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.