Muscle pain and tightness can be a huge drag on any running routine. It’s difficult to feel motivated to train for that 5K or jog around the block when your upper legs feel sore and tight. If you understand what’s going on, you can fix the problem and hit the ground running again before you know it.
The muscle group that runs along the entire front part of your thigh is the quadriceps muscle group. Commonly referred to as “quads,” this group is made up of four muscles: rectus femoris, vastus intermedius, vastus lateralis and vastus medialis. These four muscles work together to perform hip flexion — lifting the knee up — and knee extension — straightening the knee out. Both actions are done repeatedly in running, keeping the quads hard at work. The rectus femoris extends from the top of the hip to the shinbone and is considered the primary muscle of the group because it crosses two joints and does most of the work for both muscle actions. The other three muscles extend from the top of the thighbone to the shinbone and assist with knee extension while also stabilizing the knee.
Cause of Tightness
When you push your muscles past their current level of fitness they are hardwired to adapt to their new workload. When overstressed, your muscles develop tiny micro-tears that your body rebuilds to make a stronger, fitter muscle. Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is the pain you feel the day after a tough workout and is the result of these micro-tears. As your muscles repair themselves, the muscle fibers can become inflamed and bundle up to form knots that leave you feeling stiff and tight. Since your quads are such a large muscle group, tightness and soreness can be a literal pain and potentially leave you prone to injury.
To loosen up tight quads you need to gently lengthen the wound-up muscle fibers by stretching them thoroughly. Most flexibility exercises are static stretches, that is, positions that are held without movement to stretch muscle tissues to their greatest possible length. You should only do static stretches when your muscles are warm; after you’ve finished your workout or run is ideal. To stretch your quads, balance on one leg and hold the shoelaces of the other foot behind you. Gently pull your foot close to your butt while keeping your knee pointed down toward the floor. You should feel the stretch along the entire length of your thigh. To avoid injury, make sure you aren’t pulling your leg wildly to the side. Hold the stretch for 15 to 60 seconds and repeat two or three times.
If muscle knots are contributing to tightness in your quads, the most common way to release them is with a simple technique called myofascial release. Myofascial release straightens out bundled-up muscle fibers while increasing blood circulation in the problem area to promote healing. You can perform myofascial release on yourself with the help of a hard foam roller meant for this purpose. Simply place the roller on the floor and glide your quads over it for 30 to 60 seconds, focusing on any spots that are particularly tender.
- ACE Personal Trainer Manual: ACE Fitness
- Mayo Clinic: A Guide to 10 Basic Stretches - Quadriceps
Jilana Dennis is a health and fitness writer based out of San Antonio, Texas. Dennis is a nationally certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise and holds a B.S in exercise science from Illinois State University.