Most long-distance runners have struggled with some muscle tightness during a run or race, especially long-distance runs, these tend to happen more on race day. The most common muscle tightness issues are tight calves, tight glutes, tight hip flexors, tight foot arch, upper back tightness and side stiches. As runners, we tend to think about stretching the muscles to relief the pain and muscle tightness during a run. In fact, we need to do the opposite and contract the muscles that feel tight to activate the muscles that need to support the tight muscles. After a run, we should stretch the tight muscles so they can relax and get more flexible, but during a run we need to active the support muscles to avoid the tightness.
Side effects of stretching tight muscles during a run
Stretching tight muscles during a run, your nervous system will respond as though you just started attacking the muscles, and the cause of the tightness will not be addressed at all. You might feel better for a short while after the stretch, but the tightness will come back pretty quickly. Let’s say you were standing and holding a rope, and someone came up and started pulling the rope at the opposite end, your response would be pulling back. If the other person would pull harder, so would you. You would just increase your tension in your arms from the extreme stretching, this is what will also happen if you pull and stretch a tight muscle when you’re running.
The best option to release muscle tightness is to give a muscle what it wants; tension. Once you feel some muscle tightness, before it gets too intense and to avoid any injury, pull off to the side of the course and contract that muscle and hold it for 10 secs. Contract both sides of the same muscle to make sure it stays balanced. Do a few reps then go back to running. To release the tension effectively, contracting the affected muscle and activating the muscles that support the tight muscle will rebalance your running form and avoid the muscle tightness. If you keep stretching the tight muscle, it will keep tightening up and get the muscle more fatigued and inefficient, because stretching reduces the power output of muscles immediately afterwards. That is the reason why runners should not do static stretching before a run, it will reduce the endurance and strength for the first 10 minutes of the run. You need to listen to your body and start fixing the muscle tightness.
How to fix different muscle tightness
Upper-Back Tightness– Tightness between the shoulders
This type of tightness is linked to hip misalignment, shoulders tight and raised or head bent forward, all these issues put strain on the upper back muscles. Focus on the tight area to fix the tightness.
The Fix: Lift your shoulders up and hold them up, or squeeze them together, or roll them forward, depending on where the tightness is. After, you can try big backward shoulder rolls while running.
Calf Tightness– Tightness mild or intense in the calf.
This type of tightness can be caused by electrolytes deficiency or imbalance, wearing new shoes your feet are not used to, especially with a lower drop (difference between heel height and forefoot height), or muscle weakness from lack of muscle strengthening.
The Fix: To contract a tight calf muscle, walk on your toes or do calf raises, you can also do a few forward lunges, then get back into running.
Glute Tightness– Tightness in the bum muscle
This type of tightness can be caused by imbalanced hips, weak hamstrings, sitting for many hours at a desktop, or overuse.
The Fix: Do a single leg deadlift. Stand on one leg, bend forward at the hip joint, and extend the other leg behind you, hold it up as high as you can so you can contract the glutes. Then do the other side, repeat a few times, then go back to running.
Foot Cramp and Tightness– Sharp pain in the arch of the foot.
This type of tightness can also be caused by electrolytes deficiency, leading to muscle cramps and spasms. Another cause can be muscle fatigue, flexing and extending the foot during a long-distance run can cause overuse.
The Fix: Stand tall and still. Lift your opposite foot off the ground to stand on a single leg, apply full-body weight pressure on the affected foot for up to 1 minute. Then get back to running.
Side Stitch Tightness– Intense tightness, and pain under the rib cage, usually only on one side.
This type of tightness is usually caused by using muscles on that side as a substitute over others that would contribute to breathing.
The Fix: Take a few deep belly breaths, then press two fingers directly into the affected area. As you apply pressure, continue taking breaths and lean towards the side of your stitch.
These tips will not only help to release the tightness that is affecting your run, it will also help improve your ability to listen to your body, which is the basic tool you need to stay healthy, perform your best, and enjoy running.