Running Stretches and Flexibility Exercises
Running stretches to improve your performance and do away with running injuries for good.
by Brad Walker | First Published October 14, 2010 | Updated November 13, 2018
By incorporating a number of regular running stretches into your running training, you can improve your personal best times and help reduce the chance of those annoying running injuries.
Muscles used in Running
Knowledge about which muscles are involved in running helps in choosing the best running stretches for a customized running training program. Professional runners may have running styles unique to them, but key motions of the sport are common to all. When you are running, almost all the muscles of the body get used.
Among the primary muscles, the quadriceps (rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis and vastus intermedius), the hamstrings (semitendinosus, semimembranosus, biceps femoris), gluteus maximus, iliopsoas (iliacus and psoas major) and calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) are at work during running.
While it may seem that the legs are doing all the work there are a number of supporting muscles that are also very important, including: the shoulders and upper arms, the upper abdominals and the lower back muscles. The external and internal intercostal muscles also function during running.
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 tendonitis: 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 Benefits of Running Stretches
Proper running stretches are crucial to overcome the rigors of running. Running, no doubt, improves our overall health, especially energy levels and the cardiovascular system. However, it sometimes tightens the muscles, minimizing flexibility. If you incorporate regular running stretches, your muscles are bound to become more flexible and resistant to soreness. Stretching as part of a cool-down also helps to flush out waste products, like lactic acid, and enhances recovery.
Regular running stretching exercises can also help prevent injuries like runner’s knee (also called chondromalacia); iliotibial band syndrome; plantar fasciitis; and Achilles tendonitis.
Finally, even the most basic running stretches can just make you feel better. Glossing over it in your regular running training, however, could cost you dearly.
Despite the numerous benefits, it is important to bear in mind that stretching can have detrimental effects when done incorrectly. Improperly done stretches can over time cause permanent damage to ligaments and joint. When performing the stretching exercises below, be sure to warm up first and if any of the exercises cause pain or severe discomfort, discontinue immediately. Review my article on the rules for safe stretching for more information.
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.
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.
Watch the Running Stretches below
Click on the play button below to watch the 10 minute running stretching exercises video.
While 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 and stretching routines.
Get over 150 of the best daily stretch routines to do away with injuries; increase your flexibility; improve your sporting performance; and become loose, limber and pain free.
About the Author: Brad Walker 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 (author page) 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 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.