Blown Quads – how to avoid them.
It’s something that many runners have experienced, particularly in hilly ultramarathons but also in marathons and even shorter races with significant downhill sections.
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 affects 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 than they were for the West Highland Way Race. 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.
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
Course Specific Training
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.
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.
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.
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
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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