Of the many muscles that power our stride as runners, we all know our quadriceps do a lot of hard work. They work in tandem with our hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, calves, core, and more to help us take step after step.
Understandably so our quads can often become sore, especially after a tough workout.
There are a lot of things that can help prevent and alleviate muscle soreness. Doing a dynamic warmup, foam rolling, stretching, sleep, hydration, good nutrition, and even strength training can help.
In this article, I’m going to focus specifically on the quads since they do so much for us and deserve some much-needed love. We’ll explore what the quads are and do, why stretching is important, why you might also need to be doing strength training, and the best quad stretches to help you recover.
What are the Quadriceps?
The quadricep muscles are a group of powerhouse muscles on the front of your thigh. According to the Cleveland Clinic, they “contain more mass than any other muscle group in your body.”
While the word “quad” implies there are 4 muscles that make up the quadriceps, there are actually 5 muscles. These include the rectus femoris, the vastus intermedius, the tensor of the vastus intermedius, the vastus lateralis, and the smallest being the vastus medialis.
As mentioned, the quads are important muscles that do a lot of work for us all the time.
They help straighten and bend our leg at the knee (extension and flexion), they absorb force when we walk and run, they help flex the hip, they stabilize our knee cap (aka patella), and they impact how we walk and run, which is our gait.
Why Runners Have Tight Quads?
One major contributor to tight quads in runners is the repetitive motion of running itself. During each stride, the quadriceps contract forcefully to extend the knee and propel the body forward. This repetitive contraction can lead to muscle fatigue and subsequent tightness, especially during longer runs or high-intensity training sessions.
Additionally, downhill running or running on uneven terrain can further exacerbate this tightness as the quads are engaged even more intensely to control the descent and maintain stability.
Overall here what we are seeing is a need to continue building strength in the quads. So remember that stretching alone will not resolve the issue.
We have long known that static stretching, even after a workout, is not definitively linked to reduced muscle soreness or a reduced risk of injury.
Does that mean it’s not worth doing? No, of course not. I still do it and still have my athletes do it when dealing with an injury or because they enjoy the relaxation that it creates. It’s prescribed as part of physical therapy often, so we just need to know when and how to best use it.
While it may not specifically help DOMS, it is linked to improved range of motion, increased blood flow, which can help with recovery, and just an overall improved sense of wellbeing. Those are encouraging things!
How to Loosen Tight Quads?
The biggest reason to stretch our quads is to ensure good range of motion. If you’re really tight, your stride may be affected, making you less efficient. No one wants to expend more energy than needed when running.
Excessive tension in our quads can impact our back and posture as well as our knees. If your quads are really tight and because the muscles are connected to your patella, they can impact the movement pattern of your patella and cause running knee pain.
Stretching can prevent or get rid of those issues.
Benefits of stretching post-workout may include:
- Helps keep or improve flexibility for maintaining or improving range of motion
- Improves performance
- Increases blood flow to muscles
- Feeling better overall
As a reminder, you do not want to stretch a quad strain!
10 Best Quad Stretches
As you probably know, range of motion in our muscles and joints is important to their ability to function well.
As runners, we put our bodies through a lot. Workouts of any kind can leave us sore, impacting our form and range of motion. Like dynamic warmups before an activity like running, cool downs and stretching are an useful part of our recovery and maintenance routine.
Below I’ve highlighted some of my favorite quadricep stretches.
Now do you need to do all of them every day or after every run? No! Please just pick one or two and then move on to another muscle or muscle group so your whole body reaps the benefits of stretching, not just your quads.
Some stretches also don’t directly target the quads. I’ve included them because it’s important to ensure that muscles that work together and in opposition to one another also have good range of motion and flexibility.
To perform each stretch, plan to hold for at least 30 seconds, but if you can go a little longer, that’s great! Try to relax and breathe while performing the stretch. You don’t want to be tense.
Finally, don’t overdo it. Stretching shouldn’t be intensely painful. Yes, there should be tension but it should be something you can tolerate while breathing and relaxing to reap the benefits.
Now, let’s get to the stretches!
#1 Standing Quad Stretch
This is a tried and true basic stretch that you probably already do sometimes. If not, it’s an easy one to do.
To do this stretch, stand on one leg and bend your other leg so your foot goes up to your butt. Your knees should be close or touching. Grab the foot of the bent leg and pull toward your butt.
Remember to maintain good upright posture while in the stretch. Worry more about how it feels and getting a nice stretch vs. how close you can get your foot to your butt. After about 30 seconds, switch legs.
Off balance? Use a chair or the wall to help.
**Think about your his remaining level while you do this. If looking in a mirror, one knee shouldn’t be higher than the other. Think about a little resistance as you push in to that hand.
#2 Kneeling Quad Stretch
The kneeling quad stretch is another option. While still one-sided, it requires a little less focus on your balance.
To do this stretch, kneel down on your right knee with your left leg bent up in front of you making a right angle. Your right knee should be directly under your hip, don’t lean forward (yet).
Think about your posture in this position. You may already feel a hip flexor stretch (and TFL Stretch) on the same side of the knee that’s on the floor.
From this position, reach back with your right arm and grab your ankle or toes, whichever is most comfortable, and pull up and toward your butt. You can use both arms if preferred. Hold for at least 30 seconds and then switch sides.
To advance this stretch, remember when I said don’t lean forward (yet)? While holding your back foot, lean forward and you’ll feel the quad stretch extend up into your hip flexor.
#3 Sidelying Quad Stretch
Another way to stretch your quads that requires even less balance than the first two, is to do a lying side quad stretch.
To do this version, lay on one side of your body. You can prop your head up in your hand if you like or just lay it down on your arm. Whatever is most comfortable.
Bend your top leg and reach the top arm back to grab your foot and pull it down your butt. Hold for at least 30 seconds and then switch sides.
#4 Prone Quad Stretch
Similar to the sidelying quad stretch above, the prone quad stretch is done on the floor, but you’re lying face down.
You can do this one with just your arms or use a resistance band to help since it does require some flexibility in your arms/shoulder.
To perform, from the prone position, bend your left knee and reach back with your left hand to pull your heel toward your butt. Hold for 30 seconds and switch sides pulling your right foot toward your butt with your right hand. A partner can also help with this stretch.
#5 Pigeon Pose Stretch
The pigeon stretch is another favorite. While it generally targets our hips and glutes, you can also incorporate the quad into this stretch. This is a bit more advanced and is sometimes seen in yoga, so proceed with caution and don’t push it.
An easy way to get into the pigeon stretch is to start in downward facing dog and as you move through a plank position, bring one leg forward bent at the knee. Once placed on the floor you should feel a stretch in the outer hip.
This position may provide more than enough stretch on its own. However, in order to then target the quads you can bend your back leg bringing your foot toward your torso and grabbing it with the same side arm.
#6 Frog Stretch
This next stretch goes back to target the quad muscles, but is a more intense version of the prone quad stretch mentioned earlier as you’re doing both legs at the same time.
Start on your stomach with your legs outstretched. Bend both knees and reach back with both arms to grab your feet. How close you can pull them to your butt depends on your personal flexibility. Do not overdo it!
A little bit of muscle tension in the quads is good, but you should not cause yourself any pain. You may also feel a nice stretch across the chest and shoulders while doing this pose.
#7 Bed Quad Stretch
This one might be my favorite after a run.
Simply lay on your bed or couch with one leg off the side. Allow gravity to do the work of pulling your leg down and stretching out that quad.
#8 Childs Pose
This one might be my husbands favorite way to stretch a sore quad. Or maybe it’s just what he does for most of yoga, hard to say.
With feet flat on the floor, sit back with your bum to your heels and then lower your body over your quads. That’s it, say here and relax.
#9 Single Leg Knee Hug
Since your tight quads could also be caused by other muscles pulling, we want to help reduce that load as well.
While the primary focus of the single-leg knee hug stretch is on the hamstrings and lower back, it does create some stretch in the quadriceps of the lifted leg, particularly when you pull your knee closer to your chest.
- Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart.
- Shift your weight onto one leg.
- Bend the knee of the other leg and bring it up toward your chest.
- Hold your shin or knee with both hands and gently pull the knee closer to your chest.
- Maintain good posture with your back straight and shoulders relaxed.
- Hold the stretch for about 15-30 seconds.
- Release and switch to the other leg.
#10 Foam Roller
While this one isn’t exactly a stretch, it’s one that my PT prescribed to me prior to running as my tight quads were indeed pulling on my knee.
Face down with your quad on top of the roller, you want to flex your foot and put your sole to the ceiling. You aren’t trying to stretch the quad, but are changing the length of the muscle for while you foam roll.
Don’t linger, just roll back and forth up and down the quad. This sends signals to your brain to release quadriceps muscles.
The Importance of Quad Strength
Before wrapping up, I also want to touch upon the importance of quad strength. While having good flexibility and range of motion will help your running, so will strength.
When our muscles are sore after runs, sometimes it’s simply because we worked hard and they’re tired. However, there’s also the chance that the specific muscles are weak and/or other muscles are compensating for them.
You know I advocate for runners to include strength training in their routines. This helps with muscle imbalances and improves our overall strength, power, and posture.
You don’t need to go do powerlifting to reap the benefits either. Simple exercises like wall sits, squats, lunges, step-ups, and other exercises can help build quad strength to enhance your running. You can do all of them bodyweight or with weights for an added challenge.
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