Caitlin Chock— Staying relaxed when you’re tired and your legs feel like lead is no small task. To maintain efficiency and actually run faster, however, you have to be able to stay relaxed and not “force” your pace.
“Any time you get tight, you are expending more energy and putting your body in a worse position to function correctly,” explains University of Houston cross country and track coach Steve Magness. “When you get tight and start changing the way you run, you’re now running in a way that your body isn’t used to. So, you start changing motor patterns and what muscles are recruited.”
The bottom line is you’re slowing yourself down.
The first step in relieving all of that tension is to catch yourself in the act. A coach or outside observer can help you figure out where your tense spots are so that you make the right adjustments in order to provide relief. Eventually you’ll be able to sense those tight fists, tense shoulders or clenched jaw and take actions to reset your form. Shift the focus of your hard workouts from hitting splits to fixing how you’re running.
“It’s important to practice running fatigued,” says Magness. “So, in practice, it’s paramount to learn how to combat the tensing up. Even if it means running a repeat slightly slower at first, do it. The key is to get it so ingrained that you don’t press when it’s time to go. Relax. It’s easy to say but harder to do.”
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Top Tension Spots
- Shoulders: As your arms and shoulders start to swallow up your neck, “one of the best things you can do is to just drop the arms, open up the hands, and shake them out for a second,” explains Magness.
- Fists: The same sort of trick applies to the clenched fists, which often go hand in hand with the high shoulders. “Sometimes if you go to the other extreme, it might get your body to realize how tense you are,” Magness explains. “So, if your fists are clenched, squeeze them even harder for a second and then relax.”
- Jaw: Clenching your jaw isn’t only expending unnecessary energy, it’s also inhibiting your oxygen intake. Tricks here are opening and closing your mouth, making an exaggerated yawn, or taking a longer, slow breath and exhaling. “Blowing out so you almost try and do that little kid thing of making your lips vibrate,” suggests Magness.
- Neck: “The neck is a big one you see,” says Magness. “People start tightening up or straining forward with it. Try rolling the neck forward for a second.”
Don’t Force It
It sounds counter-intuitive, but sometimes runners can just try too hard. The stress of wanting to run faster and over-thinking can wind up slowing you down and getting in the way. This tends to happen when runners start to focus more on hitting splits rather than the act of running.
“We do a lot in terms of focusing on the process of running and not the end results,” Magness says in regards to the athletes he coaches. “I think it’s important to learn how to run by feel. So teaching that process and learning how to pay attention to what your body is telling you, instead of what the splits are, is important.”
An easy way to listen to your body is to ditch the watch. Running sans watch for some of your workouts can feel like dumping a big, self-imposed time burden off your shoulders. Run by feel and focus on your effort. It sounds simple but the effect is freeing. The same line of reasoning applies to workouts done on the track or marked pathways; if you find that you’re getting too hung-up on distances down to the meter, change to time-based fartlek-style workouts for a while. Instead of doing 800m repeats at 5K pace, do sets of 3-minute repeats at 5K effort on unmarked paths. Once you’re comfortably running hard, switch back to track workouts.
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Think running with a watch is a necessity for races? Think again, says Magness.
“I advise against wearing a watch when you race or focusing on splits,” says Magness, who also coaches top elites Jackie Areson and Sara Hall.
Not everyone may feel comfortable leaving the watch at home, but keep in mind that in a race situation, it’s often necessary to relax and put yourself in position to react to what your competitors are doing, rather than taking all of your cues from the watch.
“Shake it out,” advises Magness, and you might just be on your way to a personal best.
About The Author: Caitlin Chock set the then National High School 5K Record (15:52.88) in 2004. Still an avid runner, she works as a freelance writer and artist.