How to Deal with Tight Muscles During a Run

Have you ever been out for a run and found yourself struggling through hip flexor tighness, tight calves, or tight muscles elsewhere? I have a trick for you to deal with the tightness effectively while you’re out on your run, without needing a foam roller, a massage therapist, or any other equipment you’re not likely to have while running.

You may be thinking, “that’s obvious, she’s going to tell me to stretch!”  But in fact I’m going to tell you the opposite: contract the muscles that feel tight.  Your muscles are tight for a reason, and if you go stretch them two things will result: your nervous system will respond as though you’d just started a tug of war, and the cause of the tightness will not be addressed at all. And so you might feel better for a short while after you stretch, but the tightness will come back pretty quickly.

Think about it. If you happened for some reason to be standing around holding a rope, and someone walked up and started pulling at the opposite end, what would be your spontaneous response? You’d pull back. And if that person pulled harder, so would you. This is what will also happen if you pull at a tight muscle when you’re running — you’ll likely just increase the tension.

Besides, why do muscles get tight? Because in the context of the job they’re being asked to do at that moment, that’s what’s necessary.  For whatever reason, something about how you’re running at the moment is creating that tension, and trying to clear away the tension doesn’t really solve the problem because you’re not changing the movements that are causing it.

So instead, give a tight muscle what “it” wants: tension! Contract that puppy and hold it for about 10 seconds or until you’re tired.  This will mean you need to stop running, but it’ll be brief and it’ll be worth it.  Do both sides, meaning if it’s a hip flexor, do both, one after the other, rather than only doing the one that’s been bothering you.

Do a few repetitions of this, then return to running. Most likely you’ll feel the tension let go and your overall form loosen and improve.  This works because you’re not having a tug of war, you’re facilitating what your nervous system feels is necessary, which actually will reduce the amount of tension in that muscle and everywhere else as well.

This kind of active work (as opposed to a passive stretch) involves the participation of other parts of you as well — likely parts that needed to start working to solve the problem that caused the tension in the first place.

Let’s take the example of the hip flexors. If your hip flexors feel tight on a run, stop, stand on one leg, lift the other straight out in front of you with the knee straight, and hold it in the air as high as you can for 10 seconds. Then repeat with the other leg. For good measure you can do it a couple more times around if you want.

While you’re holding your leg up in front of you, strongly contracting and holding your hip flexors, your other leg is firing the antagonist muscles — the glutes and hamstrings — to keep you from falling over. They probably had not been working as they should have been, causing the hip flexor tightness to begin with. And while they fire on your standing leg, your standing hip flexor is lengthening in response due to a feedback loop in your nervous system called “reciprocal inhibition.” Then you switch legs and get the benefit of this work on the other side.

By the time you’re done you’ll feel like your hip flexors have let go and your glutes and hamstrings are warm and active.  When you start running again your form will adjust and you’ll have left the problem mostly or even completely behind.

Conversely if you keep stopping to stretch your hip flexors they’ll keep tightening up on you while also getting more and more fatigued and inefficient because stretching reduces the power output of muscles immediately afterwards.  That results in a run that is no fun, to put it mildly.

You can apply the principle with different muscles as needed, it just takes a little bit of creativity and a lot of listening to your body. If your calves are tight you can walk on your toes or do calf raises. If your butt is tight you can stand on one leg, hinge forward at the hip joint, and extend the other leg behind you, holding it up as high as you can, so you contract the buttock fully. Then do the other side of course.  If you get a stitch in your side you can bend towards the stitch. If your shoulders get tight you can lift them and hold them up, or squeeze them together, or roll them forward… just follow along with whatever the tightness is.

Not only will this trick help you let go of tightness that is interfering with your run, it will also help you improve your ability to listen to your body, which is the basic tool you need to stay healthy, perform your best, and enjoy your running.

Give it a try and then let me know how it goes in the comments below!

48 thoughts on “How to Deal with Tight Muscles During a Run”

  1. DEAR JAE,
    THANKS SO MUCH FOR THIS! IT IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED TO ME IN A 4 MILE RACE YESTERDAY IN THE BITTER COLD 20 SOME DEGREE WEATHER WE ARE HAVING IN NYC. I CAN’T WAIT TO PUT IT TO USE.
    BRENDA

    Reply
    • Hi Brenda, it’s great to hear from you. That was some wind yesterday as well! I experienced a bit of it before catching the train from NYC to DC midday. Glad you avoided frostbite! Hope it helps the next time around.

      Reply
  2. Hi Jae,

    great advice! Just the opposite of everything I learned so far about getting rid of muscle tightness.
    It worked immedeatly on my tight calfs.

    Thx lot!

    O

    Reply
  3. Hello,
    Do you recommend to strech after running? It is clear that for example if hip flexors are tight I shouldn’t strech before or during a run, but instead use the contraction exersices… But what about when I finish my running?

    I’ve suffered hip flexor injuries on both legs since I became a runner 10 years ago… I’ve lost chances to run marathons, races, etc… So I am trying to find a solution.

    Best,

    Reply
    • That’s a good question. Some runners find post-run stretching valuable, others find it makes no difference. I advise against static stretching since basically all it does is damage your muscles. Dynamic stretching is a different matter; if you’re searching for a postrun stretch routine check this post out: https://www.balancedrunner.com/my-favorite-post-run-stretches/

      However it’s almost certainly the case that something about how you run regularly places unmanageable demands on your hip flexors, and you’ll need to look deeper than the muscles that hurt for a real solution. If you haven’t done so already, read all the posts in the series on The Balanced Runner Keys (if that seems overwhelming you can take a look at our popular YouTube video here first: https://youtu.be/9zkapadQwHk). You can get the checklist for the Keys here: https://www.balancedrunner.com/balanced-runner/. That may begin to give you some clues about what kinds of changes will make a real difference for you.

      Reply
    • Yes, it applies whenever it occurs. Some runners feel tightness from the first step but more often it takes a while to kick in, or you only notice it when you’re running a lot overall. Bear in mind, though, that this technique is just symptom management, good for getting you out of trouble on the occasional run. If you find you have to do it regularly, it’s important you address the cause of the tightness before it causes more serious problems.

      Reply
  4. I couldn’t believe how well this worked for me. I’ve been tightening, stretching, and abandoning for about 6 months now. Now I’ve had two good runs in a row. Thanks! (I’m also working with a PT on the underlying issues.)

    Reply
  5. When working with the hip flexors, you say to contract the hip flexors when standing on one leg. Is this the hip flexor on the raised leg, the standing leg, or both? Thanks

    Reply
    • Hi Louise. You don’t have to worry about this question, the exercise makes it happen correctly. In order to lift your leg in front of you, your hip flexors contract. In order to keep your standing leg straight, your hip flexors relax. It’s automatic.

      Reply
  6. Hi Jae,

    I stumbled on your website when consulting Aunty Google for a solution to ‘sore hip flexor running’ as from the 1st km on my 20 km long run yesterday, my hip felt like it was tearing with each stride. Due to my limited knowledge, I kept stopping to stretch it which only made it worse (as you mention) and now I have a very inflamed left hip a week out from the Great North Run, so I’m wishing now I’d known about and used your technique prior to the run, live and learn. I have an angry hamstring on the same leg (left) so I’m not sure if I was compensating for this with my hip but I now know to contract the hip rather than stretch it to help solve the problem. In regards to the angry hammie, would you recommend contracting that as well, over stretching it?

    Thanks so much for your advice and your website – I’m def. going to look into using the Balanced Runner Method to help improve my running.

    Reply
    • Sorry to hear about your hip flexor and hamstring–a bit worrying a week from your goal race but if you take it easy a lot can improve in a week. I would never stretch an angry muscle, it always makes things worse. Type “hamstrings” into the search box on my website, I’ve got a couple of posts about what to do. Also type in “ice” and “anti-inflammatories” while you’re at it. Take a hot Epsom Salts bath (google how to do that right) and try one of the free lesson on my home page–look for the phrase “Get Your Core in Action.” Not having seen you or knowing you at all, that’s my best generic advice. Not a bad idea to see a massage therapist or physio as well if you can manage it before your race!

      Reply
      • Thanks for your reply Jae. It’s already improving, which is a great sign, just worries me how I’ll fair on the big day, but I’m going to do a couple of easy runs prior so I can see how it fairs and try your ‘lift leg’ technique to see if it helps. Will also have a couple of magnesium baths and might book in for a massage with my Sports Therapist as well 🙂

        Thanks again and will read up on everything else you mention as well.

        Reply
  7. Hi Jae,

    I can’t wait to give this a try on my next 20+ mile run. What would be a good way to contract the IT bands? When I get to mile 22 or so, the IT bands start to tighten up and the pain is mostly where they connect at the hip. They really tightened up on me in the last marathon making me almost walk the last two miles, which caused me to just miss the BQ time.

    Thanks,

    Matt

    Reply
    • I’ve got solutions for IT bands for sure, just type it into the search bar on my website and you’ll find the posts. You can’t actually contract them because they’re not muscles (they do contract, but on a different time scale and not intentionally). Best of luck getting that BQ!

      Reply
  8. Interesting concept. Not sure how recent this article is. I’m on the USA Triathlon team and I received similar advice for my outer quad pain. The only difference between approaches is I do this before a run. For example I do a lot on the mat with leg lifts, vertical and side. Crab lifts with bands and glute lifts laying on stomach with a bit of weight. If I find I do this I don’t fatigue during my longer runs. I’d be a bit leary about the calfs though…If my calfs get zonked in hillier runs I really try to leave them alone. I would never put more load on them as it could create a tear.
    Would love to see research cited….Do you have any? I had IT band issues last year and just loaded my glutes and did a ton of side squats with bands and everything seems better.
    Thanks for the article and would love to see research…Cheers

    Reply
    • Hi Peter. I don’t have research to point you to, as this comes from my clinical experience and from the fundamental principles of the Feldenkrais Method, in which you never fight the nervous system. You begin by facilitating the movements that you’ve been (unconsciously at least) trying to do, and this relieves the tension and effort involved and makes it possible to do the opposite without tension. The odds that lifting your heels and standing for a moment on the balls of your feet would produce a tear in your calves is exceedingly low, especially since you’d have to be trying to lengthen your calves to provoke a tear, not shortening them as rising on your toes would do. However if you tend to have trouble with your calves as a result of hillier runs, I’d recommend working on your technique higher up in your body, as pelvis and trunk rigidity tend to cause calf tightness and fatigue, it’s not actually a problem with your calves.

      Reply
  9. Hello,

    I’ve been having trouble with tightness. I tried this and my muscles cramped immediately. Calves especially. It’s gotten to the point I can hardly run a 5k anymore because my legs hurt so badly. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Brook, it sounds like your cramping goes beyond muscle tightness and may be an electrolyte issue. That’s what I’d recommend you look into.

      Reply
  10. Good article! I actually have been discovering this on my own recently as I’ve been (slowly) recovering from bilateral glut med tendonitis and a right sided peroneal tendonitis… all my “tight” muscles (my hips were totally locked up as were my calves) are basically “weak” muscles, by working them and contracting them, they eventually let go. Static stretching did not seem to help very much at all, whereas strengthening really made a difference in terms of my mobility (especially full range of motion stuff). My glutes, hamstrings and calves are now quite strong, and way more flexible but I think I neglected my hip flexors in this, and I think they may be perpetuating the glute med problem. Thanks for sharing though, good advice for tight sore muscles!

    Reply
    • Yes, hip flexors should definitely be included. But your glute med problem is more likely connected with your obliquies also needing to be strong through a range of motion. Type “core action” into the search bar and take a look at what I write about that.

      Reply
  11. I read this article yesterday night and applied the suggestions before I ran this morning and my legs felt looser than they have in a long time. ive been a runner for 41 years and im not ready to give in to the wear and tear…thank you for posting this.

    Reply
    • Actually, Robert, you could do the same exercise I recommend for the hip flexors, since it works the hamstrings of the standing leg at the same time.

      Reply
  12. I’m training for my 1st marathon 6/16/18. I am 64 yr old female. After about 14 miles my back painfully tightens up. Any suggestions?
    Thank you,
    MaryLou

    Reply
  13. Hi Jae, I’m in 8th grade and run 2 mile races competitively for cross country. I train every weekday in the summer, and deal with tightness, and an emptiness in my legs about every other day. So when race day comes around, how can I assure myself that I won’t have tightness during the race and post a bad time?

    Reply
    • Hi Max, I’m sorry for the slow reply! I think your question would be better answered by a coach than by me, since it sounds like a training issue rather than a technique issue. Perhaps you’re training too hard too many days in a row, and it would be better if you had a mix of harder and easier days. A coach can help you figure that out. The best suggestions I can give are: first, notice the pattern of tightness/emptiness so you can schedule your training so that your race days will be “good” days. Second, make sure you get *plenty* of sleep, and pay attention to good nutrition (especially after runs). Third, try taking hot 15-20 minute baths with Epsom salts a few times a week, especially after hard training sessions that you expect will make you feel tight the next day. And fourth, try these stretches every day after you run: https://www.balancedrunner.com/my-favorite-post-run-stretches/ Good luck to you!

      Reply
  14. I have an issue that started out of the blue during a speed work run 2 years ago and has haunted me on every run since (I took off a full 6 month period in there and issue was still present when I came back).

    When I’m running, at some point, my leg(s) feel like they are locking up and I can’t run correctly. It’s like they tighten up and I can’t make them run normally. Sometimes it feels like it’s in my hips, other times my ankles. It was just the right leg for the longest time, but now it’s the left one just as often.

    Does this sound like muscle tightness that could be relieved via the method mentioned above? Also you said that it doesn’t treat the underlying cause – what type of doctor should I see to determine the underlying cause?

    Reply
    • Rebecca, it’s difficult to say just based on the info I can get from a written comment, as you might imagine. There are a few possible causes, and the method I practice could be helpful with most of them. I don’t think you’re having the kind of muscle tightness I describe in the post. I recommend you go to my homepage and sign up for the free lesson you can access under “Get your Core in Action” and see if that gives you a little bit of help. If so, that’s an indicator that The Balanced Runner System can work for you, and you should delve deeper into the resources on this website. Good luck!

      Reply
    • Rebecca- I have had the same problems with my right leg. Your post is the first that I have found that sounds exactly like what I am going through. Have you found anything that has helped?

      Reply
  15. Hi Jae,
    i ran a marathon last sunday and around km 36 my upper legs started to feel like stones. I can fully follow your logic and will try this in the next long run, but just not sure if my problem are the quads, the hip flexors or actually both. Any tip on how I can contract the quads or does the described excercise with one leg up work for both?
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Jens. Yes, the described exercise works for quads too. However if your legs feel overall like stones, your problem might be that you don’t have enough core action. Go to the homepage by clicking on the logo in the top left corner, then click on “Get Your Core in Action” and try the free lesson available there.

      Reply
  16. I always experience shoulder tightness whenever I run a bit fast or anxious to finish the run I am doing. I will definitely try this technic and of course try to relax and enjoy the run instead of wanting to finish it as quickly as possible.

    Reply
  17. Thank you! I’ve struggled with this on a number of my runs. Yesterday I went out to do my 10k run, and I felt so hindered and stiff. Everything felt bad. My lower back, my hamstrings, my hips, calves…I didn’t loosen up till nearly the end of it. It wasn’t making any sense to me because I warm up and do mobility workouts beforehand, and stretch after.

    I googled stiff legs while running but only came up with “heavy legs” which was not the problem, until I found your article. I can’t wait to apply these techniques and see what happens.

    Reply

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