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Progressive Muscle Relaxation

One of my favorite podcasts by far (along with This American Life) is the Ben Greenfield Fitness podcast.  Ben Greenfield is an endless supply of awesome fitness and nutrition information.  Every morning when I’m getting ready for work, I get my daily dose of Mr. Greenfield and I always learn something new.  Today, a listener had called in with a question about his breathing (or inability to breathe) during his triathlon because he would get so nervous and tense.  In giving him advice, Ben mentioned a relaxation technique that many athletes use to help with the anxiety, muscle tightness, and working through those hard efforts.  It’s called progressive muscle relaxation.  I had no idea what this was so here I am asking myself…

What is progressive muscle relaxation? How does one do PMR and is it effective?

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique where a person tenses and releases the muscles in a particular order.  It attempts to increase the athlete’s self-awareness by making the athlete aware of the muscle contraction/relaxation sensations.  It is believed that once a person becomes aware of these sensations, anxiety is reduced and hence performance is improved.  The technique was introduced in the 1920s by Dr. Edmund Jacobson, and he claimed that since muscle tension and anxiety were related, one can reduce anxiety by reducing muscle tension.  For athletes, this method has proved beneficial by not only reducing anxiety (imagine how you feel before a big race), but also by reducing the perception of pain.  You become more aware of your body and tense muscles and are therefore better able to work through the uncomfortable feelings.

So how does it work?

To do PMR, find a nice quiet place and have a seat or lay down.  Relax your entire body and then begin my tensing the muscles in your right foot as tight as you can for 10 seconds.  Then release for 10 seconds and notice the difference between the feeling of a tense muscle and a relaxed muscle.  Continue this same process, moving up your body and isolating each muscle group.  Be sure to squeeze your muscles as tight as you can and then relax, really noticing the difference between tense and relaxed.  The end goal is to have your body as free from tension as possible.  Next, you can heighten your sense of relaxation by using visuals and colors.  When your muscles are tense imagine something unpleasant like a barbed wire, a sharp jagged material, or perhaps the color red.  As you release the tension, replace the image with something calm and smooth, like a wave or perhaps a cool color, such as turquoise or green.  Find the image that is most conducive to a relaxed state for you, and use that throughout the PMR process.

There is actually quite a bit of evidence supporting progressive muscle relaxation.  Studies have shown that in addition to pain management, it can reduce tension headaches, insomnia, and chronic pain in inflammatory arthritis. It has also been shown to help athletes perform better when under stress.  I don’t know about other people, but I know right before a race, my stomach is twisting and turning in a thousand different directions.  I need a chill pill, but I just can’t seem to get a grip. Perhaps if I start practicing PMR, I can get a grip on  things and literally just relax!


As I have been typing this, I have been squeezing my foot and relaxing and then squeezing my calf and relaxing.  Now I should probably be in a more relaxed state, but it is interesting to note the difference between tense and not tense.  And in the spirit of trying out new things, tomorrow I will begin my workout with my first attempt at progressive muscle relaxation.

Happy Trails and Happy Running,


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