Unexpected muscle tightening when you walk can signal a few different issues. That tightness could be a sign of injury or the result of muscle cramps. Your muscles might also feel tight if they're sore from a previous workout or if you're not very flexible — although you can change that.
Muscle Tightening Equals Soreness?
If you only notice muscle tightening in the day or two after a tough walking workout, you might be experiencing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), a natural side effect of tackling a tough new workout. Even if you didn't increase your walking distance, you might find yourself feeling unexpectedly sore if you upped your walking pace or tackled terrain that is steeper or more uneven than usual.
As the American College of Sports Medicine explains, DOMS usually comes on within 12 to 24 hours after your workout and peaks from 24 to 72 hours after the exercise that caused it. It won't typically come back if your body has adapted to the new workout.
But if being stiff and sore after your workouts is a regular occurrence for you, it might signal that you're walking too far or fast too soon for your current fitness level. If you usually lead a sedentary lifestyle but have decided to remake your health and fitness choices, it can be tempting to go from zero to walking hero in one day. But you'll have more success in the long run — and feel better doing it — if you start with whatever you're capable of now, then gradually increase your walking distance or speed as your body adapts.
Certain medical conditions and medication side effects can contribute to muscle or joint soreness too. If you continue to experience unexplained muscle tightness and soreness in relation to your walking workouts, chat with your doctor about what might be causing it.
If you find that muscle soreness becomes debilitating or is accompanied by dark urine, decreased urine output, swelling or weakness, seek immediate medical attention. As MedlinePlus explains, these are possible symptoms of a serious medical condition called rhabdomyolysis. Although often associated with extreme exertion, "rhabdo" can also be brought on by severe dehydration, extremes of body temperature and certain genetic conditions.
Other Causes of Leg Pain
If you've noticed that your legs tighten when walking but loosen up immediately once you stop, could it be stress? Take a few deep breaths and try to relax as you walk, focusing on maintaining a natural, even stride. Don't stress about walking fast or far; just try to let your body find its own rhythm. If you take the mental pressure off, you might find that walking helps ease muscle tightness instead of causing it.
You can also try switching up the terrain you're walking on: A flat, level surface is the best place to start. Wait until you feel strong, relaxed and comfortable on that easy terrain before you add in hills or uneven terrain like hiking trails.
If your muscles only tighten when walking, this might also signal a gait abnormality or muscular imbalance; a doctor or physical therapist can help evaluate your walk and determine a course of treatment. In some cases, a change as simple as getting a new pair of running or walking shoes can change your gait and alleviate that muscle tightness.
Finally, there's always a chance that tight, achy muscles are the result of an illness; body aches can be a symptom of both the common cold and influenza.
Watch Out for Injuries
Sometimes, muscle tightness signals an injury. The aforementioned DOMS is actually considered a very mild injury to your muscles. But more serious muscle strains or pulled muscles can cause tight, sore muscles too.
A pulled muscle is often accompanied by sharp, stabbing pain. Other symptoms may include pain or tenderness, swelling, redness, bruising, limited range of motion and muscle weakness or spasms. In severe cases, a muscle strain might even produce an audible "pop" as part of the muscle, or the tendon that connects muscle to bone, gives way.
As the Mayo Clinic explains, mild strains can usually be treated at home using the RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) first aid protocol. However, they recommend that you see a doctor if your symptoms don't improve with treatment or are accompanied by numbness or tingling.
If you suddenly experience tight quads, hamstrings or tight calves when walking, it's also possible that you're experiencing a muscle cramp. Sometimes you'll even be able to see the muscle spasming involuntarily. This can be caused by a number of factors, including dehydration, magnesium or potassium deficiency or simply skipping a warm-up. As noted by Harvard Health Publishing, decreased circulation, medication side effects and even cold temperatures can contribute to cramping.
If your muscles spasm, do everything you can to take weight off the muscle and give it a chance to relax. As noted by Harvard, you can gently stretch it to your tolerance, but don't try to force it past that point.
An Ounce of Prevention
Walking is a relatively mild form of exercise. Aside from the occasional soreness that might result from tackling a trek that's steeper, faster or longer than you're used to, it shouldn't leave you hurting or suffering from tight muscles. You can help keep your leg muscles relaxed with the following three steps:
Warm up before you work out. At least five to 10 minutes of gentle activity will do the job. Ideally, your warm-up should simulate the workout you're about to do, so you can simply start your workout at an easy walk and then gradually ramp up the intensity for the first five minutes.
Cool down at the end of your workout. Think of this like a reverse warm-up — do another five or 10 minutes of gentle walking or other activity at the end of your workout. This helps your body "ramp down" from a state of exertion to a state of relative rest, and it may help reduce muscle soreness.
Stretch regularly. Flexibility is an important, but often underappreciated, component of fitness. Taking the time to stretch two or three times a week can help reduce your risk of getting tight muscles from walking or other exercises; improve your overall range of motion and ease of daily activities; and diminish your risk of injury. You should always warm up before you stretch, or do your stretching immediately after your walking workouts so your muscles are already warm.