resident writers, Andy DuBois for his expert opinion and advice on how to avoid getting that dodgy walk the day or two after a race…

It happens when the quads are asked to do way more than they are accustomed to. Running downhill increases the load on your quads so it is often felt in hilly races. Once your quads are blown you are reduced to a painful shuffle and running downhill is almost impossible as your quads no longer have enough strength to control the effects of gravity.

I learnt from my first race and changed my training for my next race – the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a race with more than twice as much elevation and descent as the WHW and 5 miles longer. The results were dramatic; towards the latter stages of the race I was still running strong and I passed over 600 people in the last 50 miles. The next day I was walking OK and it only hurt going down stairs.

What did I do different and why did it make such a big difference?

My training for both events was similar in terms of mileage and my longest runs were actually shorter for the UTMB. The biggest difference was the inclusion of a running specific strength program and a lot more downhill running. Let me explain why this helped so much and exactly what I did.

What are “blown quads?”

The quads have a big role to play in controlling the effects of gravity. When you run further than you have ever run before or run more downhill ( where the effects of gravity are greater) you ask more of the quadriceps muscles. As fatigue mounts the muscles become more and more damaged until eventually they have insufficient strength to control your knee bending and you are reduced to a shuffle or walk.quad3

Before this happens you will notice your stride length getting shorter and shorter because with a shorter stride the load on your quads is less.

The quadriceps have to work eccentrically with every landing. This means the muscle is working whilst it is lengthening as opposed to a concentric contraction which is when the muscles works as it shortens. Eccentric contractions do far more damage to muscles than concentric contractions.

How can this be prevented?

Exposure to repeated eccentric contractions will mean a muscle can better handle the same load next time. The key in training is to gradually increase the amount of eccentric work your legs experience so they get used to it.

There are a number of ways to do this

  1. High mileage
  2. Long run
  3. Downhill training
  4. Strength Training
  5. Course Specific Training

High Mileage

The problem with the high mileage is there isn’t too many of us that can handle 100-200km training weeks without becoming injured. Finding the time to do this amount of mileage is also difficult.

Long run

Whilst the long run is an essential part of training you can only increase the long run so much before the risk of injury overrides the training effect. The amount of time needed to recover from a long runs also important to consider. The longer the run , the more days off you need which could be spent doing other useful training.

Downhill training.

This should be part of all ultrarunners training program – whether it is a hilly course or not. Downhill running involves increased eccentric muscular contractions which your body will get used to. Whilst many runners include hilly runs in their training few include specific downhill sessions. These come with an increased risk of injury but if progressed slowly are an excellent way to prevent blown quads.

Scream if you want to go faster!
Scream if you want to go faster!

This was one of the biggest differences between my training for the WHW and the UTMB. When training for the UTMB I did at least one, often two specific downhill training sessions every week.

For more information on how to incorporate downhill training into you routine see here.

Strength Training

Very few runners incorporate a well designed strength training program in their routine. I managed to create a running specific routine that put my quads through a far greater load than any hilly 2-3 hour run could ever do. I have written about strength training programs for running here and here

If you want to run strongly at the end of a marathon or ultra then incorporating both downhill running and strength training is essential.

Whilst running repeats of a hill or doing lots of lunges in a gym may not be as much fun as a few hours on your favourite trail, come race day your quads will thank you and nothing beats the feeling of finishing strongly at the end of a long race.

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2 thoughts on “Blown Quads – How to avoid them

  1. The proof is in the pudding here and Andy is right. Prior to the Buffalo stampede 75k Andy had me do some intensive strength training to compensate for my inability to run long due to injury. My longest run before the race was a mere 3.5hrs but the extra strength work I did resulted in me being ablee to run the final downhills strongly and dispite my lack of endurance achieve a great result.

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