Runner's "Heavy Legs" - Three Ways to Deal With Them
Does this description of heavy legs while running sound familiar to you?
“I've run 3 marathons this year (Jacksonville, Boston, Marine Corps) so I'm pretty experienced. After Marine Corps in October I got busy with work and cut back on runs. Since Thanksgiving (I ran a 10 that morning) I've had heavy legs. It's like I have weights on my ankles. I can hardly lift my feet. I realize you're not a doctor, but I'm sure it's common to some extent. Do you think I just need rest?”
It’s a rare runner who hasn’t experienced “heavy legs.” What’s worse than looking forward to your run and hitting the road only to find that after a few minutes it’s nearly impossible to lift your feet off the ground?
Although there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it, (one day you have an amazing long run, the next you can barely move), there are some pretty easy adjustments you can make to your training to prevent heavy legs from hitting you hard.
Google “heavy legs and running” and you’ll notice something pretty quickly. Many of the runners most troubled by this condition (or at least writing about it) are new to the sport. You may have already guessed why.
One of the most common causes of heavy legs is overtraining. New runners often attack their training programs with tremendous zeal –forgetting that it is necessary to increase mileage slowly, allow for adequate rest days, and cross-train to help build the strength of muscles that support running. But less experienced runners aren’t the only ones to fall prey to overtraining.
Experienced runners (like the one in the first paragraph of this article) tend to work too hard too frequently during training weeks – and try to compensate for time off from training by rapidly increasing mileage. Big mistake. Also, most runners do their LSD too fast, fail to take adequate recovery days and in general push themselves too hard through their “easy”workouts. Does this sound familiar?
Adequately controlling mileage increases, and scheduling proper recovery into your training are two of the most important things you can do to prevent heavy legs.
Remember, recovery does not have to mean sedentary. Easy biking, swimming, lightweight training, or yoga are all terrific activities for non-running days. Be sure to gently stretch on both running and non-running days to keep your muscles from becoming tight and to improve flexibility.
Wait! First I told you to slow down and now I’m telling you to run faster to avoid heavy legs.What’s up with that?
“Aerobic means ‘in the presence of oxygen.’ You are running aerobically when you do not exceed the pace or distance for which you have already trained, (as in your maintenance or LSD runs). Your muscles are strong enough to carry the load and there is enough oxygen available in the bloodstream.
“Anaerobic running is when you exceed the speed and/or distance for which you have trained. The muscles are pushed beyond their capacity and need more oxygen than the body can supply. For a limited period of time, muscles continue to function by utilizing chemical processes that free oxygen from within the muscle itself. However, the amount of oxygen available this way is quite limited, large amounts of waste build up (lactic acid) and the muscles get tight and sore.”
Viola! You’ve got heavy legs.
Running intervals in particular will train your anaerobic conditioning over time (your body essentially becomes increasingly tolerant of lactic acid buildup, - oxygen debt - in the muscles that results from a continuously hard effort). BUT remember that sufficient rest MUST follow hard speed workouts or you’ll be defeating your purpose.
One of the main purposes of speedwork is, as Galloway says,“To give you anaerobic experience in measured doses; if you follow it with sufficient rest, you’ll train your body to deal with oxygen debt (over time).”
Can you see how running your easy days too hard, or doing speed workouts too frequently can actually be damaging your training and leading to heavy legs?
Watch Your Diet
Finally, it’s incredibly important to follow nutritional guidelines specifically set for runners. As women, we tend to applaud all weight loss, try to avoid carbohydrates, or starve ourselves entirely. Just remember, for a runner, food is fuel. It is essential to give your body what it needs to repair damaged muscle tissue.
General recommendations for a healthy diet are 20% Protein,30% Fat and 50% Carbohydrates – but you have to watch it. Fats, carbs and proteins are NOT all created equal. For example, focus on complex carbohydrates from plant foods; fruits, veggies, pasta, legumes.Hal Higdon’s article The Distance Runner’s Diet is really good for getting a sense for what you should be eating to properly fuel your running and the repair of your body as you train increasing distances. And proper nutrition will help stave off heavy legs.
Of course, I would be totally remiss if I didn’t give you a final admonition about proper hydration. Drinking plenty of water is extremely important in staving off injury of any kind, but water is especially necessary for tissue repair. Hydrate well before, during, and after any run of an hour or more. Use the “pee test” to make sure you are thoroughlyhydrated.
One final note. There are certain illnesses, like peripheral artery disease (PAD) that effects the amount of blood that flows into your arms and legs causing excessive tiredness. Ironically, PAD is actually treated with exercise! If you find that proper discipline in your training program and adjustments to diet and water intake are not improving heavy legs, seek advice from your medical professional.