Pain in the Upper Thigh After Running

Running has a lot of benefits like improved fitness and heart health, weight loss and maintenance, increased immune function and relief from stress and depression. But for all its positive aspects, it can also be hard on the body.

Properly warming up can prevent muscle strains and leg pain after running. (Image: Julien McRoberts/Tetra images/GettyImages)

If your thighs hurt after running, you're not alone. Thigh pain is a common complaint in runners, and it can be a stubborn problem to solve. Pinpointing the issue and the best treatment protocol will have you pounding the pavement again in no time.

Tip

Upper thigh pain after running is most commonly caused by muscle strains and overuse injuries.

Muscles of the Upper Thigh

A brief anatomy lesson will help you more accurately identify the cause of your upper thigh pain from running. The major muscles in your thigh are the quadriceps and the hamstrings. Both muscle groups originate at the pelvis.

The quadriceps on the front of your thigh are a group of four muscles including the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and vastus intermedius. This group is responsible for extending your leg at the knee.

The hamstrings muscle group along the back of the thigh consists of three muscles: the semitendinosus, semi-membranous and the biceps femoris. These three muscles are involved in flexing the knee.

Another group of concern is the hip flexors. This is a group of smaller muscles located at the top of the thigh that cross the front of the hip. There are several hip flexor muscles, but the main four are the sartorius, rectus femoris, iliacus and psoas. The last two together are often referred to as the iliopsoas.

Causes of Upper Leg Pain After Running

Self-diagnosing your leg pain isn't the best idea. There are many causes for leg pain, from simple overuse to underlying medical conditions that require medical treatment. If pain from running is chronic, or gets worse with time, a visit with your doctor can help you get to the bottom of your upper thigh pain.

In the meantime, a few of the most common causes of upper thigh pain in runners are:

Hip Flexor Strain. A hip flexor strain is an acute injury that occurs when the muscle fibers are overstretched, causing the muscle fibers to tear. Symptoms of a muscle strain can be mild, moderate or severe, depending on how much damage was done. Symptoms may include:

  • Mild to severe pain at the time of injury and for a period of time following the injury
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Muscle weakness or loss of muscle function

A muscle strain that is not allowed to recover properly can continue to cause pain each time you run. Proper muscle strain treatment depends on the severity of the injury, but typically includes taking time off from running or other activities that put stress on the hip flexors and doing rehabilitation exercises and stretches.

Hip Flexor Tendinitis. Overuse is a major reason for hip flexor strain in runners. The repetitive motion of lifting the leg and flexing the hip with each footfall places a lot of stress on the hip flexors, potentially leading to inflammation. With an overuse injury, the pain comes on gradually and worsens over time.

Typically, you will feel pain not only after running, but also while you are running. The pain may be worse in the beginning of your run and feel better as your muscles warm up; however, it will usually return and worsen as you run farther. At the end of your run, the pain will stick around until the muscle inflammation subsides.

Quadriceps and Hamstrings Strain. As with the hip flexors, an acute injury can cause a strain in the quadriceps and hamstrings. Often, running too far or too fast before your body is ready can cause these injuries. Whether the pain is mild, moderate or severe, the muscles require a period of healing to fully recover before they can be subjected to their previous level of activity. Injuries that are not allowed to recover properly can cause recurring pain at the top of the thigh after running.

Other Possible Causes

There are many other reasons you might be having pain after running. Tight muscles elsewhere in the body — the lower back, for example — can pull on thigh muscles and lead to pain after running.

Hip bursitis can be another possible explanation. Bursa are small jelly-like sacs throughout the body positioned between muscle and bone for cushioning and to reduce friction. When the two large bursae of the hip become inflamed, they can cause pain at the hip point. However, this pain may extend to the outer thigh and across the hips.

A hernia can also cause pain in the groin and hip flexor. In this condition, an organ pushes through the muscle or tissue that functions to hold it in place. The lower abdomen is a common site for hernias and results in a small bulge on either side of the pelvis. Symptoms include a dull achiness that may worsen with activities such as running.

Treatment for Upper Thigh Pain

Treatment for muscle injuries and chronic pain typically includes a reduction or cessation of the activity that is causing or contributing to the pain. This may mean taking time off from running or significantly reducing your mileage and pace.

Overuse injuries are often a result of poor body mechanics. In the case of running, you may have incorrect form or postural dysfunction that is contributing to the chronic pain. This may be due to muscular imbalances elsewhere in the body. Having an assessment with a physical therapist, especially one who specializes in working with runners, can help you determine the root of the problem and the best treatment.

Hip bursitis and hernia require a visit to your doctor, who will determine the cause and prescribe a plan of treatment. This may involve surgery, activity modification, anti-inflammatory medications, steroidal injections and physical therapy.

Preventing Future Injury

You can help reduce the impact of your current injury and prevent future injury by taking steps to improve strength and flexibility, as well as by properly warming up and stretching before and after your workouts.

Resistance training helps strengthens muscles and tendons and makes them less susceptible to strains and other injuries. It will also improve your running performance. Do exercises with weights or your own bodyweight two or three times a week that target all the major muscle groups.

Properly warm up your body before each run. Increasing your pace too quickly can increase the risk of injury to cold muscles. Start out slow for the first five to 10 minutes before picking up the pace.

Stretching keeps your muscles flexible and reduces the risk of strain. Before your run do some dynamic exercises, such as walking lunges and butt kicks, as part of your warm up. After your run, spend 10 minutes performing static stretches for your hip flexors, hamstrings and quadriceps. Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds. Only stretch to the point of mild discomfort, never pain. try these dynamic and static stretches.

Allow for proper recovery between runs. Packing in a lot of miles each week will result in overuse injuries for many people. Don't run every day, and take time off in between long and particularly strenuous runs. On your days off from running, you can cross-train with another activity that uses different movements and muscle groups such as swimming and cycling.

Schedule a few sessions with a knowledgeable running coach who can assess your form and help you fix any poor mechanics that could be causing your upper thigh pain after running.

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