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:
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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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.