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Here’s why and how you should make a little time to work on your flexibility.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
The primary perceived benefit of stretching for runners is injury prevention. But in the best recent controlled studies, stretching has not reduced the incidence of injuries to the lower extremities to a statistically significant degree. On the basis of such studies, many exercise physiologists advise runners not to stretch.
The main problem with this advice and the studies upon which it is based is that they come at stretching from the wrong side of injury. Targeted stretching of abnormally tight muscles and tendons has proven to be an extremely effective means of rehabilitating and preventing the recurrence of specific injuries in runners. This is because abnormal tightness in specific muscles and tendons is without question a contributing cause of particular running injuries, and stretching can increase the elasticity of muscles and tendons.
Every day, physical therapists prescribe targeted stretching exercises to rehabilitate and prevent recurrence of five different injuries that are frequently associated with tightness in muscles and tendons. Abnormally tight calves and Achilles tendons contribute to plantar fasciitis, shin splints, Achilles tendinosis, and calf muscle strains. Abnormally tight hamstrings and hip flexors often precipitate strains in these muscles. And an abnormally tight iliotibial band is commonly seen in runners suffering from IT band friction syndrome.
There is no doubt that stretching plays a positive role in the successful rehabilitation of many cases of these injuries, so it only stands to reason that it can also prevent many cases of these same injuries (or at least prevent their recurrence). For this reason, I recommend that you stretch the above-mentioned muscles and tendons daily. There are various methods of stretching to increase muscle elasticity and joint range of motion: active isolated stretching, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, etc. The simplest is gold old-fashioned static stretching. Here’s a basic static stretching routine for runners.
Glutes and Hip Abductors
Lie on your back with your left arm extended away from your body and resting palm-down on the floor. Bend your left leg 90 degrees and reach the knee across your body and toward the floor outside your right hip. Make sure your left shoulder blade maintains contact with the floor. Use pressure from your right hand to enhance the stretch. Hold the stretch for 15 to 20 seconds and then stretch your right side. Now repeat the stretch on both sides.
Kneel on your left knee and place your right foot flat on the floor well in front of your body. Draw your navel toward your spine. Now put your weight forward into the lunge until you feel a good stretch in the front of your left hip. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds and then repeat with your left foot forward, stretching your right-side hip flexors. Now repeat the stretch on both sides.
Perform this one just as you would the hip-flexor stretch described above, but start with your forward foot angled out 45 degrees, instead of straight ahead. Again, hold the stretch for 20 seconds and then stretch the opposite side. Now repeat the stretch on both sides.
Sit with your left leg outstretched in front of you. Splay your right knee wide and tuck the foot against the inside of your left thigh. (This is often called a “figure-four stretch,” since your legs form that numeral.) Bend forward from the hips and grasp the shin of your left leg as close to the foot as you can. Don’t round your back; that’ll increase your reach but actually take emphasis off your hamstrings, making the stretch less effective. Hold the stretch for 10 to 15 seconds and then stretch your right leg. Now repeat the stretch on both sides.
Lie on your right side with your right leg slightly bent and your left leg bent fully. Grasp the top of your left foot with the left hand. Pull your foot back with your hand and at the same time reach toward the floor with your knee, so that your thigh simultaneously moves backward and rotates internally. You should feel a stretch along the outside of your thigh. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds and then switch to your left side and stretch the right leg. Now repeat the stretch on both sides.
Stand on one foot and rest the top of the other foot on a desk-height object behind you. The thigh of this leg should be perpendicular to the floor. Rest your hands on your hips. Rotate your pelvis backward. Hold the stretch for 10 to 15 seconds and then stretch the opposite leg. Now repeat the stretch on both sides.
Gastrocnemius and Soleus
Brace your hands against a wall and extend one leg far enough behind you that you feel a good stretch in your calf when you place the foot flat on the ground. Hold the stretch for 10 to 12 seconds and then bend the knee slightly so that the stretch migrates from your gastrocnemius to your soleus. Hold this stretch for 10 seconds and then stretch the opposite leg. Now repeat the entire sequence.
Stand in a split stance, one foot a step ahead of the other, with both feet flat on the ground and both knees slightly bent. Now bend your back leg a little more and concentrate on trying to “sink” your butt straight down toward the heel of that foot. Keep your torso upright. You should begin to feel a stretch in your Achilles tendon. You may have to fiddle with your position before you find it. When you do, hold it for 10 or 12 seconds, relax, and then stretch the opposite leg. Now repeat the stretch on both sides.
Another controversial question is the relationship between flexibility and performance. Stretching advocates claim that runners need to be very flexible in order to take long strides. Others believe that runners get all the flexibility they need through the activity of running itself. In this case both sides are half-right. There are two muscle groups that are unusually flexible in most elite runners: the hips and the shoulders. Non-elite runners can surely benefit from stretching these muscle groups and thereby increasing the range of motion of the shoulders and hips.
But this alone will probably not improve your stride length, because regular stretching exercises increase only passive range of motion, whereas running requires dynamic flexibility, which is the ability to perform sports movements with minimal internal resistance from your own muscles and joints. This is the distinction that stretching skeptics are trying to get at when they say running itself gives us all the flexibility we need. While the distinction is real, the best way to increase dynamic flexibility is not by running but rather by performing dynamic stretching exercises.
Dynamic stretches are movements that mimic the way your muscles and connective tissues actually stretch during running. An example is the leg swing (described below). Performing dynamic stretches on a regular basis reduces internal resistance in your running movements and thereby enhances the efficiency of your stride. These stretches also make for excellent warm-up movements, because they increase dynamic flexibility acutely from resting to active levels by warming, loosening, and lubricating the muscles.
Dynamic Stretching Warm-up
The following dynamic stretching warm-up will increase your active range of motion for individual workouts and increase your dynamic flexibility generally. Do it 2-3 times per week as a part of your warmup following several minutes of easy jogging.
Stand on your left foot and swing your right leg backward and forward in an exaggerated kicking motion. Complete 10 swings and repeat with the left leg.
Side Leg Swings
Stand facing a wall, lean forward slightly at the waist, and brace your hands against the wall. Lift your right foot off the ground and swing your right leg from side to side (like a pendulum) between your left leg and the wall. Do 10 swings and then switch to the left leg.
Take 10 giant steps forward with each foot, lunging as far forward as you can each time.
Lateral Bounding with Squat
Start in a standing position. Leap to the right by lifting your right foot, pushing off the ground with your left foot, and spreading your legs apart as you move through the air to your right. Land on your right foot, draw your legs back together, touch the left foot to the ground, and immediately leap to the right again. Keep moving with a quick (but fluid) and unhurried rhythm.
The final element of this complex movement is an undulating squatting motion. So, as you bound steadily to the right, gradually squat a little lower toward the ground with each leap, going as deep as a half-squat, then gradually draw your body back to full height. Think of the way the plastic horses on a carousel undulate up and down as the carousal spins. It should take about six leaps to complete a stand-squat-stand cycle. Continue bounding to the right for 30 seconds, then bound to the left for 30 more.
Lateral Running with Rotation
Run sideways to your right while rotating your hips first to the right and then to the left repeatedly. To make this work you will have to cross the left foot over the right foot in front of your body when rotating your hips to the right and then cross your left foot past your right foot behind your body (so that you are actually briefly running backward, sort of) when rotating your hips to the left. It may take you a minute or two to get the coordination down. Run to the right for 30 seconds and then run to your left for 30 more.
Check out Matt’s latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.