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!
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.