Getting fit is rarely the problem. It does not take a genius to get an athlete in good physical shape. The problem arises when we need someone to be ready to race at a specific time. We’ve all experienced a race where we completely fell apart from the start of the race and felt completely off, despite going into the race with training going well. How does it happen?

If I knew exactly, I’d be a genius, but one thing that could play a role is muscle tension. It partly explains why we feel good one day and flat the next. Have you ever wondered why most coaches have you do strides the day before a race? Through experience, most have figured out that if you do just a little faster stuff the day before a race, you feel really good the next day. One of the reasons is muscle tension.

So, what is this mysterious muscle tension? This might anger some of the scientists types, but its best to keep things simple. We can get incredibly complex on explaining what resting muscle tension is and how it can be altered, but when we do that it loses it’s practicality in application to the real world. With that in mind, here’s the useful simplified way to look at muscle tension.

Within your muscle fibers, theirs an optimal length for force production. This is known as the length-tension relationship and it varies considerably based on a lot of factors. So, in simplistic terms if it’s 10% too low, you might only be able to generate 90% force, while if it’s 10% too high, you will generate less force.

Here’s a graph that kind of demonstrates the concept:

Your body controls the resting tension through a variety of mechanisms, mainly through muscle spindles. If you want an example of this, go sit on your bed with legs extended for a while. When you get up and jog around, your quads are tight. Why? Because they’ve been shortened for a long time because of the way you were sitting. Similarly, what happens after u sit in a car or airplane for a while? Your hamstrings are tight because they’ve been in a shortened position for a while. Because these muscles have been in shortened state for a while the body adjusts the resting tension. These are examples in a passive state, but it works very similarly in a dynamic state like running.

For running think of it like this, if we do a lot of long slow running or even a lot of threshold like running, the body is not worried about high force development, it is worried about efficiency. The length/tension needed for maximal force development is going to be different than that needed for a lot of medium force contractions. Your body is amazing at adapting so if you do a lot of work where only moderate contractions of mainly Slow Twitch and a little Fast Twitch-a fibers, then its going to adjust and optimize efficiency for this type of contraction. If you do this type of training continuously, then one day decide to perform a race that is much faster (let’s say 1500m pace) then your muscles are pre-conditioned to be most efficient at a lot of moderate contractions. Thus, you feel flat for that 1500m. Your tension wasn’t right going into it.

Applying this to running and peaking:
You know how you feel super bouncy or have a pop in your stride or you feel flat? That’s muscle tension. If you feel supper bouncy, you’re tension is probably pretty dang high. If you feel really flat and non-responsive, your tension is probably pretty dang low.

The last week or so before the big race, you’re not going to gain any fitness, so why workout and not just rest? Wouldn’t it make sense to just store up all that energy and be ready to race? Well, if you’ve ever backed off too much for a race, you know what happens. You feel horribly flat. The reason: you screwed this whole tension relationship up. The last week is about altering tension, not gaining fitness. It’s about getting a runner to the line with his muscles in the optimal place.

What’s optimal? It depends completely on the race and the person. In general, the shorter the event, the higher the tension needed. Contrasting this, the longer the race, lower the tension needed. This only makes sense if we think it about it logically. Having tension that is for high force might be great, but is it most efficient for an activity that takes a lot of small contractions? No. Similarly, with sprint events, having tension that is optimal for max force may seem like a great idea, but if it’s too high, then it might take longer to contract, thus a decrease in power. Not something we want.

And it is going to vary for each individual. Each individual will have a different fiber type make up that will alter his optimal tension. If we have an individual with a lot of Fast Twitch fibers, he’s probably going to need to be at a higher tension than someone with a lot of ST fibers, even if they are running the same race.

So how do you alter tension in running?

Increase it-
-Sprint work, both flat sprints and hill sprints
-Ballistic/Power work (think med ball throws, squat jumps,etc)
-faster Pace/rhythm work (i.e. for 5k runner, 1mi pace work)
-running in spikes, on harder surfaces

Decreases it-
-longer duration work
-Very taxing workouts (i.e. “anaerobic 400’s)
-threshold work
-moderate paced aerobic running
-soft surface running (sand, heavy grass, wood chip trails)

Now the above workouts will alter tension to a varying degree. Generally, the things listed first will impact a bigger alteration in tension than the things listed later.

Now modifying it and getting it right on the exact day is a work of art. It’s hard to do. As a coach, you’ve got to be acutely aware of how the runner looks and feels. Look at their stride to see how responsive it is and ask the runners how it feels.
To what degree you alter tension depends on how far out you are from the competition. What I’ve found works best is if big changes are needed in altering tension, go for them further out from the race, then as the days get closer, go for small/tweaking changes. This generally works much better than waiting till the day before to try and make big changes in tension.

In looking at training there are a few options:
1. Increase tension dramatically- Sprints or hill sprints for example.
2. Increase tension slightly- ex: 8×200 at 2mi down to 1mi pace
3. Tension is good-maintain- either do race pace work, or blend work that has athletes do some moderate running and some fast running (ex: fartlek with 5min moderate segments to start and end with 10sec segments fast)
4. Decrease tension slightly- short threshold run
5. Decrease tension dramatically.- long run or long threshold run

What you do depends on what the athlete needs and how far out you are from a race. As I said, go for big changes far out (3-7days) and small changes closer. If big changes are needed closer to a race, know how an athlete reacts to certain types of training. I.e. he might get sore from flat sprints so while that may raise tension, it makes him sore so its useless. Generally with distance runners, you’ll almost never use option 5, unless it’s for a marathon. Below I’ll give you some examples of how this works:

If it’s monday and an athlete is crazy bouncy, well, you might do something that slightly lowers tension, i.e. a short threshold run, then come back wed or thurs. with some short pace work, i.e. 200s at 3200 down to mile pace. The threshold run lowers tension, then later in the week, the pace work maintains tension or prevents the continued lowering from the threshold work combined with easy distance running.

If it’s tuesday or wed. and they look pretty good, you might just do something to maintain. A combo of sorts. My favorite is 5min medium, 5 easy, 5 medium, 5 easy, 5min of 10sec sprint 50sec easy. Then strides the day before to raise tension a little and your good.

If it’s early in the week and they look flat. faster work or sprint time. You have to be careful with sprints because if they haven’t done it in a while they’ll get sore, so that would take away from the purpose.

Generally with true distance runners it’s about raising tension b/c the mileage we do keeps it pretty low. Middle distance guys are a little more dicey.

Tension should also play a role in the pace of the strides done the day before a race.

I’ll give you guys an example of when I nailed it with Ryan. Going into NXN south, Ryan was flat. Granted I’m not present so it’s even harder to adjust tension. But anyways, he was flat on that sunday, monday. So, the only workout we did was tuesday. A mile in 4:33 on trails, then 5x 8-10sec hill sprints. The mile was just there to get some confidence and keep the body reminded of what it feels like to work pretty good and get out fast and relaxed. The real key was the hill sprints. Just 40-50seconds of total work. But they alter tension a lot. Come saturday, his legs felt great and he had his best race of the year. Now if only it was always that easy.

I’d like to acknowledge the work of Marius Bakken who first got me interested in this topic several years ago.  Since then it’s been a lot of practical fine tuning to come up with a system that has worked with my runners.

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    1. RICK'S RUNNING on March 25, 2010 at 6:59 pm

      Great article Steve, learning an aweful lot from your posts, Cheers :]

    2. Patrick Ward on March 26, 2010 at 12:14 am

      Great advice, Steve.

      This applies to all sports as well. A lot of my beach volleyball guys will rest the day before a tournament and feel totally flat and slow until after the first two matches that morning.

      So, I have been having them get to the gym on friday and do some low-volume power work (low intensity jumps/hops and med. ball work) for a short workout, and they generally come out pretty ready to rock on the day of the competition.


    3. stevemagness on March 26, 2010 at 3:15 pm

      Thanks Rick and Patrick.

      Good points Patrick. The concept applies to all sports. It's pretty interesting how quickly our bodies react to "backing off". Common sense would tell you to rest and back off for competition, but if we back off too much it's like our bodies overcompensate and go into rest/hibernation mode.

    4. RICK'S RUNNING on March 27, 2010 at 10:01 am

      Hi Steve,
      I wonder if I can be a bit cheeky and ask you if you can look at my video of me running along, I've been working hard at improving my running mechanics using your recommended method.
      I can see a few faults; my head is looking down and I'm bending forward at the waist a bit.
      Have you got any advice, comments please.
      Cheers Rick

    5. Anonymous on March 27, 2010 at 7:50 pm

      I think i just experienced this concept of muscle tension.

      i took a day off before a race yesterday.

      felt flat for the 1500 (4:46), ran an 800 first time in 2 years (2:15), and 3000 i pr'ed leading the whole race and after running the 800 the first time. (10:25)

    6. Eric Richey on March 30, 2010 at 3:34 pm


      Thanks for this post – highly informative and helpful. In a related topic, I am curious about your views on the competition warm-up. What do you have your guys do? Can muscle tension be positively / negatively impacted by the nature of the warm-up? I know the goal should always be to keep it simple, but what are your thoughts on this?

    7. Anonymous on March 31, 2010 at 12:07 am

      This was a very informative article. Thank You.

      I have heard of varying workouts specifically during XC season before a big race. For example, I believe Coach Joe Newton has his team run an all-out mile a few days before the state meet. However, this would seem to be a more anaerobic workout. In addition, it seems many teams run most of their workouts off of the track on softer surfaces during the bulk of their XC season, but move to the track toward the peak period. This seems to go along with your thoughts.

    8. steve on April 1, 2010 at 9:35 pm

      Great post I found this very interesting..

    9. RICK'S RUNNING on April 2, 2010 at 6:54 am
      I like your link on twitter on being aware of the 'GURU' I got sucked into both Pose and ChiRunning and they both turned out to be a load of crap, neither letting me run faster or decreasing my injury rate, infact both caused me injury!!!
      good advice.

    10. michaelchasetx on July 4, 2010 at 2:28 pm

      Steve, about the muscle tension … I have read before of some coaches having their sprinters back squat with medium weights, up to 65% of their 1RM, an hour before the race to 'grease the rails'. Have you studied the efficacy of that? thanks.

    11. Robert on March 11, 2011 at 5:03 pm

      Steve, your posts on muscle tension are intriguing, as so often with reading your blog I learn something new.

      With your articles on muscle tension you focus on the importance of keeping muscle tension up for race day, but don't talk about the role it has to play in day to day training. The role of muscle tension during training is something that I've pondered about since reading your article, but don't really have any answers, just more more question…

      The first area that I've pondered about is the whether having easy days alternating with hard days is a way of balancing muscle tension, so that you don't overload with tight muscles all the time.

      Second, might the warm down and stretching after a hard work out have a place in specifically lowering muscle tension that you've built up so it doesn't carry over in the next day?

      Finally does high muscle tension reduce the rate of recovery after hard workouts, and might increase the chance of an over use injury?

      These three questions led me to the hypothis that that one role that easy days, warm down and stretching "might" have in putting your body in a good state for recovery and avoiding over-use injuries.

      I haven't seen discussion about muscle tension in this context so please forgive me if I'm heading off in completely the wrong direction or rehashing well worn ideas. I would love your opinon on this topic so I can put to be my ponderings to rest.

    12. Mark E. on July 2, 2011 at 3:21 am

      Steve, I've got a fairly important 5k on Monday and did a tempo plus 200's workout today and was considering doing some hill sprints tomorrow or strides the day before and am having some issues trying to determine which would be more appropriate. I feel just about right today…Friday.

    13. Mladen Jovanović on October 22, 2011 at 10:32 pm

      Dear Steve, the late Charlie Francis was big on 'tone' management both in training and before comp. If I remember correctly, high tone can help with reactive strength needed in Vmax phase, but can negatively impact acceleration phase. Charlie also utilized different forms of massage to affect the tone.

      In soccer we also utilize 'tone' workouts the day before a match, which consists of some quick feet drills, short sprints and small sided games with great density (like 10v10 on half field).

      Keep up the great work!

    14. Anonymous on July 5, 2013 at 12:43 am

      With the rise and trends of foam rolling or self myofascial release, what are your thoughts on rolling prior to workouts? This would obviously reduce muscle tension, but should it be avoided in those that are not too tight, and used in those that are severely tight? Personally, I just simply do not have enough time to incorporate a full body rolling session before a running workout or weight lifting workout, so I may only roll for a couple of minutes.

      I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks!

    15. Patrick Begley on September 15, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      What if you have two xc races in one week. Sunday off, what to do on Monday and Tuesday with a 5k race on Wednesday and then a big 5K invitational on Saturday. (high school)

    16. Unknown on November 1, 2015 at 4:03 pm

      Steve what should I do before my race

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    19. Nathan on May 26, 2018 at 7:35 pm

      Great article. I highly encourage athletes seeking to run faster to research what glutathione is. Every cell of the body produces it but as a 2:19 marathoner, I wish I would have learned about it earlier in my career. It is the body’s master antioxidant and detoxifies it. As we know, there is more to running than just putting in the miles. What are doing the other hours of your 24 hour day?

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