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If your legs always feel like lead when you head out for a run, you’re not the only one. Fortunately, there are things we can do about that, as Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi has been finding out…

Running can be totally infuriating. One day, you’re flying through the miles, feeling relaxed and comfortable; the next, your legs feel like lead. That feeling of running with heavy legs is quite a common one, but if you don’t know why it happens, you can’t do anything about it.

So, why do our legs sometimes feel really heavy when we run, and is there anything we can do to mitigate it?

Natascha Starr, England Athletics run coach and a leader at London City Runners, explains that there are a few different reasons why our legs can feel like lead when we’re running. “It could be anything from poor nutrition, overtraining, lack of sleep, dehydration, inadequate recovery time, or in persistent cases, maybe even an iron deficiency,” she tells Stylist.

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“We’ve all had that run where we feel like we can’t get our legs to move, whether that’s because we didn’t get enough sleep the night before or because we didn’t fuel well before or during the run. In these cases, just make a small adjustment and your next run will probably be back to normal.” 

But, she flags, if you’re persistently getting that heavy-legged feeling, it is a sign that you may need to take a look at your training plan and nutrition to make sure that you are taking adequate recovery time and giving your body all of the energy it needs.

Performance Physique running coach Arj Thiruchelvam suggests that not eating enough carbs, drinking alcohol and dehydration could also be to blame. “Additionally, most of us don’t perform a warm-up before we leave for a run and that will make things harder because you haven’t raised the temperature of the muscles, improved circulation or joint lubrication,” he explains. 

If you can’t be bothered to spend 15 minutes stretching before heading out, he advises you make a conscious effort to go slow for the first kilometre or so. “You may even find that those heavy legs disappear after 10 or 15 minutes.”

It’s also worth saying that heavy legs aren’t something only new-ish runners experience. All of us experience it from time-to-time, but those of us who have been running longer may be better equipped to quickly identify what’s causing it.

What can you do to reduce the heavy leg feeling?

While we don’t want every run to feel like a chore, Thiruchelvam says: “It’s good to push on, because you’re demonstrating overload and adaptation when you complete that hard session, despite its challenges. This may actually help you handle future tough training runs by encouraging the body to adapt.” 

In other words, don’t give up just because it doesn’t feel as easy as it once did.

He recommends trying the following:

  • Warm-up properly: run slow to begin with or have a proper stretch set-up before you get started
  • Go slow: not every session needs to be hard, so don’t try to run a personal best every day. Instead, undulate your training so you have some lighter recovery sessions that encourage blood flow and mobility
  • Strength train: lifting weights can improve your injury resilience and allow you to push harder and longer
  • Work on running drills: these will improve your technique to ensure you’re being as efficient and economical as possible (check out Arj’s own drills on YouTube)

Starr, meanwhile, suggests: “If this is something that affects you fairly often, I would recommend speaking to your GP, who may be able to help you identify any underlying health issues or areas for improvement in your diet or lifestyle.”

How to overcome a sluggish week or month of running

We’ve all had those weeks or months when running just feels like a slog. But there are things you can do to at least try to bring some energy back into moving.

Thiruchelvam believes that these kinds of periods are more a result of psychology (ie the monotony of running) than the actual physical process. “You need structure to your running and have a different intent with each training session to blend in with the easy miles where you just head out for a run. This way you’ll notice a progression in your ability, whether that’s speed or endurance, and this will trigger a nice dopamine reward response for your efforts.”

He explains that every couple of months, he schedules his running clients to have a few “free runs”, where they unplug from data and technology. “Limit the amount of route planning and focus on paces, take in your surroundings and the fact that you run because you want to.  

“Looking at the bigger picture, don’t judge yourself on day to day but rather on how far you’ve come and what you wouldn’t have achieved if you had avoided exercise that day.”

Starr agrees, saying that you need to work out what the block is: “If it’s physical, perhaps reduce your training load and focus on eating, sleeping and recovering well, so that you feel refreshed, and see your GP if the sluggishness persists.

“If it’s a loss of motivation, try something new. Join a running club or meet up with a friend, head out to the countryside and run in nature if you can, find a new goal to focus on (like signing up to a race) or try out an exercise class or some other activity that appeals to you.”

Images: Getty

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