Manipulating muscle tension to run faster


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[UPDATE Feb. 13: more detailed info on muscle tension research in this post.]

Steve Magness has an article in next month’s Running Times magazine called “Managing Running Tension,” in which he argues that we should aim to have loose, floppy muscles during easy runs to enhance recovery, and tight, tense muscles during hard workouts and races to get more “pop” in the legs. He suggests several ways to increase tension (sprinting, ice baths, running on hard surfaces, etc.) and several ways to decrease it (jogging, massage, warm baths, running on soft surfaces, etc.).

Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot offers his take on the article on his Peak Performance blog: the take-away message, he believes, is that when you’re tapering before before a race, you should be wary of doing all your runs on soft surfaces lest you’re left with sub-par tension, and thus dead legs on race day.

It’s an interesting idea. Certainly, I’ve always marvelled at how incredibly dead my legs tend to feel on race mornings — a reaction I’ve always assumed was mental rather than physical, as my brain becomes hypersensitive to sensations of effort in anticipation of the supreme effort to come. Could muscle tension have something to do with it? I don’t know. I’d like to see some evidence to support the story. Do we know how to objectively measure muscle tension? Has anyone measured how it changes in response to things like running surface? I’d welcome pointers if anyone knows — because it sure would be nice to learn how to avoid that dead-leg feeling!

4 Replies to “Manipulating muscle tension to run faster”

  1. How do you think the recent trend of compression wear (such as Saucony’s AMP Pro line of training and recovery apparel (and socks)) works in influencing this muscle tension dynamic?

  2. Hey Steve! Interesting question, and one that I have nothing but speculation to answer with. In the literature review on muscle tension that I discuss in this post, it identifies intracellular and extracellular water pressure as one possible mechanism for increased muscle tension. I could imagine that compression gear would prevent water from accumulating in and around muscle cells, and thus would act to keep tension down after hard workouts.

    On the other hand, if compression gear stabilizes muscle oscillation and reduces microscopic muscle damage, perhaps it might allow the muscle to maintain higher tension (since the cross-links that provide the tension aren’t torn apart).

    That’s the problem with complex and poorly understood theories like this: it’s pretty easy to formulate a hypothesis that backs up whatever you think should happen. That’s why we need experiments!

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