Running can be one of the most joyful activities you can do. But if you suffer from pain during or after your run, it can be much less enjoyable than it should be.
The leg muscles naturally take most of the strain when running, so one of the common things runners experience is sore quads after a run. Understanding why your quads are painful after you’ve gone for a run could be the key to improving your running and eliminating the pain for good.
Here’s everything you should know about the quads, why they could be sore after a run, and how to recover. We’ll also go through how you can prevent sore quads in the first place!
What Are the Quad Muscles?
The quads—or quadriceps—perform the main function of extending the knee joint. They’re located in the front of the thigh.
Your quads work with the hamstrings, causing the knee joint to flex and allowing you to run smoothly. These muscles also provide support for the knee joint.
The quadriceps are made up of four muscles in total, which are:
- Rectus Femoris: The highest muscle in the quads, responsible for hip flexion.
- Vastus Lateralis: The largest of the four muscles, on the outside of the thigh, responsible for knee extension.
- Vastus Medialis: Located on the inside front of the thigh, it helps to stabilize the knee and extend the joint.
- Vastus Intermedius: Hidden beneath the other muscles, it helps to extend the knee.
The location of the pain in your quads will give you a clue as to which of the four muscles have been affected.
Why Are My Quads Sore After Running?
Having sore quads after running is quite common. You may feel pain and stiffness for up to 48 hours, depending on the cause and what you do to speed up recovery.
Here are some of the most common reasons for feeling pain in your quads after running.
If you’ve pushed yourself particularly hard during a run, your quads may not be used to that activity level. On the other hand, if you’ve been training for too long without resting properly, you may be overworked.
You may be overworking your muscles if you’ve recently run a race during which you ran faster than normal. It’s also easy to overwork them if you’ve been running hills or recently increased your mileage or intensity.
DOMS—delayed onset muscle soreness—can affect athletes of all experience levels, but it’s particularly common in new runners whose muscles are not yet used to the motion of running.
If you’re still quite new to running, you can expect to feel muscle soreness for a day or two after a run. Your quad muscles are not used to carrying your body through the extra force of running rather than walking. Your muscles should adapt to your level of exercise within a few weeks.
It’s important to note that DOMS can also affect runners who aren’t new. It usually happens when experienced athletes increase their frequency or intensity a little too fast when training.
Poor Running Form
Overstriding is a common result of tight hip flexors. Unfortunately, it can put a lot of strain on the knee and the quad muscles. When your foot lands too far ahead of your pelvis, your quads must work extra hard to propel your body over the leading leg.
It can also affect the quads due to the excessive braking force applied during overstriding. This can lead to the quads absorbing a lot more shock than usual, causing pain after the run.
When your form is correct, your center of gravity—your pelvis—should land directly over your front foot. This prevents overextension of the knee, which means your quads are now in the best position to propel you forward powerfully without fighting against the unnatural position of overstriding.
Many runners are quad dominant, which means their quads are the stronger of their thigh muscles—as opposed to the hamstrings—and tend to expend more power during the running gait.
If this is the case for you, your quad muscles may feel sore after a run because they’re doing most of the work.
On the other hand, if your quads are weaker and your hamstrings are stronger, you may experience quad pain as they take on the force of every step.
You may also experience quad pain if you have weak glutes. Strong glutes help to provide more power on your stride and stabilize your pelvis. If your glutes are weak, your quads may take on more of this job, leading to excess strain.
Your muscles need water to function at their best. When dehydrated, your quad muscles may not perform at their best.
But dehydration can also lead to DOMS after your exercise, which could be the reason for your quad pain even if you’re an experienced runner.
Tips to Recover From Sore Quads
If you’ve experienced sore quads from running, follow these recovery tips to ease the pain as quickly as possible.
Stretch After Your Run
You can get ahead of quad pain by stretching your quads after every run. This is easy to do as part of your cool-down routine and can help ease pain after your run.
You can do simple stretches like:
- Standing quad stretches
- Child’s pose yoga stretch
- Wall quad stretch
Foam Roll Your Quads
Foam rolling your quads can help to release tension and ease knots in the muscle tissue, reducing pain and stiffness.
Place the foam roller on the floor and lie with your upper thighs on it. You can support yourself by lifting your upper body into a plank position. Make sure to keep your back straight and engage your core.
Roll yourself forwards, so the foam roller moves down your thighs. Stop when it gets just above your knee. Hold the foam roller on that position for 10 to 15 seconds if you feel any particularly stiff spots as you roll. The knot should ease up.
Try Ice or Heat
Both ice and heat can help to ease pain in the muscles. However, you should be careful with applying heat if you feel that your pain may result from an acute injury rather than overuse.
Alternatively, you can apply a heat pack. Most runners tend to prefer one over the other to reduce pain.
Have a Good Post-Workout Meal
Eating a healthy post-workout meal can give your muscles the best chance of recovering with little to no pain. Evidence suggests that proper nutrition can reduce the chance of DOMS after exercise.
The best ratio is 3:1 or 4:1 grams of carbs to protein. Carbohydrates will replenish your muscle glycogen stores, while protein will contribute towards building muscle.
Depending on your preferences, this could be a full meal with meat and vegetables, or something like a smoothie with a scoop of protein powder.
Do Strength Training
Strength training can help you build up your quads, hamstrings, and glutes to balance muscular imbalances. While you shouldn’t neglect your upper body during strength training, you should aim to work on these muscles specifically.
Exercises like deadlifts, squats, lunges, hip thrusts, and hamstring curls will not only strengthen the muscles involved in your stride but will also stabilize and protect the knee joint.
Resting your legs completely after a run is tempting if you’re feeling sore. But not activating the painful muscles can cause them to become stiffer and more painful.
Partaking in active recovery could be the best thing for your sore quads. A brisk walk, relaxed cycle, or swim can get the blood flowing, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the muscles faster for increased recovery.
You should only do light activity while you’re still sore. Keep the vigorous activity for when your pain has eased up.
How to Prevent Sore Quads When Running
Once you’ve recovered from your sore quads, you can take steps to prevent it from happening again. Try these ideas to stop quad pain in the future.
If you’re new to running or you’ve been off for a while, you may be tempted to increase your speed, distance, or time quickly. However, this can lead to overuse of the muscles, which may cause pain after running.
Increasing your intensity or frequency by no more than 10% per week is best. This will give your body time to adapt and prevent you from accidentally overdoing it.
Fix Your Form
If you’re inadvertently running with poor form, you could be placing more strain on your quads than you think. Most runners don’t think about their form until a coach or fellow runner points it out, so now may be a good time for a form check.
You can video yourself running and analyze your form on your own, or you can get a coach to help you. A quick tip to improve your form and take the strain off your quads is to work on increasing your cadence—the number of steps you take every minute.
This will help shorten your stride and ensure your foot is landing in the right place, underneath your pelvis instead of out in front of your body.
Fuel During Long Runs
If you’re deleting all the glycogen in your muscles during your run, there’s a chance that the muscles could cramp up. This may happen during the run, but it can also happen soon after the run before you’re refueled with a post-run meal.
You can also try a powdered energy drink or electrolyte tablet to replace electrolytes and prevent cramping.
Your muscles need water to function properly. Dehydration can also cause cramping, either during or after your run.
Staying hydrated is something you should do even if you don’t have quad pain, but it can help to prevent the pain from arising in the first place.
When Should You Worry?
Sore quads after running isn’t usually anything to be concerned about. However, if the pain persists for many days and doesn’t ease up with recovery measures, you may want to consult your doctor to ensure there’s no underlying injury.
Make an appointment if:
- The pain doesn’t improve with the above recovery measures
- You have pain at other times, not just after running
- You can’t run properly due to the pain
- The ache interferes with everyday activities
- There’s swelling and inflammation in the thigh