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Marathon Training Injuries Pt 3: Rocking and rolling?

Quad dominance and running related stiffness and injury

“What is quad dominance?” I hear you ask? Well, it is not specifically an injury but this ‘style’ of running can lead to problems when you run, being it short and sharp runs or long slow distance.

But first an explanation: what does being ‘quad dominant mean’?

This refers to a running style and gait where the muscles on the front of your thighs, the quadriceps or quads are dominating or doing most of the rod when you are running. The are

  1. rectus femoris (this crosses the hip and knee so bends both joints)

  2. vastus lateralis

  3. vastus medialis

  4. vastus intermedius

The 3 vasti all connect below the hip joint and so are only responsible for bending the knee

As they are on the opposite side of the thigh to the hamstrings they work ‘in opposition’. The hamstrings, of which there are three, cross both the knee and the hip and thus are involved in straightening that joint but they also extend the leg at the hip, taking is backwards.

The role of the quads is body-weight support and preventing collapse of the knee when you land on the leg. As you land, when you foot first hits the ground the quads work ‘eccentrically’. That means they get longer, under tension, to combat and soften the effect of gravity and your body weight that try to bend the knee, like the suspension in your car. The rectus femoris is also involved in bending the hip and contributes to you lifting the leg as you push off and enter the next phase of your running stride, the swing phase. Although the quads are a large set of muscles and very important in having a healthy running style, there can be imbalances between them and the posterior muscles, namely hamstrings and gluts.

Rear Wheel Drive

We are, to all intents and purposes, a ‘rear-wheel drive’ animal. The combination of gluts, hamstrings and calves should work to drive us forward. The quads and the other hip flexor, the ilio-psoas are not as strong and not designed to ‘pull’ us forwards which is essentially what happens when we become quad and hip flexor dominant.

When we run in a quad dominant manner we are overemphasising the reliance on these anterior muscles which can increase the risk of injury and compromise both the strength and the efficiency of your stride. The problem with this style of running is once you start it is tough to change. Your quads get stronger but to the detriment of other areas. So your gluts and hamstrings are used less and become weaker.

Not using your pushing muscles

What starts to happen is you stop lifting your feet high off the ground by not using your hamstrings to bend the knees. This means that you do not use your bottom and calf muscles to drive you forward. Instead you use the rectus femurs and ilio-psoas to pull the leg forward. These muscles are not particularly good at doing this over time and thus you become stiff kneed and hipped. Consequently our pelvis does not move as much, your lumbar spine is less involved. The result of this can be increased stiffness and muscle soreness sometime during but also after running.

Heavy Landing

In addition, a quad dominant style means you are more likely to land in front of your body, adding stress to the knees, hips and low back. This style means that you spend more time on the ground sinking more at the ankles, knees and hips. This creates a both an up and down motion as you move frowns but also a hip-sway as you rock and dip from side to side.

Rock and Roll, Pitch and Sway

Beside the strain that this puts on all the muscles and joints of the lower limb, there are also the arms to think off in this scenario. The arms drive the legs, and yet it is quite astonishing the number of people I see out running who do not use their arms in any effective way.

For a start, if you are swaying from side to side because of your leg movements, the arms will have to compensate to keep you balanced. That means instead of driving you forwards they move from side to side across the body, or even do not move and you swing your whole torso from side to side.

The effect is the same if you naturally do this with your arms, but this time your legs will also not move in straight lines but will cross over. So instead of running like you are on narrow tracks you run like you are on a tightrope, with one foot directly in front of the other. In either scenarios you are not running efficiently, thus putting more strain through joints and connective tissue, including muscle, which can lead to stiffness, pain and even injury.

The Solution?

It is simple but not necessarily easy to execute. The ideal stride is one where your heels pick up high, not as if you are trying to kick your bottom but more in a cycling type motion. The drive forwards comes from gluts, hamstrings and calves and the natural heel raise that occurs at that point means that the leg is brought forward firstly, as a shorter limb since it is bent more, but also more by momentum than by the pulling action of hip flexors. This style naturally leads to you landing more underneath your body, keeping you high and more level

You move the arms in a forwards and backwards motion as if you are taking something out of your back pocket and bringing it towards your chin. The faster you run the further back and higher forwards you brings your hands but the direction is still in the direction you want to go, i.e. forwards not side to side.

Better, Stronger, Faster.

You may think, well I have been running like this all my life, how could I change. The answer is that the brain is ‘plastic’ so with a methodical process of awareness of what you are doing you can retrain. You will also need to develop muscle endurance in the right areas and this means some elements of muscle training. But the results are worth it if it means you run faster, or further with fewer niggles and injury.

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