Why Do My Legs Feel Heavy When Running?

Nothing is worse than starting to pound the pavement and feeling like your feet are laced up with bricks instead of sneakers. With each step, you find yourself wondering why your legs feel so heavy during your run. If this sounds familiar, rest assured—there are many common causes for that dreaded dead leg feeling and easy fixes for most of them.

Intense Strength Training

Strength training is a smart addition to round out any runner’s weekly routine. It helps maintain muscle mass, can make you a faster runner (as you can propel your stride easier), and provides balance in your week.

However, too many strength training sessions, or very intense lower body sessions, can cause your legs to feel heavy on subsequent runs.

If your primary fitness goal is related to running—like training for your first half marathon or qualifying for Boston—you’ll want to adjust your strength training in line with a periodized running training plan. In other words, modify the volume and intensity of your strength workouts based on the part of the training season you’re in.

  • Off-Season: This is the time of year when there are no major races; when runners scale back on training. For most runners, it falls over the winter months. During this time, you can focus more on strength training. This will help you build muscle mass that will power your runs later in the year. You may have some off-season runs where your legs feel heavy, but that’s OK if it happens occasionally since you won’t have any upcoming races to worry about.
  • In-Season: During your peak training for your road races, though, cut down to one to two strength sessions a week. Research shows this helps maintain strength, yet it won’t put too much stress on the body, preventing heavy legs.

Skipping Post-Run Stretches

That post-run stretching and foam rolling is for more than a little post-run relaxation—it can also decrease muscle stiffness and pain. 

Research suggests that reduced lower extremity range of motion is associated with leg stiffness among runners. By incorporating regular stretches, you improve your range of motion and reduce the likelihood of stiff legs.

If you’ve been skipping those daily stretches, try to give yourself 10 minutes at the end of your runs to focus on a few static leg stretches. This will leave your legs feeling limber and lighter on your next run.

Try to stretch all the different parts of your body involved in running—quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, hips, and back.

9 Essential Stretches to Do After You Run

Overtraining

If you seem to be experiencing heavy legs frequently, it may be a sign that you are overtraining. Overtraining means you are putting too much physical stress on your body. It can be caused by:

  • High overall volume in your training plan
  • Mileage that progresses too rapidly
  • Large jumps in long run mileage
  • Trying to do too much too soon after an injury or break

Aside from heavy legs, other signs of overtraining include:

  • Decreased performance
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Mental fatigue (runs feel harder than they used to)
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Injuries
  • Illness (increased frequency of colds)

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, it’s worthwhile to first check in with a physician to make sure there are no other underlying medical issues.

If these symptoms are in fact due to overtraining, try taking a few days of rest followed by a few weeks of reduced training volume. Overtraining can be serious, so don't try to power through it—get the rest your body needs.

Wearing the Wrong Shoes

As silly as it sounds, the wrong shoes can make your legs feel heavy too. You want to try to find running shoes that are as light as possible while still meeting any support requirements.

For example, stability shoes for overpronation tend to weigh more, as structurally they’re a bit thicker and provide more support. But there are still a wide range of stability shoes on the market. Try on several options and jog a few test laps around the store to make sure they don’t feel too heavy.

On the flip side, sometimes having a shoe that’s too light and not supportive enough can cause problems too. If you’re not getting enough support in your shoe, your body may be experiencing more stress when the foot hits the pavement. This can cause accelerated fatigue in the muscles.

This can also happen with shoes that are worn out and old, so be sure to replace your running shoes every 300–500 miles.

5 Signs You Need New Running Shoes

Poor Running Form

If you consistently run with poor form, it puts extra stress on your body and can cause tired, heavy legs. Two of the biggest metrics related to form to pay attention to are:

  • Ground contact time: The amount of time your foot stays on the ground with each stride. 
  • Vertical oscillation: How high in the air you bounce with each step. 

For proper running form, you want to keep both of these low. Staying on the ground too long acts like a brake during a run, slowing you down and requiring more effort every time you push off. Too much bouncing wastes energy and creates more force (stress) on your legs when you land.

New runners, in particular, may struggle with these; especially with ground contact time. Weaker hip and core strength combined with a slower pace typically means that the foot stays on the ground for longer periods of time.

Instead, you want quick steps to propel you forward, without much bouncing upwards.

While wearable devices are helpful for measuring these metrics, you don’t necessarily need one to improve your form. Simply think “quick steps” while you’re running, focusing on pushing off as soon as the foot touches the ground. This easy change will often reduce the stress on the legs—not to mention improving pace over time.

10 Quick Fixes for Running Form

Weight Gain

There’s no such thing as one type of runner’s body—anyone can certainly run at any weight! But if you’ve personally just started to experience a heavy legs sensation, hop on the scale and see if there have been any fluctuations in your weight. Even an extra 5–10 pounds compared to last training season can cause your legs to feel sluggish.

If you have gained a few extra pounds that you want to lose, try implementing these changes to help get the scale moving:

  • Focus on hunger and satiety cues: Eat when hungry, stop when satisfied. Avoid distractions like watching television while eating.
  • Track your food for a few days: See if there are any less-than-healthy habits you can pinpoint. For example, do you tend to reach for the cookies during that mid-afternoon energy lull? Do you have a few too many calorie-dense cocktails at happy hour? See what small changes you can make to make the scale move.
  • Practice good portion control: Try using smaller plates, or measuring out foods to see if you're serving yourself the amount you see on the label.
  • Avoid using your runs as justification for less-healthy foods: It's fine to include some indulgences in your diet, but practice the 80/20 rule—80 percent nutritious choices and 20 percent flexibility for the treats.

Low Carbohydrate Diet

Have you started a new low carb diet? Or maybe you’ve just been busy at work and haven’t had time for lunch recently? Either way, a lack of carbohydrates can lead to the heavy legs feeling.

When you’re running, your body is always using a mixture of carbohydrates and fat for the energy your muscles need. Those carbohydrates are stored in your muscles in a form called glycogen. 

If you dramatically cut down on your carbohydrate intake at meals, your body can’t store as much glycogen in your muscles. This affects energy production on your run and can cause the dreaded "dead legs."

Occasional depleted runs like this can actually be beneficial for competitive athletes, as they teach the body how to run in a sub-optimal state. However, if you do these too often, training can feel tough and performance might be compromised.

Luckily, this is an easy fix. For most runners, a well-balanced meal plan that includes healthy sources of carbohydrates is the optimal choice. Try mixing in more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and/or dairy products in your meals and snacks and see if that improves your runs.

If you would like to stick with a lower carbohydrate meal plan, some athletes find success with a ketogenic style of eating. This enables the body to use more fat for fuel on a run and may help with body composition goals, though it has not been shown to improve performance. Note that it may take a few months of adaptation before that heavy legs sensation goes away on this type of meal plan.

6 Simple Low-Carb Rules to Follow

Iron Deficiency

Iron is a component of hemoglobin, a part of your red blood cells that helps carry oxygen to working muscles. If you suffer from iron deficiency, your body has a more difficult time supplying that oxygen to your muscles on a run. You'd likely experience overall fatigue and tiredness when this happens, but some people may also perceive it as a heavy leg feeling.

Most athletes get enough iron in their diet through an overall balanced eating plan. However, there are two groups of athletes which may find it more challenging to meet their needs:

  • Vegetarian and vegan athletes: It’s certainly not impossible to meet iron needs on these diets; it simply requires a bit of planning. Include a variety of iron-rich plant-based foods, and eat them with a good source of Vitamin C as this helps with iron absorption.
  • Female runners: Since they lose iron each month during their period, female runners may be at greater risk of iron deficiency – especially if suffering from heavy menstrual bleeding.

If you are experiencing heavy legs during running along with overall fatigue, set up a doctor’s appointment for a quick blood work screening. They’ll be able to identify if you’re suffering from iron deficiency anemia and make recommendations for treatment. 

Don’t worry—even if you do have a deficiency, treatment can be as simple as adding new iron-rich foods to your diet or taking a daily iron supplement until levels reach normal.

Dehydration

Most people associate dehydration with muscle cramps—but dehydration can also cause general fatigue during a run. Similar to iron deficiency, people may perceive this fatigue as heavy legs.

Hydration is critical during long runs. When you lose fluid through sweat and you don’t drink enough to help offset this, your blood volume can actually become thicker. Your body has to work harder to pump this blood. You might feel like your legs are more tired than usual or the run just feels harder.

To prevent dehydration on a run, follow these tips:

  • Drink fluid according to thirst: If you find yourself not tuning into your body’s thirst signals, though, try setting a reminder on your watch that tells you to drink every so often.
  • Wear a hydration belt or pack: Especially on your long runs so that you have fluid to drink as desired.
  • Chose the right beverage: If you’re exercising for less than an hour, plain water will meet your needs. If you’re exercising for more than an hour, choose a drink that also has electrolytes (namely sodium).
  • Adjust hydration along with the weather: Your body may need more fluid for runs in hot, humid weather.
Hydration Tips for Before, During, and After Your Runs

Poor Circulation

Poor circulation, most notably from a condition called chronic venous insufficiency, can also cause heavy legs.

In normal physiology, your veins normally carry blood from your lower extremities back to the heart. Contractions in the legs during movement help this process work against gravity. There are also little valves in the veins that prevent the blood from flowing back down.

In chronic venous insufficiency, though, those valves don’t function correctly. Blood can drip back down into the legs and pool there. This causes swollen, heavy legs.

Cleveland Clinic estimates that 40 percent of people have chronic venous insufficiency. It sounds scary, but the good news is that regular exercise helps prevent the condition. As a runner, it’s more common that your heavy legs are related to one of the other causes mentioned.

That said, it can still occur in those who run regularly, especially if you have other risk factors such as:

  • History of blood clots
  • Long periods of sitting or standing at work
  • Smoking
  • Pregnancy
  • Older age
  • Obesity

Your doctor will be able to assess if the heavy leg feeling is due to chronic venous insufficiency. If it is, treatment will be prescribed based on your symptoms, overall health, and the severity of the condition. Treatment may include compression gear, medications, weight loss, nonsurgical procedures, or (less common) surgical procedures.

Lack of Sleep

While you might be able to power through your day on just a few hours of sleep, you’re probably not doing your body any favors. That lack of sleep can manifest itself as tired, weary legs during training and racing.

Most athletes need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. There are individual variations though—some outliers may only need six hours, while others may need 10 for optimal functioning.

If you think sleep might be a cause of your heavy legs while running, try incorporating these tips in your routine:

  • Make sleep a priority, just like you do for training and good nutrition.
  • Power down the TV, computer, and phone screens at least a half hour before bedtime.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine close to bed time.
  • Switch up your training schedule with morning workouts—these may help you sleep better compared to evening workouts.
  • Try naps. If you absolutely can’t manage to get at least seven hours of sleep at night, a study in the European Journal of Sport Science suggests that short afternoon naps may help training feel easier and improve performance.
If You're an Athlete, You May Need More Sleep Than Your Sedentary Friends

A Word From Verywell

Most runners will find relief by implementing the tips related to these eleven concerns. There's a small chance that heavy legs during running are unrelated to these, though, and instead stems from another medical condition. If you've ruled out the issues above and are still experiencing problems, be sure to see your doctor to address your concerns.

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Article Sources
  • Blanchfield AW, Lewis-Jones TM, Wignall JR, Roberts JB, Oliver SJ. The influence of an afternoon nap on the endurance performance of trained runners. Eur J Sport Sci. 2018 Oct;18(9):1177-1184. DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2018.1477180.

  • Cleveland Clinic. Chronic Venous Insufficiency (CVI). 2015. 

  • Goodwin JS, Blackburn JT, Schwartz TA, Williams DSB. Clinical Predictors of Dynamic Lower Extremity Stiffness During Running. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2018 Jul 27:1-24. DOI: 10.2519/jospt.2019.7683.

  • Pedlar C, Brugnara C, Bruinvels G, Burden R. Iron balance and iron supplementation for the female athlete: A practical approach. Eur J Sport Sci. 2018 Mar;18(2):295-305. DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2017.1416178.