Runners’ Stretching: Everything You Need to Know

If you’re taking your running more seriously, you’ll want to optimise every part of your workout to ensure maximum efficiency while reducing the risk of injury or pain. Stretches for runners are intended to help with warming up and cooling down after your run.

Let’s look at some of the sciences and debate around stretching, as well as looking at some common stretches for runners.

What happens when you stretch?

Stretching can be defined as the deliberate lengthening of muscles to encourage flexibility and blood flow to extremities. The idea is that by lengthening your muscles, you work out any tightness which could cause discomfort or even injury when running. Research suggests that stretching can improve your performance and speed.

There are two kinds of stretches:

  • Static stretches: Where you push or pull on a muscle in some way, gradually increasing the stretch until you reach a threshold. You then hold the stretch for 10 to 15 seconds before releasing.
  • Dynamic stretches: These typically involve fairly rapid arm or leg swings, twists, lunges and other similar movements which prepare the body for the planned activity.

Controversy: stretches before running or stretches after running?

There has been a long-running debate between runners, sports scientists and physiotherapists about whether you should do stretches before running or after – or if runners should even stretch at all. Here’s a summary of the arguments:

FOR stretches before running: By stretching your muscles, you help with warming up and lengthening any tight muscles, thereby reducing your chances of injury

AGAINST stretches before running:research that shows it has benefits, and stretches may even cause you damage by causing small breaks in muscle fibre

FOR stretches after running: By stretching at the end of your workout, you iron out any tightness and help your body cool down.

AGAINST stretches after running:Your body is already warmed up and muscles loosened, so there’s no obvious need for doing more of this.

Until there’s any conclusive result to this debate, the best advice might simply be to listen to your body. If you do start to notice pain or tightness after or during your runs, that might be your body telling you it could do with some stretching – in this case, there’s no obvious harm in using one of the common stretches for runners described below.

Popular and easy stretches for runners – no equipment needed

While you can get pretty technical with stretching, most regular runners don’t need special exercise bands or floor mats to give their legs a decent stretch. Incorporate some of the following stretches into your routine, which target the main muscles you use when running.

Static stretches for runners:
Here are three simple static stretches to perform before or after your run:

1. Thigh stretch

  • Stand up straight
  • Grab the top of your left foot with your left arm, and bring the foot up towards your buttocks
  • Hold the stretch for around 15 seconds
  • Repeat with your right leg

2. Hamstring stretch

  • Facing forward, stand with your left leg in front of the right
  • Place your hands on your hips
  • Bend your right leg and point your left foot upwards
  • Lean your torso forward and hold the stretch for 15 seconds
  • Repeat with the other leg

3. Hip stretch

  • Standing upright, step forward with your left leg
  • Slowly bend the left leg while keeping your torso straight
  • Contract your right buttock until you feel a stretch across the right hip joint
  • Repeat with the left leg

Dynamic stretches for runners
Here are three simple dynamic stretches to perform before or after your workout:

1. Leg swings – side to side/back and forth
You can vary this stretch with front-to-back or side-to-side swings, and you’ll notice different muscles stretch while doing so.

  • Stand up straight
  • Balance on your left leg and swing the right leg back to front or side to side
  • Repeat for 10 to 15 seconds before changing legs

2. Lunges

  • Stand up straight
  • Make a big step forward with your left leg while bending the knee (make sure your bent knee remains directly above the ankle)
  • Stretch out your back leg before pushing up from the left leg to return to standing position
  • Change legs

3. One-legged deadlift

  • Stand on your left leg, with the knee slightly bent
  • Gradually hinge forward so your torso and right leg make a horizontal line
  • Gradually return to upright before changing legs

Feel the stretch
While there’s plenty of disagreement among runners and experts about the importance (or otherwise) of stretching, doing it is unlikely to cause much significant harm. Try and combine stretches with other warm-up and cool-down activities like fast walking, jogging on the spot or squats to avoid stretching ‘cold’ muscles. Ultimately, the best thing to do is listen to your body – if you find stretching helps your running, there’s no harm in making it part of your routine.