Avoiding Dead Quads


Experience From - Shawn McDonald , Karl King , Big Steve , George Beinhorn , Matt Mahoney ,

Shawn McDonald

The causes for dead quads that Andy mentioned are all relevant in 100 mile races. The deadness is an acute tightness and pain in the thigh muscles, which upon going downhill becomes aggravated late in the race. You are more likely to get blown quads on a course with lots of steep downhills (AC, Wasatch) and/or with runnable downhills (Vermont). I don't know the exact physiology that occurs, but it has to do with damage to the muscles due to the pounding nature of the downhills. Thus anything you can do in training to strengthen the legs and/or simulate the downhills will help. The damage is aggravated when you get dehydrated, as your running form/posture on the downhills degrades and there is less fluid in the muscles to remove wastes. Some people are better at staying supple and loose during these 100 milers, and have the body type/legs to just keep rolling downhills.

With that said, there are some ways to prepare for events where you might get dead quads. Doing regular strength work will help, whether this is cycling, or weight training, or hiking lots in the mountains. Stay hydrated during the race, within 3-4 pounds of your starting weight. Don't push the pace on the downhills in the first half of the race, just run them in a flowing manner. This means don't brake a lot, just keep your stride length moderate and have a good turnover. Rest on the downhills. Also, stretching the quads a few times during the race can help, as can stopping to walk for a minute or two if you have been going downhill for more than 10 minutes. Run the race with shoes that are fresh, that you have run maybe 100 or 200 miles in training with, so they still have good cushioning. Run lots of downhills in training and practice going easy and what it is like to run on tired legs. If the weather is cold, keep your legs warm and move around a little if you are at an aid station for a while, so you don't stiffen up a lot. At the start of a long downhill after stopping at an aid station, or after a long climb, start the downhill easy, and then get into your normal "easy" downhill pace after a few minutes.

Everyone out there gets tired, even the fast guys. It is a matter of degree as to how painful the downhills feel on the legs. With practice, you can learn to run/shuffle downhill on tired legs. It may not be a fast pace, but it will be a lot faster than walking all the downhills. Walking the downs is often what you have to do when your quads are blown. The best way to adapt the legs to the demands of the race is to train frequently on the course. It is not surprising that most of the top runners at 100 milers are folks who get out on the course regularly to run.

Runners may have similar problems with their knees and surrounding tendons due to the same causes as blown quads. Try the same preventative measures to avoid these types of pains. This happened to the runner I was pacing at AC this year. Luckily this did not happen until past the Idelhour aid station (mile 84). We just dealt with it for the remaining miles. He had a knee strap with him so that helped, as did taking 400 mg ibuprofen each 4 hours, and we iced the knee going out of the Millard aid station (mile 96). By doing strength work and training on mountains, you may not totally avoid knee pain or blown quads during the race, but you will have them occur later in the race, when you have more time built up on the cutoff and fewer downhill miles left to go. It is much easier to tough it out for 10 or 20 miles than for 50.

Karl King

Andy Wilkins wrote:

what is the physiology involved and how can this disaster be avoided?
Andy, It will be interesting to see what others with more experience say, but it seems to me to be a matter of training. Dehydration, and/or electrolyte imbalance may contribute to the problem, but I don't see those as the main cause.

I've had races with no quad problems at all, and some where the quads were really sore at the end, particularly the Vermont 100. The big difference has been the training. When I trained on the downhills and ran them hard, there were few problems on race day.

The eccentric contractions of the quads on downhills damages the muscle fibers, and can exhaust them of glycogen, leading to quivering muscles. Since we have few big hills in southeastern Wisconsin, I find it useful to do leg extensions in the weight room. I assist the weight up with my arm and let the legs lower it *slowly*. That slow drop burns up plenty of glycogen, giving a *burn* in the muscle. The slow drop is not the same thing as what is experienced while running down hill, so I train on our small hills by running them fairly hard. The bottom line is that if I work hard in training, it pays off with less quad weakness on race day, and less quad soreness afterward.

Every race seems to be slightly different. I trained a couple months on the roads for the Moscow Marathon ( flat ). Four weeks after the 'marathon, I ran the Glacial Trail 50K ( lots of small, steep hills ) and had no quad soreness during the run but plenty 24 hours later.

Big Steve

"Since we have few big hills in southeastern Wisconsin, I find it useful to do leg extensions in the weight room. I assist the weight up with my arm and let the legs lower it *slowly*. That slow drop burns up plenty of glycogen, giving a *burn* in the muscle."
I seem to get the same benefits from burning my legs telemark (lift) skiing all day. In the back country, one can work the uphill muscles too. The only ultramarathoning thing at which I seem to be any good is the down hill running, and I've always thought that the telemarking helped (along with my big ol' butt pushing me down the hill).

George Beinhorn

Quads are a tricky deal. You definitely can't prepare for a race with long downhills by running lots of uphills. That's a delusion, the downhills use the "upper" quad muscles.

I've trained very effectively for the downhills, in minimal time, using weights. (See my First 50 article for details, signature below. Sorry, Ancient Listers, I know this is "ad nauseam" for you.)

Matt Mahoney

I don't recall my quads being especially stiff after Hardrock, although I was mostly walking the downhills after 85-90 miles. In any case there wasn't any soreness at all when I climbed Mt. Shavano the following Tuesday.

I suppose that hill training would help, but here in eastern Florida I have to do without. I had only two hill workouts of any significance in the 6 months prior to heading to Colorado. The first was 28 hours at Barkley (a 40 mile DNF), and the second was 35 hours at Massanutten Mt., each with about 20,000 ft. of climb. My quads were stiff for about 3 days after each run. I find that by doing consecutive long runs a month or two apart, that my quads are in much better shape for the second run.

I think that interval training is the best way to avoid quad stiffness, especially if you don't have hills to train on. If you have ever seen the lead runners coming down Hope Pass or Pikes Peak, you'll notice that they land on their toes. This happens naturally when running fast, which they are doing, of course. They take huge strides as well. It is really amazing to see them flowing down a rocky trail at a 5:30-6:00/mile pace. My pace is slower, about 8:00/mi at the end of Pikes Peak and probably a bit slower in a 100, but I am still using my calves quite a bit.

The reason for interval training, of course, is that the only way to learn to run fast is to run fast. Much of mine is off road. The idea is to develop skill and coordination as much as endurance, so that when you do need to run downhill fast in order to stay off your quads, you can do it effortlessly.

I also ride a bike and lift weights, which help, I think.