How to Relax to Improve Running Performance

When you learn how to relax your body, you will be able to consciously recognize and remove the physical tension and stress that occurs while running. Tension promotes injuries, draws energy from our bodies, and prevents us from running our best. 

We tense our bodies without realizing we are doing it.  The next time you visit your dentist, notice how your body feels while in the dentist's chair. Are you tense or relaxed?  As we learn how to recognize when our bodies are tense, we can then learn how to keep it relaxed.

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Relaxation Improves Running Economy

Studies show that relaxation practices can improve running economy. According to Wikipedia, "Running economy is a measure of how efficiently a person uses oxygen while running at a given pace."

During a six-week training experiment, runners were asked to practice relaxation techniques and then run on a treadmill. At the end of the experiment, results showed participants had lower heart and ventilation rates and lower VO2 consumption than at the beginning of the experiment. In conclusion, practicing relaxation techniques will improve your running economy so you will be able to run further and faster with less effort.

Other Benefits of Being Relaxed While Running 

Staying relaxed when running improves your running performance and reduces the risk of injuries, but there are more reasons for runners to learn relaxation techniques.  

A relaxed body promotes a relaxed mind.  It is in this state that you can more easily achieve "runners high" or "get in the zone." Many runners have experienced this flow state—the feeling of effortless running. This is the high that runners love so much. 

How to Relax

Benefits of keeping your body relaxed:

  • Removes stress, tension and anxiety
  • Keeps heart rate down
  • Promotes recovery from injuries
  • Slows breathing
  • Strengthens immune system
  • Increases your energy level
  • Helps you sleep better
  • Improves concentration and focus
  • Increases positive thoughts and reactions
  • Increases strength, endurance and coordination

How to Relax your Body

There are numerous relaxation exercises you can use to learn how to relax when running. The easiest one involves contracting and relaxing all your major body parts—starting with your feet and ending with the top of your head (step-by-step instructions are below). When a muscle is tightened for a few seconds and then released, it becomes more relaxed than before. This exercise not only relaxes our body, it teaches us how a relaxed muscle feels as opposed to a tense muscle. Being able to distinguish these sensations can help us learn how to relax while running.

How to Relax When Running

Start by lying or sitting down. Breathe deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth.

  • Focus on your breathing for a few minutes and then tense both your feet as much as possible. When the feet are tightened, focus on the muscles and feel the tension in them for 20-30 seconds. When you release the tension, notice how relaxed your feet have become. 
  • Continue this process in other areas as you move up your body. Tense and release the calve muscles, upper legs, thighs, buttocks, stomach, back, hands, arms, shoulders, throat, jaw, face, eyes and scalp. Be sure to include your jaw as it is a common place to hold stress. The scalp is another area to focus on keeping relaxed. Although not proven, a tensed scalp is proposed to be one of the main causes of hair loss.
  •  When you have completed tensing and relaxing these main areas in your body, you will feel completely relaxed, physically and mentally. This is a great way to relax before going to bed.
  • Learning what a completely relaxed body feels like is the first step in recognizing a tensed body. As the feeling of a relaxed body becomes more familiar to you, you will want to feel that way all the time and this will spill over into how you run.   

How to Relax While Running

As you learn how it feels to relax your muscles, you will be able to recognize when they are tense. Most of us are not aware of how tense we hold our body especially while running. We can only consciously relax our muscles when we first recognize that they are tight. This is why it is so beneficial to experience a truly relaxed body.

Relaxed muscles perform better than tensed muscles. We can learn to maintain this relaxed feeling while running. Take a moment from time to time to scan your body for tension while running. With practice, you will be able to quickly relax any part of your body that feels tight; and eventually, you will always maintain a relaxed body.   

"In all activities of life, the secret of efficiency lies in an ability to combine two seemingly incompatible states: a state of maximum activity and a state of maximum relaxation."

-- Aldous Huxley


5 Ways to Practice Relaxing While Running

  1. Notice how your body feels when you are running up hills. Do you notice any tension in your shoulders, chest, face, jaw, hands, or anywhere else? At times when we are using more effect, such as running hills or speed work, we tend to become more tense, but it is not necessary or beneficial. We can still train hard and fast and allow our muscle to stay relaxed at the same time. 

  2. Do you ever get nervous about slipping or tripping and falling? If you are nervous and you fall, the nervous tension you are holding in your body greatly increases the risk of injury.  Do your best to relax your body in these situations. Then, if you do go down, it won't hurt so much. 

  3. A quick and simple way to relax is to smile while running!  It will instantly help you feel more relaxed.

  4. Certain breathing techniques can also help us to relax while running. As tension usually creates irregular breathing patterns, coordinating footsteps with our breath can help. Try this simple technique to help regulate your breathing and relax your body:

    i) While breathing in, take two steps.
    ii) While breathing out, take two steps.
    iii) Repeat.

  5. You don't need to do this aloud, but try talking to your body. Tell it to RELAX! This can be most beneficial when you feel a tightening in one particular area, such as the knee, hip, or IT band. Direct your focus to that particular area and consciously help it relax. Our bodies are very obedient and will listen and respond when we give them focus.

For more ways to learn how to relax while running, try these: 

Relaxation Exercises for Runners

Want to learn more about VO2? Check out the: VO2 Max Calculator


Other related articles and pages:

Running and Meditation

Relaxation Tips


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