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  • Writer's pictureLauren Mayhew

The Secret to Running Further, Faster and Pain-Free

When it comes to increasing speed and endurance and preventing injuries, standard recommendations for runners include strength training and speedwork.

Most runners rarely, if ever, hear about the importance of relaxation.

But, in reality, it all starts with relaxation. The ability to relax is the foundation of proper breathing, as well as optimal biomechanics, and alignment.

On the flip side, chronic muscle tension is the biggest reason we slow down, have less endurance, and get injured as we age – not the year on our birth certificate.

To understand the role of relaxation in being able to run well, it can be helpful to first look at how muscle tension develops. Two main factors contribute to muscle tension – repetitive postural and movement habits and psychological stress.

Let’s first look at repetitive activities. Any athletic endeavor, like running, will lead to specific patterns of muscle tension. That’s because your brain recognizes when you use particular muscles repeatedly and keeps those muscles chronically contracted even when you’re no longer using them.

The result is a gradual increase in your muscles' resting level of tension. This build-up is so gradual and subtle that you may not even notice it for many years – until aches, pains, and injuries eventually show up in your body due to poor postural and movement habits.

Our muscles need to be able to contract and release. When your brain no longer releases muscle tension fully once muscles have contracted, it will eventually impact the range of motion in your joints and lead to misalignment, imbalances, and poor posture.

The second factor in developing muscle tension in our bodies is psychological stress. Every thought we think has a biological response in the body. There is a corresponding physiological response when we experience worry, anxiety, and depression. When we are fearful or anxious, our muscles become tense and tight. Blood flow is also directed to the brain, making it harder to perform.

Chronic stress impacts our ability to breathe well, and optimal breath mechanics significantly impact how we run – including our energy, speed, and endurance.

Relaxed muscles are more fluid, react more quickly, and burn less energy. So, our posture, form, and psychology are all interconnected. A relaxed body is more likely to be well-aligned, have greater mobility, and therefore more optimal biomechanics.

An intelligent training plan should include recovery and conscious relaxation – practices that will help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and release muscle tension. Examples include breathing techniques and mind-body practices that help down-regulate the nervous system. Somatic neuromuscular education is uniquely beneficial because it reduces the resting level of tension in the muscles, with active movement – gentle, therapeutic neuromuscular exercises.

Bud Winter, who was widely regarded as one of the greatest track and field coaches of all time, was known for saying “Relax and win.” I would define winning as not only racing and competing well but running happily and pain-free for life.

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