Leg tightness is from lifestyle, just not the way I thought (I think)

When this lifelong non-athlete got too winded from walking up the stairs a few years ago, he decided to start doing something about it.  Exercising just for the hell of it, or for some long term health benefits didn’t seem to be motivating enough.  I instead directed that towards the one thing that I thought may work, attempting to run a 10K.  I thought a short term but doable goal would motivate me better than anything, and I was right.  But a 10K soon became a half, and now I’m on may way to starting to run my first full marathon.  While that has been good, one thing that has been concerning me is my perpetual muscle tightness.  I’ve talked it over with my PT several times and had some late night sessions with Doctor Google trying to figure it out, but it has been persistent.  I had hoped it was a lifestyle thing, and after the last week I think I’ve figured out that indeed it is, but not what I was originally expecting.

When I started running two years ago the tightness was easy for me to rationalize as being me getting the lead out and the typical muscle soreness that came with starting an exercise regiment.  By the time I had started training for the half marathon it was summer and I was running distances beyond which I had ever done before.  Between the two, I felt it was a similar problem: really working my muscles in ways they hadn’t been before and fighting through lots of fatigue from the heat. I was doing a reasonable training program with a low distance regime, but it still made sense to me that way.

All of my rationalizations went away when I took time off from running and slowly started adding it back in this spring.  I wasn’t doing huge mileage anymore.  My body was used to running far greater distances in the very recent past.  There was no heat, in fact I had to run indoors a lot because it was so cold.  Yet, unfortunately, the muscle tightness persisted.  After doing some not-so-long runs, like 6 miles, sometimes my legs would be tight for days.  I’m not looking to cause injuries to myself, either short term acute ones or long term repetitive stress ones, so I take it easy and try to stretch it out with yoga and some other stuff.  Still it seemed crazy to me that I was so tight, and also getting tight in other areas like my arms and lower back.

The biggest lifestyle choice that came to mind was the first one that did a year ago, too much diet soda.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t cause cancer, but the rest of the chemicals can’t be great.  Lots of sodium, potassium products, phosphorous products as well as the break down products for the artificial sweeteners are probably not good in the quantities I was consuming.  Without any research to back it up, I thought that perhaps that was messing with muscle chemistry in ways that I thought could lead to easy fatigue, cramping and tightness.  That honestly was one of the big impetuses for me to start my diet soda draw down earlier than I originally intended.  The second biggest lifestyle change was just being more consistent with stretching.  I have a desk job that doesn’t have me moving much at all.  Sitting around causes tightness in things like your hip flexors and other areas, especially with when I have bad posture posture.  I therefore was trying to be more mindful about getting stretches in through the morning and part of the day.  Despite all of this however I was stuck with this perpetual tightness.   I could at least stretch it out before my run to the point I was comfortable I was minimizing knee motion problems, but I was still concerned about it.

Fast forward now to my week of vacation up in Provincetown, MA (P-town).  They have some great places to run with beautiful scenic views.  I’ll post some pictures and maps later.  I had no intention of eating as clean as I should, or to limit my soda intake any less than was absolutely required by my draw down plan.  My running training however had to continue.  I was supposed to hit 13.1 miles on the first weekend there, and I was going to be sure to do that.  The last time I was running distances like that was last summer, and it was always brutal after those long run days.

My usual long run days back for my half marathon training consisted of doing the run in the early morning and then coming back to stretch out and shower up.  My legs and body feeling totally spent, I’d lay out on the couch for an hour or so.  My whole point was to minimize getting into a sitting position which would invariably cause hip and leg tightness. At least prone out on the couch I avoided that, plus I could put my legs up and help get some gravity assisted blood flow out of my legs.  Eventually I’d get up and move around a bit, but walking around was always unpleasant to say the least.  My partner and I would joke about it looking like I was pretending to walk like an 85 year old guy with knee problems, especially up and down stairs.  As I ramped up my running again this year, I used the exact same post-run routine.

I didn’t have this option in P-town however, and I was afraid that this would be my undoing.  Getting around P-town is either a biking or walking exercise.  To get anywhere was at least a quarter mile walk from where we were staying, and we were expecting to put on several miles a day from just getting around.  Flashing back to how tight I was, despite the above routine, even after running 8-9 miles, I was thinking it was pure masochism for me to try to do the full 13.1 on our first full day there.  I did it anyway though.  It wiped me out, I was thoroughly exhausted by the entire exercise, but I did it.

When I got back I stretched out, hydrated, showered up and ate a little, but that was it.  There was no time for me to do may typical post-run routine.  There was certainly no time for me to be minimizing how much we walked because he had lots of sites and people to see.  Lumbering off towards breakfast I felt every step of those first stairs down to the street, just as I always did after my workout.  However once we got going the tightness fell into the background and I continued my day as I would normally have anyway.  By the end of the day, we had tacked another 5 miles of walking onto the brutal 13 miles I ran in the morning.  I was not looking forward to the next morning of rigor mortis legs and trying to hobble around P-town like that.

The next morning however I woke up not to my perpetual muscle tightness, but to barely any soreness or tightness at all.  In fact when I went to do my morning stretching I was not much tighter than I was the morning before I did my 13 mile run.  Walking up and down stairs was as easy as it was the day before too.  I even got a good 10 mile bike ride in that day, along with walking another 5+ miles that day.  It then occurred to me that the lifestyle I need to change is not about diet soda, or stretching, it’s about moving.

Lack of motion is a chronic problem in our society, and I tried to address it with bursts of exercise.  That’s the formula most of us use anyway.  However that apparently isn’t enough.  The week of heavy walking, despite lots of running and exercises, my legs felt fine.  One day of doing nothing but sitting around, on the ride back, and the tightness was already starting to be apparent.  Today’s long run, of just 6 miles, felt fine, but my legs feel much tighter by the end of today than it did on that 13 mile day.  Incorporating far more motion and far less sitting then seems to be something that I have to seriously look at to help with addressing this tightness problem.  Factoring that into a desk job will be somewhat of an exercise practical planning however.  For long term health and mobility, not to mention minimizing discomfort during my marathon training, I don’t think I have any other choice though.