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Stretches For Runners

There's an endless number of runners who seem perfectly able to squeeze in many hours of running every week but who just don't seem to have the time to stretch for five or ten minutes before and after. Find the time.

Sure, it's not as fun as hitting the road, and the benefits may not be as immediately obvious. But a good and consistent stretching program can save you a lot of trouble and keep you running when you might otherwise become injured. Along with training gently and choosing the right shoes, stretching is the most important thing you can do to protect your body from the rigors of the road. You'll also find that the benefits of stretching include reduced muscle soreness after running and even better athletic performance.

That said, you should be careful about how you stretch. If not done properly, stretching can actually cause injury rather than prevent it. Rule number one in stretching: do not bounce. It's a common mistake, but bouncing risks pulling or tearing the muscle you're trying to stretch and relax. Muscles must be stretched gradually. If a stretch is applied too quickly, the muscle responds with a strong contraction, increasing tension. If the stretch is applied slowly, however, this contraction reflex is avoided, muscle tension falls, and you may stretch the muscle further. The lesson here: stretch slowly and hold the stretch for 30 to 40 seconds.

Do not stretch beyond the point where you begin to feel tightness in the muscle. Do not push through muscle resistance, and never stretch to the point of discomfort or pain.

Build stretching into your regular schedule both before and after your daily run -- it's best to do your pre-run stretching after a gentle warmup run of five or ten minutes, since "warm" muscles stretch more easily.

Stretching can have a variety of benefits for runners when done properly. Before you try the following stretches, learn Why to Stretch After Warming Up, and read about the Most Common Running Injuries.


1. Standing Calf Stretch

Do this stretch after a good warm-up, and at the end of your runs. The calf, or gastrocnemius, muscle runs along the back of your lower leg. This muscle helps point the toes (plantar flexion) and contracts during sports the require powerful or explosive movements including sprinting, jumping, cycling or stair running. This muscle may be prone to injury, such as a calf pull or strain, if not properly warmed up or if it becomes weak from fatigue or overuse. A tight calf muscle may also be more prone to injury.

There are many different ways to stretch your calf, but here is a simple stretch you can do while standing.

  • Stand about an arm's-length from the wall.
  • Lean forward and place both hands on the wall about shoulder width apart.
  • Extend one foot (the side to be stretched) behind you with heel on the ground and one foot closer to the wall.
  • Lean into wall with your hips until you feel a stretch in the calf of the extended leg.
  • Hold this stretch for about 30 seconds and change sides.
  • For a deeper stretch, move your foot farther back.
  • This stretch is similar to the Achilles tendon heel stretch, however by keeping your knee straight you focus the stretch on the calf rather than the Achilles. 

2. Standing IT Band Stretch

The iliotibial (IT) band is a tough group of fibers that run along the outside of the thigh. It begins at the hip and extends to the outer side of the shin bone (tibia) just below the knee joint. The IT band acts primarily as a stabilizer during running and may become irritated from overuse. IT Band Syndrome is a common running injury that is generally due to inflammation and irritation of this band.

There are many different ways to stretch your IT Band including:

1. Advanced IT Band Stretch

2. Foam Roller for IT Band Pain

Here is a simple stretch you can do while standing.

  • Stand in a doorway with your left leg crossed in front of your right leg.
  • With your right arm extending overhead, reach for the left side of the door frame.
  • Put your left hand on your hip.
  • Push slightly on your left hip to move your hips to the right; you will feel a slight stretch along the right side of your torso.
  • Continue to stretch so you feel a complete stretch on the outer torso, hip, upper thigh and knee of your right leg.
  • Hold 20 to 30 seconds and change sides.
  • For a deeper stretch, keep your feet farther apart, bend the knee of your forward foot and keep the back knee straight.

3. Standing Quad Stretch

The quadriceps (quads) are a group of muscles along the front of the thigh. They consist of the quadriceps femoris, the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and the vastus intermedius.

This muscle group extends the leg while straightening the knee and is a primary mover in stair climbing and cycling. Injuries to the quariceps muscle are often caused by a strength or flexibility imbalance between the quadriceps and the hamstrings.

There are many different ways to stretch your quadriceps, but here is a simple one you can do while standing.

  • Stand on one leg (grab onto something solid if you need support).
  • Bend your knee and bring your heel toward your buttock.
  • Reach for your ankle with your hand.
  • Stand up straight and feel a slight pull along the front of your thigh and hip.
  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, release and repeat on the other leg.
  • Be careful not to strain your knee - the goal is not to touch your heel to the buttock, but rather to stretch the thigh.

4. Seated Hamstring Stretch

Because tightness in the low back and hamstrings is often related to muscle pain and stiffness in runners, stretch can help maintain good running form and reduce the risk of stiffness, pain and injury.

  • Remove your shoes and sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you with knees straight and feet flexed.
  • In a slow, steady movement, lean forward at the hips, keep you knees straight and slide your hand up your legs towards your toes as far as you can go.
  • Extend as far as you can, rest and repeat three times.

5. Hip Flexors and Psoas Stretch

The hip flexors are often overused in runners. These muscles pull the legs up toward the trunk and runners rely on these muscles, particularly when running uphill, so keeping the limber is essential.

There are several different exercises used to stretch the hip flexors and psoas muscles. These are two of the basic stretches to get you started.

Stretch One - Beginner Hip Flexor Stretch

  • Begin in a forward lunge position and place your hands on your knees.
  • Press down with your hands and extend the hips forward until you feel a stretch from the front of your hip, groin and thigh.
  • Hold the stretch for about 20-30 seconds, release and repeat on the other leg.

Stretch Two - Advanced Hip Flexor Stretch

  • Begin in a forward lunge position and drop your back knee to the floor.
  • Raise your arms and hands up over your head and look up.
  • Press your hips forward and down toward the floor and feel a stretch through your torso, hip, groin and thigh.
  • Hold the stretch for about 20-30 seconds, release and repeat on the other leg.

You can modify either of these stretches based upon your own anatomy, flexibility and limitations. Be sure to keep your forward knee over or behind your ankle and not in front of your ankle.

6. Simple Shoulder Stretch

Runners sometimes forget to stretch their upper body, but this basic shoulder stretch can be done quickly, so it's a good choice.

There are several different exercises used to stretch the shoulders. This is a simple stretch you can do anytime and anywhere.

Simple Shoulder Stretch

  • Begin standing up straight with shoulders relaxed and back.
  • Reach your right arm up over your head, bend your elbow and reach your hand behind your neck.
  • With your elbow pointing up to the sky, slide your right palm down to your back.
  • With your left hand, grip your right elbow and gentle pull it toward your ear.
  • Continue sliding your right palm down your back without straining.
  • Hold for 10-20 seconds and release.
  • Repeat with the opposite arm.
  • Be sure to keep your head up and resist the urge to bend your neck forward.

You can modify this stretch based upon your own anatomy, flexibility and limitations.


7. Plantar Fasciits Stretch

Runners who've had plantar fasciitis know how painful it is. By stretching the plantar fascia, a band of tough connective tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot to the heel you can help prevent such a debilitating injury.

The new stretch targets the plantar fascia and is performed by crossing the affected foot over the contralateral (other) leg and pulling the toes toward the shin, until a stretch in the arch is felt. The stretch is held for 10 seconds and repeated. Three sets of 10 repetitions are performed daily.  This is a change from the standard treatment that recommends the weight-bearing Achilles tendon stretch. When done before taking the first step in the morning, after prolonged sitting and at least three times a day, the stretch has shown to reduce pain significantly.


8. Advanced Piriformis Stretch

Runners can benefit from this advanced stretch, that is sometimes called the Pigeon Pose in yoga.

The Iliotibial (IT) Band is a tough group of fibers that run along the outside of the thigh and stabilizes the entire leg during activities such as running or stair-climbing. It begins at the hip and extends to the outer side of the shin bone (tibia) just below the knee joint.

Many runners experience IT Band friction syndrome due to inflammation and irritation of a tight, inflexible IT band. To prevent this common cause of knee pain it helps to perform regular IT Band stretches. There are many different ways to stretch your IT band. This is a more advanced stretch, that is sometimes called the Pigeon Pose in yoga. For a simpler stretch, see the Standing IT Band Stretch (#2).

Because this stretch is more advanced, it often helps if you loosen the IT Band by using a foam roller before doing this stretch

  • Start in a push-up position on your hands and toes.
  • Slide your right knee forward toward your right hand. Angle your knee so the outer ankle is touching the floor (see picture). 
  • Slide your left leg back as far as comfortable.
  • Keep your hips square to the floor.
  • You should feeling a deep stretch in your right hip and the outer thigh.
  • You can either stay up on your hands, or fold forward and let your forearms rest on the floor in front of you or fully extended your arm in front of you.
  • Breathe slowly and deeply from your belly. Hold the stretch 30-60 seconds and release. Repeat on the other leg.

9. Advanced Kneeling Quadriceps Stretch

Another way to get the quads stretched out after a run is this kneeling quad stretch.

  • Kneel with one leg forward and one leg back.
  • Reach back and get a firm grip on the foot of the back leg.
  • Slowly bend the knee and lift the foot off the ground and toward your buttock until you feel a stretch across the front of the hip and thigh.
  • Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, release and repeat on the other leg.
  • Be careful not to strain your knee.

10. Advanced Quad Stretch with an Exercise Band

This quad stretch is best done after your runs when you have some time to relax and get the most out of this long, slow stretch. This stretch can also be used to stretch the hip flexors and psoas muscles.

There are many different ways to stretch your quadriceps, but here is a more advanced stretch that many pro athletes use after a good warm up.

  • To get into the proper position, loop an exercise band around your arch while you are in a kneeling position.
  • Lay down on your belly, while holding the exercise band in one hand and off to your side (keeping some tension so the band stays on your foot)
  • Reach your arms out in front of you and grab the band with both hands as you bend the knee of the leg with the band on the foot.
  • Slowing apply tension to the exercise band until you feel a stretch along the front of your hip, quadriceps and entire thigh.
  • Be careful not to strain your bent knee. If you feel any discomfort in the knee joint, let go of some tension in the band.
  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, release and repeat on the other leg.
  • Keep in mind that the goal is not to touch your heel to your buttock, but rather to stretch the thigh.