When we feel the urge to slow down or stop during running, we often experience many unpleasant physical sensations. These include heavy breathing, tired muscles, and an increased sense of effort. It is also common to experience an increase in muscular tension. In our attempt to keep going, we often grit our teeth, furrow our brows, tense our shoulders, and clench our fists. This might seem like a useful response; after all, the expression to “grit one’s teeth” means to face up to a challenging situation and deal with it. Is this the best way to cope with the urge to slow down or stop, however? In fact, many studies have shown that a better strategy may be to relax when possible. In this article we will offer some practical tips on how to use relaxation during both training and race scenarios.
An early study with elite marathoners suggested these athletes paid close attention to bodily sensations during running and repeatedly told themselves to relax and stay loose. A benefit of running in a relaxed manner is that we reduce muscular tension, consume less oxygen, and, consequently, become more economical (i.e. use less energy). Ultimately, lower muscular tension during running can lead to better running performance. Accordingly, when we run, we want to run as relaxed as possible, even when trying to overcome the urge to slow down or stop during difficult periods in a race.
Learning how to relax effectively during running can take a little time. With practice, however, our capacity to recognise tension and to relax improves. One way to improve the ability to notice the difference between a tense muscle and a relaxed one is to practice a technique called Progressive Muscular Relaxation (or PMR). PMR scripts are readily found online and the technique is best practised when at rest. PMR involves sequentially tensing, then relaxing, various body parts including the facial muscles, shoulders, hands, abdomen, and legs. With practice we become better at recognising the difference between a tense muscle and a relaxed one and, accordingly, relaxing when we need to. We also know that PMR is effective for runners. One study found a large improvement in running economy after six weeks of PMR training in trained distance runners.
Despite this, trying to relax during running can be a challenge. Using PMR principles, a common coaching cue to relax the hands and upper body is to imagine holding a crisp between your thumb and index fingers. Imagine holding the crisp tight enough not to drop it, but not so tight that it will crush. Focusing on this will help to keep your hands and upper body relaxed while running. We found in a recent study that concentrating on this cue may reduce the focus on effort-related physical sensations and make running feel easier as a result.
Breathing techniques can also be useful to relax during running. When we become tense, our breathing rate increases and our breaths become shallower. This is not helpful to running performance. Consequently, practising taking slower, deeper breaths can be useful. One practical technique might be to breath in time with your footsteps. So, as you run, breath in for two steps, then breath out for the next two steps. If that feels too easy, try breathing in for three steps, and out three steps, etc. Controlling your breathing, and counting, can take your mind off tired muscles and the effort of running, while relaxing your body at the same time.
A final relaxation strategy is to focus on your facial expression and to smile. As peculiar as it may seem, many top athletes, including Olympic Marathon Gold medallist, Eliud Kipchoge, often use periodic smiling during racing to relax and cope with effort-related sensations. In a recent study we demonstrated that smiling improved running economy by 2.8% and reduced runners’ perception of effort in comparison with frowning (i.e. gritting your teeth and furrowing your brow). These changes were enough to expect a positive effect on running performance. As such, smiling may be a useful strategy to reduce tension and relax during effortful running, and help make running feel a little easier.
There are many practical techniques to use when trying to relax or cope with the urge to stop during running. The key is to find ones that work best for you. You may also find that some of them work well together, like relaxing your hands and smiling at the same time. Remember, it can take some time for these techniques to work effectively. As such, practising them as much as possible during training before your next big race means they are much more likely to be effective when you need them most.