Sponsored by our partner, PSO-RITE
Sometimes, when you bag high-mileage runs and train hard, it hurts. It’s normal to ache as your body recovers, but there’s also much you can do to prevent chronic pain or injury. Smart Spartans already have a solid recovery routine that includes foam rolling and myofascial release, but what OCR athletes often overlook are the tougher, more internal muscles like the psoas: the key to your core.
A wound-up psoas can cause many structural issues from tight feet to sore hamstrings and chronic low back pain to a whipped upper body. Tight psoas muscles aren’t uncommon in high-volume runners (most athletes deal with them). However, without intentional rehab techniques to release tension, overtime, stiff psoas muscles can also contribute to poor posture, leg rotation issues, sciatica and even (believe it or not) bloating, constipation and a blocked lymphatic system. Not good when it comes to training long term. (And at Spartan, we’re all about the long game—we want to be flipping tires and shredding singletrack into old age.)
Here, Spartan-approved intel from our pro trainer on why tense psoas muscles cramp your style, how they happen and stretches to release it. Plus, try this innovative mobility tool to massage trigger points so you can get back to hacking it.
What is the Psoas Muscle & Why Does It Matter?
Your psoas is the deepest muscle in your core, and the only one which attaches your spine to your legs. So yeah, it’s kind of important. Spartan’s Director of Fitness Sam Stauffer says maintaining psoas health is all about balance—like most elements of a healthy training plan. “Being a great runner or athlete comes down to your energy systems and your skeletal/muscular systems working in conjunction with one another,” he says. “Meaning, if you have an incredible aerobic capacity but your body does not move well, you are leaving major gains on the table. And vice versa.”
Because the psoas plays such a vital role in performance, he says, it’s key to ensure it’s warmed up and cooled down pre and post exercise—even if that means stretching it multiple times throughout the day. “When the psoas gets tight, it pulls down on your vertebrae, adding extra stress to your back,” Stauffer says. “If your back is taking the fall for your hips, then so will your performance.” In fact, 80% of Americans will experience lower back pain in their lifetime, much of which could be attributed to a tight psoas, a symptom of a sedentary lifestyle, overtraining (or mix of both), according to a recent study in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.
“The majority of these folks may very well be able to relieve their back pain by paying more attention to their core and hips,” says Stauffer. “When the psoas pulls on the vertebrae, it brings your hips into what's called an anterior pelvic tilt (your hips tilt forward).” In addition to causing back pain, this puts excess pressure on your hamstrings. “A lot of people like to blame their hamstrings for being tight when the reality is there is usually a much deeper problem at play.”
The Most Common Culprit for a Tense Psoas...
Habits like sleeping in the fetal position and hunching over at a computer don’t help. “You should really address your lifestyle first, otherwise, it will be a constant battle of putting your psoas into a compromised position and stretching it back out day in and day out,” Stauffer says.
The psoas, a giant hip flexor, pulls your knees up to your hips to complete every action from walking and running, to driving or sitting at a desk. “If your knees are up toward your chest, your psoas is working,” he says. Unfortunately for athletes in sedentary jobs, the psoas becomes overactive (a.k.a. tight) from spending hours in a seated position.
PRO TIP: Stauffer recommends making a conscious effort to move every 20-30 minutes to help combat psoas tightening. “For example, I work in a multi-story building, so when I print something, I send it to a different floor so I have to get up and get moving throughout the day,” he says. “The same goes for bathroom breaks. I almost always choose a bathroom on a different floor and always take the stairs.”
In addition to adjusting your lifestyle, you should also stretch it regularly as part of your recovery routine. This does wonders, especially when you are in high-volume training or prepping for a Spartan Race. Why? Because other than soreness and fatigue from crushing it, you deserve to train sans pain. “[Chronically tight psoas muscles] are something I see often,” says Stauffer. “But after a few months of dedicated work, I've seen life-changing results. Literally life-changing results. To be able to move pain free is the ultimate gift. Trust the process.”
2 Psoas Stretches Spartan Swears By
Here are two of Stauffer’s favorite psoas release stretches to recover faster, avoid injury and optimize performance. Use them daily. Remember: small tweaks offer the biggest gains.
1. Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
Start in a half-kneeling stance—one knee on the ground, the opposite knee bent at 90 degrees with the foot planted. Squeeze your glutes as tightly as you can, engage your core, and reach the same arm of the planted knee up to the sky. From here you can rotate inward to stretch the psoas from all different directions.
PRO TIP: “The idea here is that you are keeping your hips neutral (level) and not leaning too far backward, promoting extension of the lower back,” says Stauffer. “If you are experiencing a tight psoas, hit this stretch a minimum of 30 seconds per side a few times per day. You'll thank yourself later.”
2. Spiderman Stretch (a.k.a. World's Greatest Stretch)
Start in a high plank position. Bring one foot to the same side hand and rest your back knee on the ground. This puts you into a stable and relaxed position, though you may feel a stretch at this point. To go deeper, press your hands into the ground and push your chest up.
PRO TIP: “You will feel this stretch all over, but it will be great for your psoas,” says Stauffer. “If you're super tight, hold this stretch for at least 30 seconds per side a few times per day.”
The Tight-Psoas Tool When Stretching Isn’t Enough
Because the psoas is so internal, it can be tough to loosen up with your usual arsenal of myofascial-release lacrosse balls and foam rollers. That’s where PSO-RITE’s signature psoas tool comes in handy. It’s shaped like a masseuse’s hand and is as hard as an elbow so it can apply enough pressure to soften muscle tissue and provide relief. It’s simple and aggressive, so work this mammoth of a muscle until you can’t take it anymore. Then, repeat.
If you’ve ever received a sports massage, chances are at some point during your session, your masseuse dug around along the sides of your abdomen. That’s the same idea here. By laying on top of the ridges and breathing deeply and evenly, you can harness the pressure applied via your bodyweight to work a tight psoas back into submission.
WATCH: How to Use PSO-RITE to Release Your Psoas
The Bottom Line: Skimp on Psoas Release, Suffer the Consequences
We sit for hours, then expect our bodies to power through workouts. Our psoas is constantly in overdrive. So adding psoas release to your recovery routine is a must if you want to stay active and avoid injury. “You have to give it some love,” says Stauffer. “The psoas plays a pretty crucial role in your day-to-day activities so it warrants some extra attention.” No excuses.