When we run, our quads move our legs forward. But they also stabilize the knee, control deceleration and help absorb the shock of footstrikes. This creates muscle tension in the quads, and this can lead to reduced mobility as well as back and knee pain.
Our quads are also very active as we go about our daily activities, including sitting, climbing stairs, standing in one place or walking.
Taking care of your quads can improve your running performance and prevent your legs from fatiguing quickly when you run.
You could find that adding quad exercises to your routine may prevent an injury that would have you on the couch for a couple of days.
Why should runners do quad exercises and stretches?
Your quads play a vital part when running, as they provide the power that propels you forward.
They also help to slow you down—deceleration—and they help absorb the impact of foot strikes, which also protects the knees from common overuse injuries. When you run uphill, you’re not just engaging the glutes and hamstrings, but the quads as well.
Your quads help to stabilize the knee, as well as keep it in a straight line when your foot makes contact with the ground. But they’ll also increase the amount of push-off power you have, as well as increase your speed.
If you’re looking to improve your speed—speed training—then you may want to have a look at the strength of your quads. By strengthening the quads, you’ll find that your legs won’t fatigue as quickly and your endurance increases.
Aside from strengthening the quads, you need to stretch them out regularly—especially after you run—as this will help keep the muscle flexible on your runs.
Studies have shown that running with tight quads can lead to muscle strains, tears or runner’s knee and place runners at a higher risk of injury.
Runners do need to be careful that they don’t develop a strength imbalance where the quads overpower the glutes and hamstrings. Most runners are quad-dominant—new runners can become quad-dominant— and this can lead to running injuries.
You need strong quads to help flex the foot forward and straighten the knee. The hamstrings not only bend the knee, but also pull the leg backwards. This creates two oppositional forces, but with a muscle imbalance between the quads and hamstrings, this can put your knees at risk.
The other downside to having a muscle imbalance when you’re a quad-dominant runner is that the quads take over in place of the hamstrings and glutes. This can lead to early muscle fatigue in races.
Where is your quad?
Our bodies have over 650 skeletal muscles and three of the largest and strongest muscles are in the legs; the gluteus maximus, quadriceps and the sartorius muscle. The quadriceps are found in the front of the thigh.
They’re made up of four muscles—vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius and rectus femoris—and they connect at the top of pelvis—ilium—then extend together around the kneecap and stop at the shinbone—tibia.
Our quads—all four muscles— allow us to kick a ball, cycle, jump, climb stairs, walk, squat with ease, get up from sitting and support you while standing.
What causes tight quads?
When we run or exercise, the quads will develop micro-tears—the process of hypertrophy—and while they help to build muscle, this can also cause them to be tight. That being said, there are also a number of reasons why one may experience tight quads.
Standing for a long time during the day can lead to tight quads, but spending a large part of our day sitting can also lead to tight quads. When we sit for hours our quads become static and this makes them resistant to stretching and lengthening.
Every day we find ourselves in stressful situations, be it sitting in traffic which could make you late for work, project/work deadlines or even tough conversations with the manager or colleagues. This causes the body to release adrenaline and cortisol, and you’ll find that your muscles tense up and there’ll be an increase in your breathing.
This is your body’s flight or fight response. Unfortunately, in current times we’re not always able to run from all stressful situations, which leaves us to deal with tight muscles.
An electrolyte imbalance and dehydration can also cause tight quads. When we aren’t sufficiently hydrated, electrolytes can become unbalanced and you’ll find that the flow of nutrient-rich blood can be slower to reach the quads. The muscles will tighten and contract in order to conserve what little nutrients and oxygen are in the quads.
How do you treat a tight quad?
The best way to “loosen” tight quads is by stretching them. You can stretch your quads anywhere and you don’t need any equipment. To stretch your quads while you’re at the office while you’re standing, you’d want to make sure that your feet are shoulder-width apart.
Then bend your leg backwards and use one hand to hold your ankle and gently pull backwards as far as you can. Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds and then alternate the leg. You can do this 3 to 5 times on each leg.
If you’re at home or in the gym, you can stretch your quads by lying on your stomach, grabbing your ankle and pulling your foot towards your bottom. You should feel the quads stretch. Increase the tension slowly and don’t stretch the quads past the point of pain.
Try and do this stretch two to three times per day.
What does a quad strain feel like?
If you’ve strained your quadricep muscle, you may feel pain in the front of the thigh with a “pulling” sensation and inflammation of the quad.
Quad strains and injuries are graded from 1 to 3, with Grade 1 being mild, Grade 2 being moderate and Grade 3 being severe. However, depending on the severity of the strain—Grade 1, 2 or 3— you may also notice inflammation and bruising on the thigh.
If you have a Grade 3 quad strain, then there will be a sudden, sharp pain either in the front of the thigh or in the groin area; you may find that you can’t put any weight on the leg. You may also experience difficulty straightening or bending the leg—limited mobility.
If it’s a Grade 2 injury, then you may experience a weakness in the leg and moderate pain, but there will be swelling in the quad.
Stretches and quad exercises
1. Standing Quad Stretch
Start by standing up straight with your feet hip-width apart. You can hold onto a chair, sturdy object or place a hand on the wall to help you keep your balance. Then bend your right leg backwards, bringing your foot up to your buttocks, and grab your ankle with your right hand.
You want to make sure that you keep your right knee pointed down towards the floor. Gently push your hips forwards—slightly—while your thighs and knees are kept together. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds and then switch to your left leg.
2. Wall Quad Stretch
For this stretch you may want to get a yoga mat or a pillow to place under your knee. Then with your back towards the wall, kneel down on your hands and knees. Take your left foot and place the top of your foot—the bridge of your foot—on the wall, keeping your knee on the ground.
Then move forward into the lunge position with your right leg, making sure that you keep your foot pointed forward with your knee directly over your ankle—your knee mustn’t go over your toes in the lunge.
Then place your hands on top of your right knee and lift your chest up—upper body—keeping your back straight and shoulders relaxed.
The closer your left knee is to the wall, the deeper the quad stretch will be. You should feel the stretch on the front of the left thigh—the foot that is on the wall. If you need to decrease the stretch, then move your left knee away from the wall.
Hold the position of 30 to 60 seconds and then switch legs and repeat.
3. Prone Quadricep Stretch
Lie flat on your stomach with your legs extended straight. Then bend your left leg backwards, raising your heel towards your bottom as far as you can go, then grab your ankle with your left hand and pull your knee towards your bottom.
Make sure that you keep the thigh on the ground and your lower back straight—your back mustn’t hyper-extend.
If your quads are tight, then you may find that your heel will not touch your bottom. Don’t try and pull it all the way or past your point of pain.
Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds and then return to the starting position and switch to the right leg. Repeat this stretch 3 to 5 times on each leg.
4. Child’s Pose
The Child’s Pose will stretch the quads, as well as the back, hips and ankles. To start, you want to get into a kneeling position on your hands and knees. Then spread your knees apart to the edges of your mat, while bringing your big toes together so that they touch.
Then lower your bottom onto your heels and while your belly rests on your thighs. Lower your head so that your forehead rests on the yoga mat. Relax your shoulders and then gently extend your arms out in front of you with your palms face down on the mat.
Hold this position for 60 seconds then return to the start.
5. Quad foam roll
Start by lying face down on your stomach and place the foam roller at the top of your thigh. To help balance and support yourself, you can bend the opposite leg out and away from the foam roller—the inside of your foot and knee will lightly touch the ground.
Then use your arms to prop yourself up—forearms flat on the floor, extended straight in front of you, like you’re going to go into a plank position. Using your opposite leg and arms for support, slowly roll your body forward, letting the foam roller run down the length of your thigh from the top to just above your knee.
Don’t rush through this movement. It should be slow and controlled, so that you can focus on feeling any specific tight spots in the quad.
If you do feel a tight spot, hold the position on the foam roller for 5 to 10 seconds or until you feel the tightness start to loosen. Then continue to roll down the thigh.
You can do this 2 to 3 times on each leg.
6. Bodyweight squat
Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing slightly outwards. To help you maintain your balance, you can extend your arms out in front of you but make sure to keep them at shoulder height.
Then slowly bend at the knees while you push your hips back—drop your hips like you’re going to sit in a chair—making sure to keep your heels flat on the floor. Keep your back straight, your core tight and your chest up, as this will help you to avoid any strain throughout the movement.
Once your thighs are parallel to the ground, you’ll stop and hold the pose for a few seconds. You then want to push yourself back into the starting—standing—position by pushing through your heels—do not push through the forefoot.
Do 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 15 reps of the bodyweight squat.
7. Walking lunge
For this exercise, you can use lightweight dumbbells as this will help to improve your balance, but walking lunges can also be done without dumbbells.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart—keeping your back straight—and either hold the dumbbells at your sides—arms straight at your side—or place your hands on your hips.
Take a fairly large step forward with your right foot, as you lower your body towards the floor. Make sure that both your knees are at a 90-degree angle when you’re at the bottom of the lunge. If you had to look at your left leg, you’d see that your shin is parallel to the ground, but your knee doesn’t touch the ground at all.
The knee of your right leg is directly above the ankle—the knee mustn’t go past or over your toes.
Hold this position for a few seconds. Then, without moving your right leg, you’re going to bring your left leg forward, repeating the movement of the right leg, into the lunge position.
Continue alternating sides as you walk lunge forwards. Try doing this for 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 15 reps on each leg.
For this exercise, you’ll need to find a sturdy chair, box or step that’s about knee-high. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, feet pointing straight ahead of you with your arms at your sides.
Place your right foot onto the object and step up while keeping your heel firmly planted on the object. Push your opposite knee upward until it’s almost the same height as your hip. Make sure to keep your back straight, core tightened and don’t let your knee go past your ankle—knee and ankle must be aligned.
Once you’re up on the object, place the left foot next to the right foot. You’ll step down with your right foot, the left following it back to the starting position.
You’ll then alternate between stepping up with the left and right foot, always coming down with the opposite foot that you stepped up with.
Do this for 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 15 reps on each leg.
9. Straight Leg Raises (mainly for the hip flexor)
Lie on your back on a flat surface—you can use your yoga mat—and then bend your right knee—90-degree angle—so that your foot is flat on the floor. Keep your left leg straight and point your toes towards the ceiling.
Then contract the quad muscle of the left leg so that you can lift the leg at least 12 inches off of the floor. Hold your leg up in this position for five seconds then lower your leg to the floor.
Do this for 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 15 reps on each leg.
10. Wall Sit
To start this exercise, stand with your back against the wall and push your upper body against it. Then slide downwards until your thighs are parallel to the floor—like the squat position—making sure that your knees are at a 90-degree angle and that your knees don’t go past or over your ankles.
You can make this position more challenging by either adding weight plates on top of your legs or by squeezing a medicine ball between your thighs.
Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds and do 3 to 5 five sets of 10 to 15 reps.