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Are Your Injuries Caused by Tightness or Weakness?

As a runner, you're no stranger to the occasional pain and discomfort that comes with pounding the pavement. Whether it's a nagging calf strain or a tight hamstring, these injuries can be frustrating and put a halt to your training. But have you ever wondered if the root cause of these issues is actually tightness or weakness? In this guide, we'll explore the difference between muscle tightness and weakness, and provide you with practical tests and treatments to address these issues. So lace up your running shoes and let's dive in!

Athlete stretching her hips

A Runner's Guide Muscle Tightness vs. Weakness

When it comes to running injuries, the evidence overwhelmingly points to overuse as the leading cause. Overuse injuries occur when the demands placed on your body exceed its capacity to handle them. However, the sensations of tightness and weakness often get conflated, leading to confusion about the true nature of the problem.

Muscle Tightness: A Deceptive Sensation

Tightness, in the context of running, refers to muscle shortening. It's commonly associated with discomfort and restricted range of motion. However, it's important to note that tightness can present as weakness due to the inability of the muscle fibers to fully contract eccentrically (opening) which is needed to absorb forces (such as the foot hitting the earth during running).  When the muscle doesn’t open or close fully, it presents as weakness.  If the muscular restriction can be relieved and the muscle retrained to fully contract the potential for significant increase in strength is restored. 

Tight muscles often masquerade as weak muscles due to neurological changes within the muscle. When a muscle isn't contracting enough to perform its required functions, it will overload the muscle fibers that are working causing injury. 

Muscle Weakness: The Hidden Culprit

Weakness, on the other hand, refers to the inability of a muscle to generate sufficient force to perform its intended function. Weak muscles can be the underlying cause of tightness and discomfort, even though the muscles themselves may measure normal in length. Strengthening these weak muscles is crucial to addressing the root cause of the problem.

Testing for Tightness and Weakness

To determine whether your pain and discomfort are caused by tightness or weakness, it's important to perform specific tests for each muscle group. Here, we'll focus on three common areas of tightness in runners: hamstrings, calves, and hip flexors.

Hamstrings: Stretching vs Strengthening

The hamstrings play a vital role in running, responsible for slowing the forward motion of your hip as you bring your leg forward and pushing your hip back after landing. Many runners report hamstring tightness, but it's essential to differentiate between tightness and weakness.

To test for hamstring tightness, lie on your back with both legs out straight. Bend one leg so that your thigh is perpendicular to the ground, and try to straighten your knee. If your lower leg comes within 30 degrees of forming a straight line with your thigh, flexibility isn't a problem.

If flexibility isn't the issue, you're better off focusing on strengthening your hamstrings rather than stretching them. Exercises like deadlifts and leg curls can help build strength in these muscles. Incorporating these moves into your training routine will not only improve your hamstring strength but also alleviate any feelings of tightness.  The best way to address both issues of tightness and weakness is to perform deadlifts and leg curls with focus on a quick concentric contraction and a slow eccentric contraction of up to 8 seconds.  This will ensure maximum shortening (generates force) and a full ROM lengthening (absorbs force) that will give you strength and flexibility.

Calves: Flexibility and Strength

The calves are crucial for propelling you forward while running. Often, runners complain of tightness in their calves, even when their ankle mobility is adequate. To determine whether your calves are tight or weak, try the following test.

Stand four inches from a wall and lunge your knee towards it without lifting your heel or allowing your lower leg or foot to twist. Your ankle will lock out without any calf discomfort. If you pass this test, strength may be the issue.

Strengthening your calves is essential for all runners, regardless of whether tightness is present. Aim to perform single leg calf raises to fatigue while taking 6-8 seconds to fully lower the heel to the floor (absorbing shock) and a 1-2 second concentric contraction (generating force) to fully shorten the muscle in order to improve strength and flexibility simultaneously.

Hip Flexors: Weakness in Disguise

The hip flexor group is responsible for driving your leg forward while running. Tightness in the hip flexors can shorten a runner’s stride and cause back pain. To test your hip flexor length, try the following:

Sit on the edge of a firm table, bring the right leg into your chest, and let the left leg fall towards the table as you lie back.  If you feel a pinch in the front of your right hip you likely have hypertrophy of the hip flexor due to muscle tightness.  At the same time the left thigh should easily reach the table without any discomfort. If not, the left hip flexor is tight.  Both tests are interchangeable and will be confirmed with both tests.   If your hip flexibility is adequate, focus on strengthening your hip flexors to address any weakness.  If hip flexibility is restricted, first focus on full lengthening of the muscles before performing repetitive shortening exercises such as crunches and hip flexor shortening exercises.  Remember, runners use their hip flexors much more than their hip extensors.  People do NOT become weak from exercising too much, they become tight and that tightness presents as weakness.  

Lying on the ground with a resistance band around your feet, bend your knee and pull your leg into your chest against the resistance. This exercise can help strengthen your hip flexors and alleviate any feelings of tightness.

Treatment Strategies for Tightness and Weakness

Now that you've identified whether your pain and discomfort are caused by tightness or weakness, it's time to explore treatment strategies to address these issues. Here, we'll delve into various approaches to help you recover and prevent future injuries.

Stretching for Tightness

If you've determined that your tightness is due to muscle shortening, incorporating stretching exercises into your routine can be beneficial. Here are some key stretches for the hamstrings, calves, and hip flexors:

Hamstring Stretch: Stand with one foot slightly in front of the other. Keep your back straight and hinge forward at the hips, reaching towards your toes. Hold the stretch for about 2 seconds on each leg, perform 10 reepetitions.

Calf Stretch: Sit on the floor.  Keep one knee locked by contracting the quadriceps muscles.  Pull foot back with anterior foot-ankle muscles.  Assist with a strap, rope or the hands. Hold for 2 seconds on each leg, preform 10 reps.

Hip Flexor Stretch: Begin in a kneeling position with one knee on the ground and the other leg bent at a 90-degree angle. Lean forward, keeping your back straight, until you feel a stretch in the front of your hip.  Contract the gluteus maximus (buttock) and upper hamstring muscles. Hold for at least 2 seconds on each leg, repeat 10 times.

Strengthening for Weakness

To address weakness in the muscles causing tightness, incorporating strength training exercises into your routine is crucial. Here are some key exercises to target the hamstrings, calves, and hip flexors:

Hamstring Strengthening: Deadlifts and leg curls are excellent exercises to build hamstring strength. Perform these exercises with proper form and gradually increase the weight over time while focussing on full ROM 8 second eccentric contractions to fatigue.  The goal is to be able to perform at least 10 reps but no more than 15 (if you can’t do 10 reps the weight is too heavy, if you can do more than 15 reps you should increase the weight).

Calf Strengthening: Calf raises are a simple yet effective exercise for strengthening the calves. Perform them on both legs, and gradually increase the number of repetitions and sets as your strength improves.  Drop the heel for a count of 8 seconds and lift back up in 1-2 seconds, repeating until you feel your desired level of fatigue.

Hip Flexor Strengthening: Resistance band exercises, such as leg pulls and hip raises, can help strengthen the hip flexors. Focus on proper form and gradually increase the resistance as your strength improves.  Perform all abdominal crunches on an exercise ball to allow the hip flexors to fully lengthen.  

Eccentric Strength Training: Targeting Weaknesses

In addition to traditional strength training exercises, incorporating eccentric training can be beneficial for targeting weaknesses. Eccentric exercises involve lengthening the muscle under tension, which can help improve strength and prevent injuries.

For example, performing eccentric hamstring exercises like Nordic curls or Romanian deadlifts can specifically target the hamstrings and improve their strength. Similarly, eccentric calf exercises such as slow eccentric heel raises can effectively strengthen the calves.

Comprehensive Training Plan

To optimize your recovery and prevent future injuries, it's important to incorporate a comprehensive training plan that includes a balance of strength training, stretching, and rest days. Consider consulting with a qualified professional to develop a personalized plan that addresses your specific needs.

Injuries caused by tightness or weakness can be a common setback for runners. By understanding the distinction between muscle tightness and weakness, you'll be equipped to address the root cause of your pain and discomfort. Through a combination of targeted testing, stretching, and strengthening exercises, you can optimize your recovery and prevent future injuries. So, listen to your body, take the necessary steps to address any tightness or weakness, and keep running strong!


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