Running Stretches and Flexibility Exercises
Running stretching exercises to improve your performance and do away with running injuries for good.
Running is a complex, highly coordinated process involving the entire body. While every runner has his or her somewhat unique style, key motions associated with running are common.
If you’re looking to improve your running or just seeking to prevent running injuries it is important to follow the information in this article. In addition, adding a few simple stretches to your fitness program will also help. To get started on a safe and effective stretching routine that’s just right for you, check out the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility.
Competitive running events were organized in Egypt by around 3800 B.C., and were a key element in ancient Greek Olympic events. The first modern Olympics in Athens only occurred in 1896, however. (Women did not run in Olympic competition until 1928.)
Running events are typically grouped into several classes, each requiring significantly distinct athletic abilities and involving different strategies, training methods, and techniques. Competitive cross-country running started in England with a game known as hare and hounds or the paper chase in the early 19th century. The game required one or more runners to lay a trail by dropping shreds of paper or other markers while following a random course. A second group of runners then followed in pursuit, attempting to navigate the paper trail.
While running alone includes a wide range of competitive sports events, running ability is also a key ingredient in many other sports including football (or soccer), rugby, basketball, lacrosse, baseball and many more. Moving a ball toward a goal requires speed, endurance, and agility – all important factors in running, which is why running is usually part of the training regimen for most other sports.
Running is known to affect the mind as well as the body, with many runners reporting a post-run euphoria known as runner’s high – believed to be the result of increased endorphin production in the brain.
Competitive running events vary by distance from very short sprints to marathons and multi-day events. Relay races are part of Olympic running competition as are races requiring running and leaping over boundaries known as hurdles. Running is engaged in for recreation, exercise and in strenuous competition worldwide.
Proper running is executed as a sequence of strides, alternating between the two legs. Leg stride can be loosely divided into three phases: support, drive, and recovery. Support and drive refer to phases when the foot is in contact with the running surface. Recovery refers to the period when the foot is off the ground.
In the support phase, the contact foot supports the body against the force of gravity, with the body’s center of mass in the lower abdominal area between the hips. Just prior to the support phase, the knee joint is at its greatest extension, though when contact is made with the running surface, the knee joint begins to flex. The extent of knee flexion varies depending on the particular runner’s style. As the supporting leg bends at the knee, the pelvis dips on the opposing side, acting to absorb shock.
Following the support phase, a transition to the drive phase takes place. At this point, the drive leg extends at the knee joint and hip, with the toe maintaining contact with the ground and the leg trailing behind the body. During the drive, the foot may extend through a flexing of the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles of the calf.
Once the driving toe loses contact with the surface, the recovery phase begins. Here, the hip flexes, rapidly driving the knee forward. Much of the lower leg’s motion is driven by forces transferred from the upper leg, (not by the action of the muscles). As the knee kicks forward, torque is exerted against the lower leg via the knee joint.
In the last phase of recovery, the hip achieves maximal flexion. As the lower leg rapidly unfolds, the knee joint reaches its greatest extension. In the process of this extension of the leg and flexion of the hip, hamstring and gluteal muscles rapidly stretch, and reflexively respond to the stretch with sudden contraction. The recovery stage ends when the foot again comes into contact with the ground, beginning the support phase. During all three stride phases, the upper body anatomy is also in use, in order to maintain balance and continue forward motion. At higher speeds, the arms, spine and shoulder often come into play, absorbing forces and helping to maintain balance.
Most Common Running Injuries
Runners are prone to a wide variety of both acute injuries and those resulting from overstress. The high impact nature of the activity causes considerable stress to muscles, tendons and ligaments as well as making such athletes vulnerable to strains, sprains and fractures.
Some of the more frequently encountered injuries include:
- Runner’s knee: also known as chondromalacia: the condition results from a softening or wearing away of the cartilage under the kneecap, resulting in pain and inflammation
- Iliotibial Band Syndrome: The Iliotibial band is a sheath of connective tissue attaching muscles in the gluteal region to the outside (or lateral) surface of the tibia or shin bone. The band functions in extending the knee joint and abducting the hip
- Shin splints: An inflammation of muscle attachments and interosseous membranes to the tibia or shin bone
- Pulled or torn muscles (particularly, the hamstring)
- Jogger’s nipple (soreness of the nipple due to friction)
- Sprained ankles
- Plantar fasciitis: An inflammation of the plantar fascia, a thick, fibrous band of tissue running from the heel to the base of the toes.
- Achilles tendinitis: An inflammation of the Achilles tendon, which connects the two major calf muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus, to the back of the heel bone.
Stress fractures are a common affliction in runners training with intensity or at high volume. Overuse injuries – often due to improper form – result from repetitive stress on tissues without adequate recovery.
Injury Prevention Strategies
Many running injuries can be avoided through proper conditioning and attending to correct running technique. Additionally, runners should:
- Warm up and cool down properly
- Build up running distances and speeds in gradual stages
- Select comfortable, well fitting and supportive footwear
- Avoid running in extreme temperatures
- Exercise particular caution when running in inclement weather, or on uneven or wet surfaces
- Keep the body well hydrated, especially in hot weather
- Apply sunscreen to protect the skin, when running in bright sun
The Top 3 Running Stretches
Stretching is one of the most under-utilized techniques for improving athletic performance, preventing sports injury and properly rehabilitating sprain and strain injury. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that something as simple as stretching won’t be effective. Below are 3 very beneficial stretches for running; obviously there are a lot more, but these are a great place to start. Please make special note of the instructions beside each stretch.
Kneeling Quad Stretch: Kneel on one foot and the other knee. If needed, hold on to something to keep your balance and then push your hips forward.
Standing High-leg Bent Knee Hamstring Stretch: Stand with one foot raised onto a table. Keep your leg bent and lean your chest into your bent knee.
Standing Toe-up Achilles Stretch: Stand upright and place the ball of your foot onto a step or raised object. Bend your knee and lean forward.
Looking at photos and watching videos on your computer is fine, but to really take advantage of all the stretching exercises on offer, grab a free copy of my Stretching DVD & CD-ROM.
The exercises and recommendations on this page are just a small sample of the many stretching exercises presented on my free Stretching DVD. In total, you'll get 44 video demonstrations of unique stretching exercises for every major muscle group in your body. Plus, over 80 printable stretching routines for 22 sports and 19 different muscle groups.
The DVD includes 3 customized stretching routines (8 minutes each) for the Upper Body; the Lower Body; and the Neck, Back & Core, plus a bonus CD-ROM that allows you to print out over 80 stretching routines that you can take with you where ever you go.
The Stretching DVD will show you, step-by-step, how to perform each stretch correctly. Plus, you'll also learn the 7 critical rules for safe stretching; the benefits of flexibility; and how to stretch properly. Check out my free Stretching DVD & CD-ROM for yourself.
About the Author: Brad is often referred to as the Stretch Coach and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.