Muscle tension. The phrase is usually associated with pain, soreness, or even spasms. But can it be a good thing?
Yes – muscle tension is actually a very good thing for runners!
But it’s probably a little different than what you’re thinking. Commonly called muscle stiffness, it’s not the type of stiffness you feel after a rollicking long run.
Muscle tension is instead the stored energy in your muscles as a result of tension. Our muscles all have some tension stored in them all the time – and that amount can be manipulated with training.
Get excited because that’s going to help you race faster.
See, if you can add a little more tension into your muscles before a race or tough workout, you’ll be able to run more economically. You’ll better store and return energy while running.
It’s as if your legs were springs or coils. Tighter springs, when compressed, return more energy.
That’s why you’ll hear some runners say, “I had a lot of pop in my legs today” or “I felt really responsive.”
Just imagine if you could increase your muscle tension before a 5k so you felt primed and sharp (instead of sluggish or flat).
It can be a helpful tool to help you run your best race when it counts.
How does Muscle Tension Work?
To give you more details on what muscle tension is and how you increase or decrease it, I’ve asked three top experts to share their views.
Professor Keith Baar is an Assistant Professor at UC-Davis and the head of the Functional Molecular Biology Lab. His research interests include:
- Mechanism of muscle hypertrophy
- Maximizing training adaptations
- Molecular mechanism underlying the concurrent training effect
He defines muscle tension as stiffness within the muscle-extracellular matrix (ECM)-tendon unit. Tension in this system increases efficiency and is essential to performance.
Professor Baar explains just how this works:
Active stiffness preloads the ECM and tendon so that they can store more of the energy of impact and return it as free energy. The ECM and tendon then passively stretch and recoil.
The stiffer they are, and the more active stiffness from the muscle, the more energy you get back from active recoil and the less your muscle has to work. This is why stiff runners have better economy than flexible runners.
Let’s see what our next expert has to say.
Mario Fraioli is a founding coach at Ekiden and writer of The Morning Shakeout newsletter. He prefers to stay away from the term “muscle stiffness” because of its negative association with difficulty moving.
Instead, he told me:
I prefer to use “tension” as it makes me think of coiled energy that is ready to be unleashed. It refers to the amount of muscle tension necessary to assist in locomotion.
In other words, the force that propels you forward at different speeds.
So more tension leads to more returned energy, which leads to faster running.
Finally, Dr. Ryan DeBell graduated summa cum laude from the University of Western States with a doctorate in chiropractic and a master’s degree in exercise and sport science. He’s also the founder of The Movement Fix.
Dr. DeBell also doesn’t like the term “stiffness” because of its association with soreness and tightness.
Tension is more appropriate – and it’s a good thing. As he told me, “Loose doesn’t mean better. Loose just means loose.”
This is the kind of tension you want:
Muscle contractions are the type of tension you want to use to your advantage when running. For example, when a muscle contracts, it becomes stiffer. You need and want that kind of stiffness. How else would you ever be able to propel yourself forward if you didn’t create stiffness?
You don’t want your foot and ankle to be limp when you come in contact with the ground. You need it to have control and you need muscle contraction to not fall down. When sprinting, muscle tension is even more important.
Alright, here’s what we’ve learned:
- Muscle tension can be a good thing by helping you run more economically (efficiently)
- It helps you store energy in your muscles and tendons – and then return that energy so your muscles have to work less
- A helpful analogy: your legs work like springs. Muscle tension refers to the stiffness of the spring.
But is tension always a good thing? If you’re racing a marathon, do you need to focus on tension as much as a 5k runner?
Is Tension Better for Some Races Than Others?
If tension increases free energy return and running economy, then it should always be a good thing. Right?
Professor Baar thinks so:
Stiffness is important for all races. If it costs you less energy to run a certain speed you will run better whether you are running 100m or a marathon.
This is (unknowingly) why Lydiard said that the fastest person over 400m will be the fastest person over the marathon if trained properly.
And I agree. But I also think some races rely on free energy return more than others.
For example, you run faster in a mile than a marathon. When you run faster, your foot strike has more force and will absorb, store, and release more free energy from your “springs.”
Mario Fraioli agrees:
The shorter the race, the more muscle tension has an effect on performance. For example, in the sprints and middle-distance races, explosiveness and power is more important than moving efficiently, so having greater muscle tension benefits you (to a point).
In a long-distance race, however, efficiency is more important than explosiveness, so high muscle tension isn’t as desirable, although it’s still important to have the right amount of tension so that you’re not feeling flat and sluggish.
The shorter the race, the more tension you want in your legs. You don’t want to be coiled like a snake ready to strike for a 100-mile ultra…
So how do we gain or lose tension?
Manipulating Muscle Tension
Thankfully, tension doesn’t have a mind of its own. We can strategically increase or decrease it to suit our needs.
Professor Baar recommends:
You increase stiffness by performing fast movements like speed work (really, overspeed work: i.e. downhill running on a ~2% grade), plyometrics, strength training with a light weight.
And Coach Fraioli has similar views:
You can manipulate muscle tension in a number of ways depending on the goal. Before a speed workout or a race, a set of explosive drills – think dynamic skipping, high knees, butt kicks, etc.— and short sprints can increase muscle tension, thus priming your body to run fast.
Running really easy on recovery days, running on softer surfaces where you don’t get as much energy return from the ground, gentle stretching after running, massage, etc., are all good ways to “loosen up” and reduce tension that will enhance recovery between sessions.
Dr. DeBell encourages us to use one of our favorite torture devices to decrease tension:
Use something like a foam roller. Foam rolling stimulates nerve endings in your skin and connective tissue that can get your muscles to relax and therefore be ‘less stiff’. It could also be warming up the tissue by creating friction.
These strategies are all incredibly valuable. But when would you want to use them?
Before a race or hard workout, you want higher muscle tension. Then it’s a good time to:
- Do a very short plyometric or weight session 1-2 days before the race (or 2-3 exercises during your pre-race warm-up)
- Include a series of running drills and strides during your pre-race warm-up
- Per Steve Magness, running on hard surfaces (like concrete) and ice baths can also increase tension
But if your season is over and you’re taking time off, you want to reduce muscle tension to help the recovery process:
- Static stretching or massage
- Running very easy / slow
- Running on soft surfaces that don’t return much energy
- Warm baths
By now, you see that the “springiness” of your muscles can be changed to benefit your running and recovery. These strategies aren’t magic bullets but they’re helpful tools to use in addition to intelligent training.
Now, there’s a caveat: unlike aerobic exercise or runner-specific strength exercises, there’s a clear limit to how long you can stress the tendons and ECM unit.
Professor Baar explains:
Unlike muscle that continues to adapt as long as you are using it, connective tissues only adapt for 5-10 minutes and then you need at least 6 hours to recover the ability to respond.
This is important because what it tells us is that plyometric/speed/strength training for ECM stiffness is best performed in short bouts.
Let’s not overdo our exuberance for muscle tension. For example, you don’t want to do plyometrics for a long time. The fatigue will cause your form to suffer – and possibly an injury.
Like Elmer’s, a dab will do ya.
How Does This Work in Training?
There are a variety of lessons to pull from this idea of muscle tension. Before your next big race, there are several strategies that can help you increase tension to (hopefully) have a great race.
Like Mario says, “Having the right amount of muscle tension is important not only to running fast but also for “feeling fast” when you run.”
Here’s a checklist of ways to increase your muscle tension before a big race:
- 2-3 days before the race, complete an easy strength workout (the goals are reinforcing good movement patterns, increasing tension, and recovery from the run you just did – not “getting stronger” – so there’s no need to lift too heavy.
- The day before the race, run easy on the road with 4-6 strides. Take an ice bath in the evening.
- The day of your race, run your warm-up on roads, complete a series of drills and strides, and you’ll be ready to rock and roll.
If you’ve ever felt flat, slow, or sluggish on race day when you should have felt at your best, the likely culprit was a lack of proper muscle tension.
Now, you have the tools to ensure your tension is dialed in and ready to go on race day.
What questions do you have about muscle tension? Leave them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer you!