Running Stretches and Flexibility Exercises

Running stretching exercises to improve your performance and do away with running injuries for good.

by Brad Walker | First Published July 7, 2007 | Updated August 14, 2017

Running Stretches and Flexibility ExercisesRunning is a complex and highly coordinated process involving the entire body. While every runner has his unique style, key motions associated with running are common.

Competitive running events were organized in Egypt around 3800 B.C. and were a key element in ancient Greek Olympic events.

The first modern Olympics were held in Athens in 1896. However, women did not run in Olympics until 1928.
The ability to run well is also a key ingredient in many other sports including football, rugby, basketball, lacrosse and baseball.

Running impacts the mind and body both. Runners report a post-run euphoria known as runner’s high. This is the result of higher 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. Each class of running involves different strategies, training methods and techniques.

Anatomy Involved

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

Running Stretching ExercisesRunners 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 below each stretch.

Running hip and quad 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.

Running hamstring stretch

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.

Running lower calf and Achilles stretch

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.

The Stretching Handbook, DVD & CD-ROMWhile the recommendations on this page are a good starting point, you'll get a lot more benefit when you include a wider variety of stretches.

To do away with stiff, tight muscles and joints, and become loose, limber and pain free, grab a copy of the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility.

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Get back to the activities you love. Whether it’s enjoying your favorite sport, or walking the dog, or playing with the grand kids. Imagine getting out of bed in the morning with a spring in your step. Or being able to work in the garden or play your favorite sport without “paying-for-it” the next day.

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Brad Walker - AKA The Stretch CoachAbout 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.