Running is a fantastic cardiovascular exercise.
I love to run, and it’s great knowing that it’s good for me too. But there’s a catch. (Isn’t there always a catch?) This high impact sport also puts a lot of stress on your body, especially on the lower limbs and joints.
The build-up of this stress can hinder flexibility and mobility in the lower body, which can in turn limit performance and increase your injury risk. You don’t want that, and I don’t want it for you.
The Road to Trouble
With every stride you take, your lower limbs are forced to flex and extend over and over to propel you down the road.
As you log more and more miles, your overworked muscles and tendons develop scar tissue, tension, and imbalances, compromising your running performance and increasing the risks of common overuse injuries such as Achilles tendonitis and IT Band Syndrome.
What’s the Takeaway?
There’s no question that running can give you lean, toned and enviable legs, but hitting the pavement isn’t enough, especially if you’re serious about staying pain- and injury-free for the long haul.
That’s why you’d need to have a regular stretching routine. It will counteract running’s stress effects.
Why is stretching vital?
Although not all research fully agrees, most serious runners (included yours truly) realize the importance of keeping a flexible body.
Stretching on a regular basis can help you build flexibility, relieve tension and prevent injury.
Unfortunately, most trainees overlook the importance of a good stretching routine for flexibility and injury prevention.
What Runners Need to Stretch
As a runner, you need to focus on three main areas:
(1) The hamstrings
(2) The quads
(3) The calves (including the gastronomes and soleus (deep) muscles
For better results, consider stretching your hip flexors and lower back too, especially if you suffer from any chronic hip and/or lower back pain.
How to Stretch
Studies show that stretching before a workout can compromise performance, and stretching when you’re stiff and cold can lead to a muscle tear. That’s why you should never stretch before a run.
If you feel like you need to stretch before a run, choose ballistic stretches (like those shown in this dynamic warm-up routine) to get your body loose and your muscles warmed up. But it’s always safer to stretch after a run, when your muscles are already loose and warm.
When stretching, hold each position between 30 seconds and one full minute on each side, and breathe deeply to release any tension. Don’t overstretch as doing too much forces your muscles to fight back, resulting in injury.
The Runner’s Stretching Routine
Without further ado, here’s a list of my favorite runners-friendly stretches.
Targeted Muscle: The Hamstrings
The hamstrings are prone to injury, especially among runners.
Tight hamstrings can lead to pulled muscles and lower back problems. They can also hinder range of motion, which limits running efficiency.
Here are two runner’s stretches to help you improve your hamstring’s flexibility and mobility.
1: Standing Single Leg Hamstring
- Stand with your feet hip-distance apart.
- Bend your right knee slightly and extend your left leg in front of you, pointing your toes up.
- Holding this position, lower your upper body towards your knee and reach your hands toward your left foot’s toes as far as you can.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds, then switch to the other side.
2: The Lying Hamstring Stretch
- Lie flat on your back with your legs extended and your back straight.
- Keeping your left leg extended on the floor, pull your right knee to your chest.
- Put your hands behind your right knee and slowly straighten the leg towards the ceiling, keeping both hips on the floor.
- Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides.
Targeted Muscle: The Calves
The calves are runner’s most overworked muscles, and inflexible calves set the stage for strains, shin splints and plantar fasciitis. Boosting this muscle’s flexibility and mobility can also improve your stride length and cadence.
The Runner’s Calf Stretch
- Stand facing a wall. Then place both arms on the wall with your arms extended and your back straight.
- Step your right leg backward while keeping your heel planted to the ground and your leg extended without bending your knee.
- To stretch the calf, lean forward slightly towards the wall while actively pressing your back heel into the ground until you feel a good stretch in the muscle.
- Breathe deeply and hold for 30 seconds or more, then switch sides.
Targeted Muscle: The Quadriceps
Flexible quadriceps muscles are the key to stronger knee lift and speed, while tight quads are one of the main causes of the dreaded “runner’s knee.
4. The Standing Quadriceps Stretch
- Start by standing with your legs hip distance apart.
- Stand tall, while holding your right foot behind your butt, with your knee pointing to floor. If you need it, grab a chair for balance.
- Keep your thighs lined up and your core engaged throughout the stretch, holding for no more than 30 seconds.
- Repeat with the left leg.
Targeted Muscles: The Hip Flexors
For most runners, the hips are the weakest link. Ignoring them can set the stage for runner’s knee, Iliotibial Band Syndrome, lower back pain and other trouble. It’s happened to me. In fact, I believe that tight hip flexors are the reason I suffered from knee problems for so many years.
5. The Hip Flexors Lunge Stretch
- Begin in a kneeling position and lunge forward with your right leg, keeping your left knee pressed to the floor.
- Extend your hips forward until you feel a stretch down the front of your left leg around your hips.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
- The Pigeon
This is one of my favorite yoga poses for runners. It targets the hip flexors and the lower back.
- Assume table position (on your hands and knees with a flat back).
- Bend your right knee and bring it forward to a comfortable position between your hands
- Take your left leg and stretch it fully behind you
- Exhale and bend down to the ground. Make sure you’re resting your torso on your leg and rest your head on the floor.
Targeted Muscles: The Lower Back Muscles
This is another major muscle group you need to stretch regularly to release running stress, improve mobility in the lower body, and prevent aches and pains.
7. The Lower Back Knee Crossover Stretch
- Lie on your back with your legs extended and your back straight.
- Bend your right leg and grab your right foot.
- Keeping your left shoulder on the floor, grab the outside of your knee with your left hand and guide it across your body and towards the ground on your left side.
- Try to move your knee closer to the ground while keeping both shoulders in contact with the floor.
- Go back to starting position and repeat the same stretch on the other side.
You can end this runners’ stretch routine by doing Shavasana. Lay there on your back, with your arms and legs spread at about 45 degrees and breathe deeply. It’s good for you!
I’d love to hear from you! Please leave your comments and questions below.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Hall Via Flickr