Stretching for Runners



One of the key things to do to avoid injury as you run, jog, or walk is to stretch and strengthen your muscles after you exercise. Light stretching will loosen your muscles and help you cool down. Stretching after you run will help remove the lactate from your muscles that was generated during your run. In addition, stretching will help strengthen your muscles, enabling you to run better and helping you avoid injury.

Static stretches were popular in the 1970s and 1980s when I was a beginner runner. Today, dynamic stretches are in vogue. I've stuck with static stretches for over 39 years because they work for me. If you're interested in dynamic stretches, a search of the Internet will give you links to many such stretches.

Current thinking among coaches and sports doctors is that stretching shouldn't be done before running, because your muscles are stiff, and there is risk that you may injure a muscle. However, I've always stretched before and after I run and have not had injuries due to stretching. A word of caution is in order, however. Any activity that causes muscle movement causes stress in your body, and too much stress is the cause of injury. Thus, if you aren't careful, doing stretches before you run (and after, too) can contribute to injury. I've found that the keys to safe stretching are (a) experience no pain while you stretch, (b) do gentle, slow muscle movements when you stretch, and (c) don't do heavy rocking of your body back and forth or jumping up and down. If you feel pain, back off and don't pull your muscles as much.

Use Anti-Injury Exercises

Dr. Weisenfeld in The Runners' Repair Manual (Amazon) has a chapter on "The Best Anti-Injury Exercises I've Ever Found". Let's take a look at what he says:
I'm going to let you in on a secret that could cut my practice by a third. If you do the right exercises and do them regularly, you can avoid most injuries. On the other hand, if you run and don't exercise, you're almost sure to be injured. It's that simple. Every run you take causes microscopic tears in the muscles, and when these tiny tears repair themselves, they form scar tissue. This scar tissue cannot be flexed or stretched. So every time you run, your muscles are getting tighter and tighter -- and less able to stretch. A tight, inflexible muscle is a setup for injury. It can't take the shocks and jolts of running or the constant pulling of a long runner's stride. A tight muscle is one that's ready to be injured. And, along with these tight muscles, other muscles in your body are very tight while nearby muscles are relatively very soft. That's another setup for injury. So save yourself yourself some pain and money. Learn a basic group of exercises like the warm-up I'll give you here, or any good, well-balanced set of exercises.-- The Runners' Repair Manual, copyright 1980, chapter 3, pp. 33-34
He describes (with pictures) a set of static stretches that will help keep your muscles strong, and injury-free. I heartily recommend that you get his book and follow it in your running! We all have our own way of stretching, and this is what I do (most are from Weisenfeld). I've posted pictures illustrating most of these stretches.
  • Three variations of wall pushups for calf and soleus
  • Foot on stair knee up for hamstring
  • Bent leg for quads
  • Knee press for hamstring and lower back
  • Knee lifts for lower back and abdominal
  • A variation of knee lifts in which one knee is bent and my head is raised up to touch the knee with my nose, the other leg is on the ground with knee bent
  • ITB stretch
  • Furniture lift for shins
  • Leg raised in air for quads
  • A variation of flying in which my arms trace a horizontal figure-8 to get both sides of my brain working
  • Situps from a Runners' World article (see below)
  • Push ups (crosstraining)
After finishing my run, I walk a few hundred feet to cool down, and then I do the wall pushups, foot on stair, bent leg, ITB, leg lift, flying, and the variation of flying.


Situps Can Kill Your Back

Lower back pain is one of the common ailments that afflict runners. After I had been running for several years, I started having mild lower back pain. Coincidentally, Runners' World published an article on lower back pain about a month after I started having pains. That article suggested doing situps to strengthen ones stomach and thus strengthen ones back muscles; you can't have a strong back if you have a flabby stomach. To me, doing situps meant doing them the "army" way, but the method suggested by Runners' World was different. If you do situps the "army" way, you keep your arms behind your head and place your head and shoulders on the ground each cycle. Your back muscles have to exert great effort to raise your head and shoulders off the ground, and unless your back is in good condition, that effort can injure your back.In contrast, the Runners' World method for situps keeps your head and shoulders off the ground and to keep your arms stretched out in front of you, parallel to the floor, as if you were reaching for your toes. You rock your body back and forth. Your knees are bent in both positions. How far you bend depends on your condition, but keep your head and shoulders off the ground). When I tried this method, I found that could raise my body up and down with no noticeable strain on my back muscles. After about a month of doing sit ups this way, my lower back pain was gone!
Arms parallel to ground, knees bent

Head & shoulders off the ground,
knees bent
I do 30 situps before I run, and after years of running, my back is in fine shape. I've also gained a beneficial side effect from doing the situps. Most of the time when I finish the situps, I feel great and am anxious to hit the roads. Sometimes, however, I feel tired after completing the situps, and I know that my body is tired and that I'd better take a slower and perhaps shorter run. My situps are a good indicator of my body condition.

For a stronger back, do the following lower-back stretches

Lie prone to relax back muscles Keep head flat, pull knees toward chest


Touch knee
Touch other knee to nose if possible


Your Knees are for Running not for Hurting

Knee pain is another common problem with runners. Runners doing hills are especially susceptible to knee problems.Before each run, I do several repetitions of the foot press and inner thighs stretches that are described by Dr. Weisenfeld in The Runners' Repair Manual, and I've never had knee injuries, even after 17 years of running in hilly New England. Here is Dr. Weise Foot Press. Strengthens quadriceps (thigh) muscles, for treatment/prevention of runner's knee. Strengthens anterior leg muscles, for treatment of shin splints. Can be done lying down or sitting in a chair. Put your right foot on top of your left foot. Your lower foot tries to pull toward your body as your upper foot pushes it away from the body. Hold for ten seconds. Now switch feet -- put the left foot on top of the right foot, and push/pull for ten seconds. This equals one set. Do five sets.-- The Runners' Repair Manual, copyright 1980, chapter 4, pp. 38

Foot Press: Isometrics with toes
Inner and Outer Thighs. The turned-out position strengthens the outer thigh muscles -- for treatment/prevention of runner's knee. The turned-in position strengthens the inner thigh muscles--for treatment/prevention of groin pull. Can be done lying down or sitting in a chair. Stretch both legs out -- knees straight, feet flexed (Toes pointed toward knees.) Tighten your thigh muscles. Now, turn your feet out as far as you can and hold ten seconds. Then turn your feet in as far as you can and hold ten seconds. Keep thigh muscles tight throughout exercise. -- The Runners' Repair Manual, copyright 1980, chapter 4, pp. 38 - 39
Outer Thigh Stretch: Runner's Knee
Inner Thigh Stretch; Groin Pull
Here is a good link about stretching and another one.

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips Allen, the post sit-ups one in particular is a good one.

pchieng said...

These are really good stretches for every runner to do before or after running. I have to admit that there are days where I don't have time to stretch, but I know that it's important.

I also have a post of running stretches that I did in high school.

Mark Garso 3558 said...

I definitely need to concentrate on the stretching for combating knee pain/injury. My past knee injuries keep coming to light and I spend way too much time icing them when I should be using the time more constructively with stretching and strengthening the muscles.

Mark F. Garso 3558

Lorenzo said...

this is great info as I am new to running this year and would like to not hurt as I continue to increase my distance

M. D. said...

Thank you for all this wonderful information.

I love that you've written in it plain ordinary English too! I have been to several websites that were explaining how to do pre and post running exercises only get confused into thinking they were trying to turn me into a Human-Pretzel that would NEVER get untwisted!

Thanks again Mr. Allen!

Brad said...

Great article! Here's a few more running stretches to help with injury prevention.

purity12lover said...

I am very happy how my body is shaping up – it looks firmer, my posture is improved, and I feel more in shape. My husband, and son both commented that they really see the difference. I am less tired, sleeping better, and more hopeful and focused. My confidence and self-esteem has improved, and I worry less and enjoy life more. Thank you for everything! http://if1s.com?112

Allen said...

Thanks for sharing your good news with us!

Brett Sampson said...

Love the running stretches. Started implementing these about two weeks ago and already feeling much more flexible.

Thanks!

Anonymous said...

At 57, I'm starting to run again. Found that a hot bath before a run really loosens me up.
Then stretches, then the run.
Seems to work.
That, and these new Reeboks (runtones).

Anonymous said...

Hi..
i started jogging 1 month back.
Now swelling is there around my both ankles.wat to do?Plz help
Thanks in Advance

Allen said...

Hi Anon,

Some swelling of feet and ankles is normal. This is why the purchase of shoes is recommended for afternoons rather than for mornings. I don't know how old you are, your gender, and the amount (time-wise and distance) of running you're doing. I also don't know if you're wearing the correct type and size of shoes. So, just as a general suggestion, cut your running in half and see if the swelling goes down. You may just be doing too much, too soon for the condition of your body. If you cut your running in half and your swelling does go down over a two-week period, then continue with the lower distance and don't increase distance or speed more than 10% per week. Use the presence of swelling as a sign you're doing too much. If the swelling doesn't go down, head for a sports doc to get a better check of your feet.

After each run, use ice to help reduce the swelling. Put ice or frozen veggies on your ankles for 15 minutes at a time (use a handkerchief to separate the ice and your skin) and then remove the ice for at least 15 minutes. Also, take two buckets of cold tap water and give your feet a good soaking by letting your feet be immersed for about 15 minutes. You can put a tray of ice cubes in the water if you want to, but don't try and get the water down to freezing. Just cold water is sufficient.

You are to be congratulated for noticing the swelling and for being concerned about it. You are listening to your body, and that is good!

Jewel Anne said...

Nice tips! even for younger ones, sit ups can also cause back pains. These are good stretches.

Robert Places said...

Love the tips! many people doesn't care or just simply ignore the importance of stretching before going to jog or any workout, stretches like these can help prevent muscle pains, specially back pains.

Paul said...

These are the right stretches and exercises for older people before going on to jog. An uncle of mine has been doing this and his in really good shape.

Mila@ posture correction said...

These tips are effective to avoid injuries and a nice stretches to start your workout or any other exercises.

Carl said...

The lower-back stretches is definitely very effective to having a stronger back. I usually do this and I can say it works pretty well for me.

AML said...

I see some people who doesn't do stretching at all before jogging, specially young people, is it OK to do it without stretching?

Allen said...

Hi AML,

Stretching before running is a controversy. I do it because that is the way things were taught back in the 70s when I first started running. I've never had an injury from doing stretches before my runs. It is a controversy because some people say stretching before can cause injuries. They have a good point. If you do stretch before, when your muscles are cold, do it gently and use static stretches not dynamic stretches.

However, everyone should stretch after running. Keep in mind there are two types of stretches: stretches to loosen ones muscles and stretches to strengthen the muscles. Stretches to strengthen involve resistance, such as lifting your leg in the air and holding it there. The resistance in this case is provided by gravity.

Almost all of the stretches I discuss in the blog are static. Dynamic stretches involve motion, such as with situps. Static stretches put stress on a muscle and the stress is held for a few seconds.

All runs should be preceded by by walking a for a few minutes to warm up the muscles. This is especially important if you don't stretch before. Most runners I see don't warm up. If they skip the warmup, the first few minutes of a run should be easy and slower, because that part of the run is serving as the warmup.

Ron said...

Hi Allen
I run 3 times a week for 2o min each time
I do around 3.5 km each run
I do it for the last 3 months and its not easy but I enjoy it
Thanks for the tips ....I think I will sturt Stretching ....I neve streach before I run and I'm sure it can help me
Cheers

Allen said...

Hi Ron,

When you start stretching, be very gentle with your stretches. If possible, walk around for a while to warm your muscles. Also, stretch when you finish your run, again being gentle with your muscles. Some stretches stretch your muscles while other stretches make your muscles stronger. The stretches that strengthen your muscles are those that have resistance, such as holding one leg in the air (resistance provided by gravity) to strengthen your quads and furniture lift to strengthen your shins.

One stretch I don't have documented is to stand on a step with your toes on the step and your midfoot and heel hanging down. Slowly raise your body so your weight is on your toes. Hold your body up for a few (5-6) seconds and then lower your body such that your midfoot and heel is hanging down. Hold that for a few seconds. This strengthens your calves.

When I speak of midfoot I'm probably speaking of half of the midfoot. You need to keep enough of your foot on the step so you can support your weight. If your toes are strong and/or you aren't super heavy, you can have less of your midfoot on the step.

Joy said...

This is one thing most doing home workouts should know, the importance of stretching because they're doing by themselves, a proper advice like this is very helpful.

Komang Wisnu said...

thanks for the info man, i just finish jogging, and feel the pain in my back after take a shower. well i think this article is a good start for a better way to jogging.

Anonymous said...

I am 28 years old man. My hieght is 5"8 and weigh 80 kg.I have been suffering from lower back pain for last one year.When i saw a doctor i was diagonised with loss of lumber lordsis.Medically i could not understand its meaning, but the doctor told me that my L4 and L5 bones are weak.He referred me some calcium tablets and protein diet and few lower back exercises.I was really benefited by them.However everyday in the morning I feel pain and stiffness in my lower back.Few days back i have started running to reduce my weight and also to reduce my pot belly tummy.Wat should i do? Should i continue running.please help

Allen said...

Hi Anon,

I'm not a doctor or trainer and can only give general suggestions. Your reasons for starting to run are to lose weight and to reduce your pot belly. My suggestion is to walk not to run. Walking and running burn about the same number of calories per mile. Running has the advantage that you likely will cover more miles, but it is much more stressful to your body. You're already having lower back problems, and you don't want to make that worse. Walking will help you lose weight without as much stress on your back.

Read my page on LSD (Long Slow Distance), and read the essay by Doc Sheehan called The Basics of Jogging. Don't try to walk fast. Walk at a comfortable pace and enjoy being outdoors.

More important than exercise in losing weight is reducing the number of calories going into your body. Try and reduce the amount of red meat that you consume. Be sure that your carbs are complex, such as whole grains and veggies, rather than simple as in candy.

Keep up with the lower-back exercises that your doctor gave you, and try to walk at least three times per week for 30 minutes each time. In the beginning you might not walk that much, but you can slowly work up to 30 minutes. Read my pages on Beginners for suggestions about walking. I do a lot of walking in addition to my running.

Let us know occasionally how things are going for you. By the way, there is a nice discussion forum at walking.about.com

Allen said...

Anon,

One more comment about your diet. Stay away from fad diets that say you can lose a lot of pounds per week. If you do that, your body may think it is starving and will this lower your metabolism. Losing one pound per week is reasonable.

You have to lose 3500 calories to lose one pound. Thus, you need to lose 500 calories per day. 100 to 200 of that can come from your walking. The rest must come from your diet. Just eliminating all sodas and reducing your candy may be enough to lose 300-400 calories per day. Enjoy your food; just eat smaller amounts.

Anonymous said...

Hi - I get sore, tight shin muscles (esp the right shin muscle) when I run.
What's a good exercise to help condition the shin muscles.

Also, I'm pretty sure my right hamstring is not 100% (old ski injury) - not too painful, but sore after a run - I usually stretch out the hamstrings pre-run by putting one leg up on a chair or bench, then massaging the raised hamstring.
Is there a better one?
thanks!

Allen said...

Hi Anon,

First, don't overstride. Taking too large of a step puts a lot of stress on your shins.

I do the furniture-life for my shins. Also, I don't know what it's called, but stand on a step with your heel hanging in the air. Rise up on your heel & hold a few seconds. Lower your heel down below the step and hold for a few seconds. Your weight is on your toes with your heel extending past the step into the air.

Use Google to locate more exercises. Exercise like these will help, but your body needs time. Around a month to see good results.

Allen said...

One more comment, Anon. Over a several week period, work up to a stride-rate of 170-180 steps per minute. That is a fast stride rate and will force you to take smaller steps, thus avoiding overstriding. Also, learn to land and push off from your mid-foot. Most runners use a heel-strike, and that contributes to taking larger steps and overstriding. For most runners, a toe-stride doesn't work well. Exceptions to this are running up hills. The slope forces you to land on your toes and push off with your toes.

JK said...

This was great! Thanks. Here's my experience with the "controversy" of stretching:

I used to be extremely in shape. I went to the gym regularly, kept my weight down, didn't eat badly at all. Then, after I got married, I got lazy. Stopped going to the gym, ate like crap (not the fault of getting married, by the way, just pure laziness) and.... before I knew it, clothes went up like two sizes, felt like crap all the time, looked terrible, etc.

A couple of months ago, I decided it was time to get serious about losing weight. The goal wasn't to be Arnold or Stallone, but to be FIT and HEALTHY. I started out walking.... then, power walking.... never stretched at all. My wife warned me, "you're going to hurt yourself if you don't stretch." .... "no, I'm not, trust me."

I started running a little at a time. Walk a block, run a block.... I did this regularly until I could run for almost a mile without gasping for air and it actually became ENJOYABLE. I looked forward to walking/ running. Plus, the best thing was - I was totally losing weight. People were actually commenting about how much better I looked (plus, I was eating better, too).

All was fine for about.... three weeks. One night, I started with my walk, as I usually did, something didn't seem right. Pain.... entire front of my leg, like the top of my ankle, all the way down. Mild pain, but pain. I started running..... SEVERE PAIN. Like someone had taken a hammer and SMASHED both legs in the ankle and shattered them. I barely made it home walking. SEVERE, SEVERE PAIN.

Got home, wife was outside doing something. "YOU WERE RIGHT, I'M IN PAIN." Thankfully, sympathy on her end. "You need to stretch." She took me through about ten stretches (she had ridden horses and knew a bunch of good ones) that night. They KILLED the first time because I had never really done them. Then, I had orders: REST FOR ABOUT TWO WEEKS WITH NO WALKING/ RUNNING AT ALL. All that work, all that progress - completely gone.... felt terrible.

I listened to her. She was right about the stretching, she was right about taking a break. She suggested light stretching daily in the meantime. I listened. I practiced her stretching routine nearly every day..... didn't push myself, if I felt ANY pain, I stopped.

Then, came the first day back: I wanted to do my full routine (without running). No, no, no. Walk around the block. Seriously? FINE. I walked around the block. She let me do it one more time..... but, only once. Stretched before and after. Felt a bit of pain, told her about it. "That's a sign, you're not ready yet." More orders: a couple of days off. By this time, gained a bit of weight back (nothing severe, just .... more just myself being paranoid, probably).

Three weeks after the night that I stumbled home in severe pain, I am nearly back to WALKING my usual route. And, you can be DAMN sure that I stretch before AND after and it is absolutely perfect. I can, as someone who didn't stretch at all, vouch for stretching. I DID injure myself, no doubt and, when I started stretching, everything was amazing.

Tonight, I even ran a little tiny bit. Nothing major as I'm taking it VERY slowly, but stretching before walking/ running is imperative. I'm a believer. Thanks to my wife!

Allen said...

Hi JK,

You might have been injured due to not stretching, especially at the end of your workout, or you might have been injured by doing too much too soon, or both.

Congratulations on your recovery and the changing of your running/walking habits.

Alexis Daglish said...

I know that sit ups can cause great pain on our back so I stopped doing it, instead I just opt to run every morning to burn fats and gain stamina. I will buy new running shoes because I don’t feel comfortable with my old one anymore.

Allen said...

Yes, situps if done incorrectly can cause a lot of stress on ones body. Many years ago, Runners World magazine recommended a different way of doing situps to eliminate much of the stress of doing situps. I've used that method for almost 40 years, and it really does remove most of the stress from situps.

There are two reasons why this method of situps doesn't stress ones back. Hands & arms are held in front, parallel to the ground instead of behind the head. Head and shoulders don't touch the ground, that is, you move your stomach muscles but keep your head & shoulders off the ground. See my page of pictures of my stretches.

Concerning shoes, the running literature states that one should get 300-500 miles on a pair of shoes. After that, they don't give as much cushioning due to compression of the material in the soles. I'm getting 500 miles on my shoes, and then I replace them and use the old shoes for my non-running activities during the day.

Scarlet Ferrero said...

Thank you for posting this! At least now I know I'm doing the right lower back stretches!