Feel stiff when you gingerly step out of bed in the morning? Got a back that feels decades older than you think it should? Here’s why feeling stiff in the morning is actually pretty normal.
If you’re anything like me, getting out of bed is the hardest part of the day. It’s not that I’m tired – it’s a crunchy sort of stiffness that has me hobbling like a 90-year-old to the bathroom at 7am. At 31, I should be springing out of bed like a newborn lamb and yet, my tendons feel like they might rip with every step I gingery take.
What’s going on? Is this morning stiffness normal for someone in their 30s – someone who walks 10,000 steps a day and works out at least five days a week? Why do we get stiff in the morning and what can we do to reduce that feeling?
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Feeling stiff – age or lifestyle?
The good news is that stiffness isn’t necessarily age thing – it’s can be a lack of movement thing. Rushabh Savla, physiotherapist and founder of R&D Physio, explains: “As we are inactive for the longest period of time when sleeping, it can lead to the feeling of stiffness in the morning.”
That stiffness we feel, he says, “is merely a sign that the body needs to move. Acid-sensing ions in the body trigger a response to notify the body to move or increase the blood flow to the area – hence why we get uncomfortable sitting or lying in one position.”
Physio Lucy Sacarello goes further, by explaining that you can experience stiffness as a result of inactivity, aging or joint surface changes (a common sign of arthritis), but that often, athletes will report feeling very tight in their muscles too. “There are two different reasons that your muscles can feel tight,” she tells Stylist.
“Often, that sensation of muscular tightness is the result of those muscles being weaker than the demand/ strain that has been put on them.”
Why does stiffness happen?
It may sound counterintuitive (being really stiff can feel like you’re injured sometimes), but Sacarello says that stiffness can actually “reduce injury risk” – particularly with tendons.
“You want an element of stiffness to ensure that the tendons store energy and allow propulsion (driving forwards) in the running gait. Someone with a reduced capacity to store this (ie someone who is ‘bouncy’) is more likely to get injuries in their Achilles, for example.”
And of course, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can also be responsible for morning aches and pains. If that’s the case (and you’ll probably know because it’ll follow a tough workout and probably be located in the areas that you specifically worked), then getting a good night’s sleep and focusing on nutrition and hydration is a good place to start with easing any aches.
Common sites of stiffness
For me, my stiffness is largely concentrated in the Achilles tendons, calves and feet – perhaps predictably as a runner currently training for the London Marathon. But for others, “a commonly stiff area tends to be our spine,” says senior physio Hollie (who goes by the IG handle @physiofithollie).
“Our spines are designed to move often, so long periods of inactivity such as sleeping can cause our spines to stiffen up. Another area can be the Achilles but this is more likely if you already have an Achilles tendinopathy, as stiffness is a common symptom of this.” That issue is especially common in runners and jumpers, and has several symptoms (according to Bupa), including stiffness in the tendon, swelling at the back of the ankle, tenderness when you touch the tendon and a creaking feeling when you move your ankle.
If that sounds like you (and it certainly sounds like me), there are things you can do to ease the pain. Reducing the amount you run and upping the number of gentle stretches you do might be a start. Running on a level surface (rather than up or downhill) may also help, as may applying ice to reduce the swelling.
Tendinopathy is an issue within the running community; according to a 2020 study that was published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medical Science Sports, 5% of runners who registered for a Dutch running event reported having Achilles tendinopathy (AT). Of that 5%, a third reported persistent symptoms a year after developing the issue. Interestingly though, the study found that running a higher distance per week before new-onset AT seemed to lower the risk of developing symptoms – potentially suggesting that regular movement is your best preventative.
Working out while stiff
I tend to do my workouts in the morning and it takes me a long time when I run before work to get rid of the aching. When I run in the evenings, it feels less painful. So, does that mean that we should wait until our fascia has woken up to move vigorously?
Savla says that this idea of having to wait until later in the day for the body to ‘wake up’ is a myth: “Here lies one misconception in the fitness world. There is no evidence to show the best time to work out or for fascia lubrication.”
Instead, he suggests that getting into a dynamic warm-up is the key. “That doesn’t mean you have to spend hours on a foam roller or any stretches before a gym session. Simple movements can help; if squatting is part of your workout, just pick up the bar or go with bodyweight and try to repeat warm-up sets to get going.”
For runners, that might mean leg swings, walking lunges, knee drives and good morning moves, or doing a simple mobility session that includes gentle exercises like cat-cow, prayer stretch or, as Salva suggests, “putting the music on and dancing!”
Hollie agrees that “doing some gentle movement first thing in the morning can help to increase the blood flow around our bodies.” The benefit of working out when you wake up, she says, is that you’ll “reduce body stiffness earlier in the day, which can help you feel better and looser for the remainder of the day,” but that there is “no right or wrong time to exercise.”
Sacarello, on the other hand, advises anyone suffering from stiff muscles to concentrate on strengthening those muscles: “That will enable them to push harder and perform better,” she explains. But it’s not just about priming them to deal with heavier loads: “The lengthening component of every muscle contraction will allow the muscle fascicles to lengthen – which is more longer lasting than any static stretch.”
Should we worry about being mega stiff?
Fundamentally, feeling achy in the mornings is nothing to worry about and in fact, is probably a sign that you’re more used to moving during the day. Salva explains: “Our bodies are designed to move every 30 minutes or so and that’s one of the reasons why you may feel stiff if you’re getting up.” Especially after an eight-hour kip.
But it’s worth saying that if you still feel really stiff – even after you’ve done your stretching, gone for a walk, improved your sleeping regime and optimised your nutrition and hydration – and you’re still in pain after 30 minutes of being up and on your feet, consult a physio or your GP to rule out anything more sinister at play such as inflammatory conditions or musculoskeletal issues – including Achilles tendinopathy.
Loosen up stiff legs, backs and wrists with a 15-minute mobility workout from the Strong Women Training Club.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.
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