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Some days you have it. Some days you don’t.
Runners are masters at navigating the uncertainty of how they feel on any given day. And while it’s a constant balancing act, it can often seem completely arbitrary.
Why is it that on some days you feel amazing? Some races feel easy, even when you crush your finish time. Those races almost feel effortless, like your legs are powered by dual-cell, fully charged lithium batteries! But in other races, you feel sluggish right from the gun. Your legs are unresponsive and lethargic, and it takes monumental effort to run at a pace that you thought would be manageable.
To navigate this uncertainty, we first have to understand the mechanism that helps us feel lighter and springier, with more of that proverbial pep in our step. For any runner who cares about the quality of their workouts, or wants to run a shiny Personal Best in the 5k or half marathon, it’s critical to understand how to prime your body for hard running.
Priming is how you can stack the deck in your favor, to increase the odds that you’ll feel better on any given day. But to fully understand this priming process, we must first understand muscle tension. And no, it’s not the same tension you feel in your legs after a solid 20 miler – that’s just fatigue and soreness!
What is Muscle Tension?
At its most basic, muscle tension is the stored energy in your muscles as the result of tension. This tension can help you race faster, which is exciting because the amount of it stored in your muscles can be changed based on what you do during training. Manipulate this variable in the right direction and you’ll feel far more efficient and smoother on race day.
Think of your legs as pogo sticks attached to your pelvis. Your muscles are like springs: the tighter springs return more energy after they are compressed. They’re more economical, or efficient, which means you can run the same pace at a lower effort. At its core, to manipulate muscle tension is to improve your running economy. If you’ve ever heard a runner say any of the following, they were talking about high levels of muscle tension:
- “I had a lot of pop in my legs today.”
- “I felt so springy powering down the final 100 meters.”
- “My legs felt so responsive, so sharp.
- I could just change gears and it felt good.”
Alternatively, if you’ve ever heard a runner say something like, “I felt flat today” or “my legs were dead from the beginning,” they’re likely talking about low levels of muscle tension. So manipulating muscle tension higher then becomes a primary goal when you’re trying to run a fast race. It helps your legs feel primed and responsive (rather than sluggish or flat).
How to Increase and Decrease Muscle Tension
Now that we know how important muscle tension is – and why higher levels of muscle tension can help us run faster – we can now incorporate strategies to manipulate it to our needs. When we have a key workout or race coming up, we want higher levels of muscle tension.
We can do this a variety of ways:
- Strides, sprints, and very short repetitions of 200 meters (or 30sec) or less
- Running on hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt
- Drills, skips, and plyometrics
- Ice baths
These activities will increase muscle tension and, therefore, help you feel better and run more powerfully during a race or workout.
Conversely, sometimes it’s helpful to decrease muscle tension (like after a race, when recovery should be prioritized). In these cases, we can reduce muscle tension with:
- Running on soft surfaces like grass
- Slow running
- Long runs
- Hot baths
All of these activities are wonderful for a period of recovery (or training, when high performance isn’t needed, like base training).
Implement a “Priming Process” Into Your Training
Let’s imagine that you have a race tomorrow. How can we use this information to ensure you feel as good as possible tomorrow?
First, we can create a “priming process” into your training that’s used before key races, when you want to perform at your best. It likely isn’t too different from what you’re doing already. But with a few strategic adjustments, we can stack the deck in your favor even more.
And it all begins the day before your big race. The training session the day before the race is a very important session. Arguably, the only goal of a pre-race run is to prime you for the race, rather than to “build fitness” (at this point, it’s too late for that, anyway).
If a runner has the physical capacity for all this work, an ideal pre-race session might be structured as follows:
- Perform 3-4 sets of running form drills like A-skip, B-skip, high-knees, or similar
- Run a short, easy run on a hard surface like the road or sidewalk
- Advanced option: run 2-4 repetitions of 200m at your goal race pace during the easy run
- Run 4-6 strides on a hard surface (can be run on a track in spikes or flats)
- Complete a very short, easy strength routine
- Take an ice bath
The rest of the day should be free from long walks or extended periods of time standing on your feet. These things will decrease muscle tension, increase fatigue, and lead you to feeling “flat” on race day.
The result should be more economy, better feelings of springiness and power, and a readiness to race fast.
If you have a history of feeling flat, stale, sluggish, lethargic, or like you have “dead legs” on race day, muscle tension might be the missing factor in creating your next peak performance. So dial up your pre-race prime protocol to feel more pop in your stride. And then, be sure and dial it back down post-race to enhance recovery.
[Caveat: this strategy becomes more important the shorter your race. If you’re training for a marathon or longer, muscle tension isn’t nearly as vital to your performance as it would be if you were racing a mile or 5k.]