Training — How much should my legs hurt after a long run?

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

I mentioned in my last entry that one of the most frequently searched term that gets people to these pages goes something like this: “how much should my legs hurt after a long run?” I’ve seen this question asked in about forty different ways, including “should my legs feel like someone is cutting them off with a saw after my long run?” Since this seems to be a hot topic, let’s jump in and spend some time considering it.

Bottom line: having painful, achy legs after a run is very common for most runners. A better way to ask this question is not whether it is normal to hurt, but whether the pain that you feel after running is within the bounds of normal for your level of fitness and experience.

But first, one ground rule to keep in mind: if a pain starts during a run and gets progressively worse, you should stop running. This is a sign that something is wrong. With rubbing, pulling or tearing of muscles, you’ll feel the pain when the problem starts and it will progressively worsen. For example, those of you that suffer from IT Band problems are feeling the rubbing of soft-tissue on bone in the knee and the prolonged exercise makes it hurt more and more over the course of the run. These are not the types of aches and pains that are normal for runners.

The type of aches and pains that we are talking about are the aches and pains that more typically come on after running. These aches and pains are typically the result of your muscles tightening up after a long fatiguing effort, but they aren’t normally associated with any particular trauma or injury. You might also characterize these feelings as soreness, stiffness or tightness.

Usually this type of pain will be most pronounced in your quads (thighs), hamstrings (upper back of leg), hip-flexors, or glutes (the muscles in your butt). Running a long distance down hill, or a series of steep down-hills, will often result in more pain in your quads. Running up hill will work your glutes harder, so they may be more sore. And when running on flat terrain for extended periods of time the hip-flexors may be the most unhappy with you.

Why and when?
Pain in your leg muscles is the direct result of the repetition of running. The longer that you run, the more repetition. The less long-distance running that you’ve done, the less accustomed to it are your legs. After long periods of running, your muscles get fatigued, they run out of muscle energy and they may even get stretched more than normal. After taking thousands, or hundreds of thousands of running steps, the muscles that support your body weight are fatigued, damaged, and in need of repair.

Normally the stiffness or pain will begin within a couple of hours of the end of the run and can be most painful about 24 hours after the run. I’ve personally found that my hip-flexors tighten up the most quickly and feel the worst when I get up after sitting or laying down in the afternoon after a long run. The heavy duty stiffness and soreness in my quads often hits later and can be most intense the next afternoon.

How much should it hurt?
It’s hard to put a scale to the amount of hurt that you’ll feel after a long run, but you can expect that your legs are going to be the most sore after you’ve done your longest runs of the week. Especially for new runners that are ramping their distance, the first time at each new distance is most likely going to cause some pain. So if you run a new distance (say 10 miles) and then run it again the next week, you’ll likely feel better after the second run, but the hurt will be back after your 12 miler a couple weeks later.

When you’re pushing your distance out, meaning going further than you have before, those last few miles will be the toughest on the body. But those last few miles are what force the body to respond and make changes. The next time you run that distance, you’ll feel better afterward, because the body will be better prepared. This is the manner in which we progress to longer distances: we push further, the body responds (often felt through aches and pains), the body recovers, then we push further again.

Beginner runners will often have stiff to very sore quads after long runs and they might expect to look a little bit like Frankenstein as they creak around on legs that aren’t bending in their normal ways. This will be especially true after your first marathon if the race is 4-6 miles longer than your previous longest run – which is typical since most training plans top out at 20-22 miles.

More experienced runners will be sore after their long runs too, especially if it has been awhile since they’ve run long. If, for example, a runner has been off for the Winter and they’re just starting to hit longer distances again, the soreness and pain may be back. Experienced runners will also be more sore after more intense runs over long distances. As they challenge themselves by pushing harder at distances they’ve run before, the pain will be more acute.

How long should it hurt?
After a really long effort it is normal to feel discomfort, pain or tightness for two to three days afterward. More experienced runners will recover faster and beginning runners might even take longer than a few days. One way that I build this in to my runners’ schedules is that I usually plan an off-day after a long run and then schedule speed work in the evening on the second day after. This gives my runners a bit longer recovery time and if they show up to practice Monday really toasted (after a long Saturday run), I will lighten up their workout even further to give them more recovery.

In most cases, runners will be less sore each time they run a particular distance, so long as there is enough time between the efforts to let the body recover. I typically increment long runs by 2 miles every other week, with a two mile decline in mileage on the alternating week. (For example 8, 6, 10, 8.) This increases the distance, gives the body a good long recovery and then increases the distance again.

For more experienced runners, the pain will typically resolve itself much more quickly. Unless you’ve put yourself through a very high-intensity long run, most advanced runners should be pretty much pain free within 24 hours of a run. That is not to say that they’ll be fully recovered, but the soreness should have subsided within about 24 hours or so.

Some abnormal pains
Since it’s hard to quantify pain and soreness down into specific guidelines, I thought I’d also point out some problem areas that may be more serious concerns. The items on the list below are symptoms of specific injuries that need to be treated. Here are a few things to look out for that would not be in the category of normal pain and soreness:
1) pains that begin during a run and get progressively worse;
2) pain in the shins, Achilles tendons, the bottom of the foot, the ankle or the abdomen;
3) pain that you feel in the first mile or so of a run that goes away and then comes back after the run;
4) pains that you feel consistently on every run in a particular part of your body;
5) soreness, stiffness or tightness after your shorter daily runs after a few weeks of consistent running.

What can you do to lessen soreness and pain?
There are some things that you can do that will lessen the length of time that you feel pain and the amount of soreness caused by long runs. Here are some things that will most likely help:
1) Manage your distance – Increasing distance slowly and allowing enough time for recovery between runs will give the body more of a chance to recover, which will lessen the pain after longer runs.
2) Ice baths – many of my runners swear by a good ice bath and feel that they are both less sore and sore for less time if they get their legs into cold water after a long run. What I normally do is fill the tub half-way up with cold water and then drop a bucket of ice in it. Put a sweat-shirt on (or wrap your top half in a blanket) and drop yourself into the water. The first minute is the worst thing you’ll ever feel, but after that it gets better. Stay in the water for 10-12 minutes. This should help your legs feel a lot better.
3) Stretching – don’t forget to stretch out immediately after a run. Sometimes runners seem to forget to stretch after their long runs, as they’re busy looking for food, dry clothes, and a bed to nap in. In addition to stretching right after a run, stretching again an hour, or a few hours later, often helps with tightness as well. Be careful not to overstretch muscles after long runs. Your muscles will be quite pliable after a long run and you can easily damage them.
4) Professional stretching – there are some practitioners out there that offer services like “advanced isolated stretching” which can really help after long runs. I first tried AIS after an Ironman (both right after and the next day) and it really seemed to help. In AIS (or similar services), a person will help stretch out particular trouble spots to realign the muscle fibers, thus speeding your recovery.
5) Sport massage – Sports massage may help loosen the muscles. However, most people would advise not to have a rigorous massage on the quads and leg muscles within 24 hours of completing a marathon.
6) Walking and light activity – Dropping yourself onto the couch or a bed right after you get out of the showers will most likely tighten you up and make the stiffness worse. I try to stay active in the afternoon after a long effort, which seems to help keep me from tightening up.
7) Drinking lots of water – One effective tool in speeding your recovery and keeping yourself from post-run pain is to drink plenty of water. Hydrating well after a run helps flush out toxins that are building up in the muscles as repair work is underway. Drink 32 ounces of water or sport drink in the first half-hour after finshing a long run, then keep the fluid coming for the next few hours. You should also try to get in about 15G of protein in the first half-hour of the run to help your recovery.

Summary: It’s a safe bet that your legs are going to be sore after your long runs, especially as you move up to new distances. This is a normal result from the pounding and long repetition of running. As a runner, you should focus on methods that help relieve the symptoms; make sure that you don’t have real traumatic injuries; and manage your schedule to give yourself adequate recovery. As time goes on, although the soreness and pain may not completely go away, it will most likely be over sooner and get less in the way of your workout plans and your life.

Related Articles:
What are the most common running injuries?

How should I feel after running 20 miles?

First Time Marathon Runner 20-miler Anguish (explores what you might be feeling after running a 20-miler for the first time)

The regular aches and pains of running

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News