Almost every runner, cyclist, triathlete, and even weightlifter has experienced a dreaded quad cramp or quad muscle spasm during a workout or a quad spasm after your workout is over.
Leg cramps while running or exercising are quite common, though that doesn’t make them any easier to deal with.
But, what causes cramping in quads running, cycling, or working out? How do you prevent quad cramps while squatting or lifting weights? Are quad muscle cramps due to dehydration?
In this guide, we will discuss what a quad muscle cramp or quad muscle spasm entails, the common causes of cramps in quads or other leg muscles during exercise, and the best tips to prevent quad cramps and muscle spasms in quads while running, cycling, squatting, or working out.
We will look at:
- What Are Quad Cramps?
- Why Are My Quads Cramping When I Run or Exercise?
- Does Dehydration Cause Quads Cramps During Exercise?
- How Do I Prevent Quad Spasms While Running or Exercising?
Let’s get started!
What Are Quad Cramps?
Quad cramps and quad muscle spasms refer to a painful, involuntary muscle contraction in the quadriceps that various causes, including vigorous exercise, may bring on.
Cramping in quads while cycling, running, or exercising, in general, may be experienced as a fleeting, temporary twinge or a more prolonged and sustained ache with accompanying tightness and limited ability to stretch out your quads.
A quad muscle spasm may make it feel like your quads are “locked up,“ and you might feel stiff and sore for several hours to several days, depending on the severity of the spasm or cramp in your quads.
The quads are a group of four muscles that run down the front of your thigh from the hip to just below the knee, where the muscles taper into the patella tendon. The quadriceps muscle group includes the:
- Rectus femoris, which runs down the center of the thigh from the hip to the kneecap
- Vastus lateralis, which is on the outer side of the front of the thigh
- Vastus medialis, which runs along the more inner section of the front of the thigh
- Vastus intermedius, which also runs down the center of the thigh
The quads are biarticular muscles, which means that they are responsible for moving two different joints: they work together to flex the hip and extend the knee.
As a group, the quadriceps work in opposition to the hamstrings, the group of three muscles that run down the backside of the thigh, that extend the leg at the hip, and flex the knee.
Because the quads are among the largest and strongest muscles in the legs, quad cramps during exercise are quite common, but you may also experience leg cramps in the calves, hamstrings, glutes, shins, and even smaller foot muscles.
Why Are My Quads Cramping When I Run or Exercise?
Cramping in leg muscles while running, riding a bike, lifting weights, rowing, or even climbing stairs can occur in people of all ages and fitness levels from a variety of causes.
For example, studies suggest that muscle cramping occurs in up to 67% of triathletes.
However, there are certain risk factors that will increase the likelihood of experiencing leg muscle cramps during exercise.
For example, a large study of runners found that the presence of certain underlying chronic diseases, medications, and allergies increased the risk of cramping while running, as did a history of muscle or tendon injuries, particularly in the leg muscle spasming while running.
Perhaps most surprisingly, runners with more experience actually were found to have a greater likelihood of experiencing leg muscle cramps while running.
Most of the time, we associate quad cramps during exercise with pushing the body too hard or trying on a custom to workouts, but this study suggests that the opposite may be true, at least in the case of cramping quads while running specifically.
This is likely due to the fact that quad muscle spasms and cramps are much more likely to occur when you are working out at a higher-than-normal intensity or above and beyond what your muscles are generally accustomed to.
Although not true across the board, it is reasonable to assume that many of the runners or triathletes who are posting the fastest finish times are more experienced and highly competitive.
This competitive drive may cause faster and more experienced runners and triathletes to have the capacity or modus operandi to push themselves much harder in a race than beginners or recreational athletes further back in the pack.
Does Dehydration Cause Quad Cramps During Exercise?
Historically, the prevailing theory about why athletes experience cramping in quads or other muscles during exercise was due to dehydration and electrolyte depletion, in particular low sodium levels, as sodium and fluids are lost during exercise from sweating.
While there may be some contribution of dehydration and electrolyte imbalances to the risk of experiencing quad muscle spasms or other leg cramps when running or exercising for a long period of time, in the heat, or at a high intensity, the association between dehydration and muscle cramps has largely been debunked in favor of other more likely causes.
Currently, the general consensus is that the main cause of muscle spasms after exercise or during exercise is due to fatigue in the muscle fibers themselves, as well as neuromuscular fatigue from the motor neurons that control the muscle fibers (motor units).
Essentially, when your muscle fibers and nervous system are pushed beyond their limits either with long endurance workouts or high-intensity exercise, the resultant neuromuscular fatigue induces abnormal spinal reflex activity.
This phenomenon is known as the “altered neuromuscular control” theory of muscle cramping and essentially states that when your muscles are overloaded and pushed to exhaustion, it incites an imbalance between excitatory impulses and inhibitory impulses to the muscles.
This causes involuntary, sustained muscle contractions because your muscles are not getting the signal to relax the contraction once it begins.
What does this mean practically?
Basically, instead of the neuron properly firing to get the muscle fibers that it controls to contract and relax, abnormal firing occurs such that either the relaxation signal is not properly sent or the timing of the firing patterns go haywire.
This can lead to muscle twitching during exercise, sustained muscle contractions which we experience as quad muscle cramping or other leg cramps, or spasming quads, which are experienced as a combination of abnormal contraction and relaxation firing patterns, even once your workout is over.
How Do I Prevent Quad Spasms While Running or Exercising?
Given the fact that there are multiple factors that can cause cramping quads from exercise, and the research is still somewhat inconclusive, there are numerous strategies you can try when troubleshooting how to prevent quad cramps while running or working out.
Depending on your particular circumstances, some of these tips may be more or less effective than others.
- Drink more fluids and consume sports beverages with electrolytes during longer workouts or in hot climates, particularly if you sweat a lot.
- Consume carbohydrates alongside your fluids and electrolytes whenever your workout is more than 60 minutes for high-intensity exercise or 90 minutes for lower-intensity exercise.
- Make sure you are getting enough protein, carbohydrates, and total calories in your diet and an ample supply of key electrolytes like magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium.
- Always do a warm up and ease into your pace gradually to give your muscles time to receive better circulation and loosen up.
- Perform a dynamic warm-up with dynamic stretches and CNS activation exercises.
- Listen to your body and stop or slow down if you start experiencing cramping in your quad muscles or other leg muscles.
- Gradually increase the intensity of your workouts as your strength or fitness improves.
- Incorporate neuromuscular training like plyometrics and targeted strength training.
- Pace yourself in races, especially early on.
- Stop and stretch if you get a quad muscle cramp during your workout.
- Work with a physical therapist if you are consistently getting quad cramps and have a history of quad muscle injuries.
- Use ice and heat on quad cramps that won’t go away, and massage the muscle.
Are you curious to learn more about how to prevent quad spasms running or working out? Check out our guide to pickle juice for muscle cramps here.