Why You Can’t Run Relaxed

By Jae Gruenke | Natural Running Form

Feb 06

Excess tension saps your energy when you run and it can be pretty uncomfortable too. But it’s also hard to get rid of and it usually just comes back. Here’s why.

First, consider that you’re never really relaxed when you run. Running is work! That’s part of why we do it, in fact.

The feeling of running relaxed happens when the work you’re doing is perfectly suited to the task. Then there’s no extra tension, and all your muscles work in balance with each other.

Tight shoulders, clenched hands, and gritted teeth are symptoms of movement that’s not perfectly suited to the task. When they tense up during a run, you seldom have the feeling that it’s because you’re using those muscles to run. Most often it just feels like that area tensed up for no obvious reason.

You can try to relax those muscles but five minutes later the tension is back because your underlying gait imbalance hasn’t changed. So the symptom–your tight shoulders or whatever–returns.

The worst thing you could do in this situation is try and make yourself loose. Running with some extra tension somewhere is no fun but running floppy means you’re interfering with the muscles that are supposed to be working, which leads to greater imbalance, poor performance, and potentially more serious problems down the line.

Stretching during a run is also really counterproductive, especially for tension in the lower body, because those muscles do need to be working (if somewhat differently than you’ve been using them) and pre-run or mid-run stretching interferes with that so they become not more relaxed, but more dysfunctional.

To solve this problem in a lasting way you need to address your underlying imbalance. Here’s a list of what I’ve found to be the most common places for extra tension, along with the most common underlying cause.

Tense shoulders: usually caused by holding your core too tight, restricting your core action (counterrotation of your upper body and pelvis). If your shoulders also hunch, you’re actually rounding your back when you run. In either case, learn what to do here.

Clenched hands, clenched jaw: these both are often caused by tense flexors pulling your chest down, your abdomen up and in, and rounding your back (though this may be slight). The best place to start with this is to work on your core action. The same approach as for tense shoulders will help, so learn what to do here.

Tight hip flexors: usually caused by contracting your abdominals too much though they can also result from bringing your swing leg forward a little too late. Learn what to do here. And if they act up in the middle of a run, you can stop and do this.

Aching quads: usually caused by sitting back with your pelvis slightly behind your standing foot in midstance. Learn what to do here.

Sore lower back: this is nearly always because of difficulty with the hip joints–either having your hip flexors too contracted or restricting range of motion around the hip joint altogether so the pelvis has difficulty moving. Learn what to do here.

Tight calves: this is nearly always because the torso is too stiff. Learn what to do here.

In addition to the specific recommendations above, you can learn to balance your overall running form better so you have less chronic tension and can run smoother and faster through my free Mind Your Running Challenge. Sign up here:

The Mind Your Running Challenge

I hope all of that helps! If you’ve been trying to solve this problem for awhile without success, dealing with the underlying issue is going to be the key for you. Leave a comment below letting me know how it goes.

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About the Author

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.

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(4) comments

Joc February 7, 2021

I have been going over Jae’s videos again the last couple of weeks and working the things in this post and on my hip movement. The last few runs have been OK but not really relaxed. Today everything ‘clicked’ – and I felt like a real runner – not just a jogger or plodder. So, thanks again Jae for your great resources.

Reply
    Jae Gruenke February 7, 2021

    So glad to hear it, Joc!

    Reply
Laura Thomas February 9, 2021

Hi Jae and all,
I have noticed that I tense up every time I’m around cars or have to pay attention to something suddenly. I go from having a nice pace and feel fairly relaxed to alert mode and try to get back in that state. It’s not easy but maybe through awareness I can learn to return more rapidly. I know you have some posts about running shoes and I had a really tight mid to low back. Since changing to highly flexible running shoes that has gone away. The shoes that have given me real problems with my heels and back are Brooks. There must be something in shoes that force our bodies to move in ways that harm us. They may feel better on the feet but not on our bodies. Would love more help on returning to relaxed running – physically and mentally.

Reply
    Jae Gruenke February 12, 2021

    Laura, you definitely can learn to return to relaxed mode faster with more awareness and options. Also, if your alertness is just from breaking your rhythm, you can actually learn to handle that much more calmly by improving your agility and responsiveness. The more capable your nervous system is to deal with the unexpected and with more complex movements, the less stressed you’ll be by things like traffic. It’s Feldenkrais lessons that will have this effect, so definitely do the free lessons that I offer in various places on this website and you might consider my online camp–that will give you a six-week program of lessons that greatly improve your ability to respond to the unexpected.

    Reply
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