Muscle tension is often thought of as something negative by runners. It’s commonly associated with that ‘stiff’ or ‘tight’ feeling in your legs, but muscle tension can actually boost your performance on race day.
Have you ever had a race where you tapered before? But then when you raced, your performance was below expectations? I know I have.
When you were expecting your muscles to feel pumped up with energy, ready to fire rapidly and contract powerfully, you find muscles that are feeling ‘flat’, unresponsive and weaker than usual.
Often we will attribute this sub-par performance to not having tapered long enough or because we didn’t allow ourselves to properly recover before the race. However, the answer to the problem tends to be that our resting muscle tension was too low.
What Is Muscle Tension?
Our muscles always have some form of tension in them, even when resting. They are never fully relaxed. The degree of muscle tension is mainly determined by the muscle spindles which detect stretch within the muscles. Once this information has been relayed back to the central nervous system, the steady-state length of the muscle can be altered, causing a shift in muscle tension. We often feel this when we have ‘tight’ hamstrings after sitting down for a long period of time.
Muscle tension plays an important role in running. If muscle tension is too low, the muscle will not be able to contract as rapidly and a lower amount of force will be produced. This can leave you feeling slow and sluggish. Conversely, too much muscle tension can lead to inefficiencies whilst running and energy being wasted which can lead to early fatigue. Muscle tension is strongly linked to passive running mechanics which play a critical role when running.
Fortunately, it’s possible to alter muscle tension through various training methods. Before trying to consciously alter muscle tension, it’s best to know whether your muscle tension is low or high. This is a skill which requires focus but it can help improve your training and race performance.
Muscle Tension Is Like A Spring
Think of muscle tension or muscle stiffness like a spring or elastic band. The greater the tension, the greater the recoil and energy return. A muscle with a greater tension is like a stiff elastic band. Stretch it a bit and when you let go lots of energy is returned allowing the band to fly off. A muscle with low tension is like a loose elastic band. You can stretch it a bit, but it won’t go very far when you release it.
Greater muscle tension will allow your muscles to store and release more energy whilst running allowing you to run faster due to a better running economy.
Is My Muscle Tension Low Or High?
There are two main ways to figure out your state of muscle tension:
- Paying attention to how your muscles feel whilst running
- Gauge muscle tension by pressing into the leg muscles
1) Paying Attention To Your Muscles Whilst Running
Whilst running pay attention to whether you feel ‘bounce’ in your steps or feel sluggish. This is a good indicator as to where your muscle tension is at. The easiest way to try and determine muscle tension whilst running is to add a couple of strides at the end of your run. If your steps feel light and quick, it’s likely your muscle tension is high whereas if you feel that your feet take longer than usual to get off the ground, your muscle tension is probably low.
You can also try to figure out where your muscle tension is at by doing three explosive tuck jumps for height. If your legs feel quick and muscle fire rapidly, your muscle tension is most likely high. However, if less power is generated than usual, your muscle tension is likely to be low.
Since this method of figuring out your state of muscle tension requires running and focusing on the muscles, it can be hard to determine whether muscle tension is high or low if you’ve been training intensely as you may be pushing your body to the limit and entered a phase of overtraining. If your whole body feels sluggish that doesn’t mean that your muscle tension is necessarily low, but maybe your whole body needs a bit of a rest to properly recover.
2) Pressing Into The Leg Muscles
During rest, in a relaxed position push down or have someone else press into the middle of your major leg muscles. The more force required to push down into the muscle, the greater the muscle tension. If little force is required to get ‘deep’ into the muscle, your muscle tension is probably low.
Benefits Of High And Low Muscle Tension
High muscle tension allows for a greater running economy which will help you to run faster and more explosively. This is very beneficial when racing shorter distances and track running as lots of energy is returned from the surface of an athletics track.
However, high muscle tension isn’t always beneficial. Lower muscle tension is better when you’re running longer distances such as a half marathon and further because you need your body to be more efficient when running for such a long period of time. Explosiveness isn’t as important in the longer distance races as it is in the shorter distance races. In addition, your body, legs and muscles will recover better from training when muscle tension is low.
How To Alter Muscle Tension
Muscle tension can be increased using the following strategies (greatest effect to least effect):
- Weight training
- Ballistic/power work
- Faster intervals e.g. 12 x 200m with 200m jog
- Ice baths
- Running on hard surfaces
Muscle tension can be decreased using the following strategies (greatest effect to least effect):
- Long runs
- Intense workouts that fatigue the body
- Threshold/Tempo runs
- Easy runs
- Warm baths
- Running on soft surfaces
Quick Increases To Muscle Tension
The week before a race, little fitness can be gained. Therefore, before a big race, it is usually best to try and prime the muscle to have the right muscle tension to perform optimally.
If you want to increase tension in the days leading up to a race consider the following:
- 3 days before a race, do some weight lifting – not heavy weights, but light to moderate weights just to reinforce movement patterns.
- The day prior to your race go out for a quick jog and finish off with 4 strides for up to 15 seconds at a fast pace.
- Do your race warm up on the roads (or any hard surface) and perform dynamic running drills such as high knees along with another couple of strides at a good fast pace.
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