The Best Stretches for Runners
The stretches described here benefit the major muscles in your legs—those that control your ankles, knees, and hips.
Stretching the Calves
Having tight calves is a strong predictor for injuries such as Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, and calf strain. A common calf stretch performed by runners is done by standing with one foot in front of the other and your hands on a wall or tree.
Point both feet straight ahead and gently lean forward, keeping the heel of your back foot on the ground and your knee straight. Perform two 20-second holds in this position (stretching the calf of the back leg); then shift your weight back, bend your knee slightly, and perform two more 20-second stretches on this same leg. Next, switch legs and repeat the stretches on the other leg.
Stretching the Hamstrings
Tight hamstrings can lead to muscle strain and even lower back pain. To stretch hamstring muscles out, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and pointing straight ahead. Bend over at the waist, reaching your hands toward your feet. Keep your knees slightly bent as you do this and only go as far down as it takes to feel a gentle stretch.
As you bend down, relax your neck and shoulders, and slowly exhale. When you reach the slightly tight point, relax into it and hold for approximately 30 seconds. Then start straightening back up as you inhale. Move slowly, and allow your head to roll up gently as well. When you're back in the standing position, exhale. Inhale as you begin to bend forward again.
Repeat this stretch three to five times. If you do this after every run, you'll notice improvements in your flexibility within a week. Soon you'll be able to reach your knees, then your ankles, and—yes—your toes!
Another way to stretch your hamstrings is by performing an active hamstring stretch, one called “Bottoms Up.” Squat with your knees bent, your back relaxed, and your forearms resting on your thighs. Straighten your knees by contracting your thigh muscles while keeping your forearms on your thighs. Feel the stretch in your hamstrings and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat three to five times.
There are a number of ways to stretch your hamstrings; most of them are passive stretches. Clinical evidence suggests that the active hamstring stretching, such as the “Bottoms Up” stretch, is most effective for lengthening muscle.
Stretching the Quadriceps
Your quadricep muscles are located on the front of your thighs. One way to stretch them is done in the standing position. To stretch your right quad, support yourself with your right hand on a wall or railing. Bend your right knee while grabbing your foot behind you with your left hand. With your toes slightly pointed, gently bring your foot toward your buttocks as you exhale. Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds. Switch legs.
Repeat until you've stretched both legs two to three times. You can also work on improving your balance with this stretch by steadying yourself on the leg you're standing on and removing your hand from the wall or railing.
The quadriceps muscles (quads) and iliotibial band (IT band) control the knee during exercise. The quads are the four muscles in the front of your thigh; the IT band runs from your hip to your knee along the outside of your leg.
The “Lower Body All-Over” Stretch
This stretch, sometimes called the squat stretch, is a great stretch for your lower back, ankles, Achilles tendons, shins, and groin. If you spend a lot of time sitting or standing, you'll come to love this stretch. However, if you're a beginner, it can be particularly tough—go easy!
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing out slightly. Keeping your feet flat, slowly lower yourself into a squat. Exhale. Your knees should be outside of your shoulders but over your big toes. Support yourself with your arms in front of you and between your legs, hands touching the floor (if possible). You may want to do this with your back against a wall for additional support.
When you're squatting, hold the stretch for about 30 seconds. Come up slowly, inhaling as you straighten. Repeat two to three times when you're first learning this stretch. As you get better, hold it for a bit longer, and see if you can repeat it four to five times.
Stretching the Piriformis Muscle
The piriformis muscle extends from the hip to the sacrum (the bone at the base of the spine that attaches to the pelvis). The piriformis stretch can help keep you flexible through the hips. There are several ways to stretch the piriformis.
One method is performed by sitting on the ground with one leg straight and the other bent at the knee. Use both hands to take the foot and knee of the bent leg and pull them toward your chest. You will feel the stretch in the buttock area of the leg you are cradling toward your chest. Hold for about 30 seconds, and switch legs. Repeat two to three times with each leg.