For cardiovascular health, running is second to none. Everyone knows that.
But there’s more to running than just the act of quickly placing one foot in front of the other. It may be that simple, but it’s also dangerous if done incorrectly. Performing stretches both before the workout to make sure your body is ready to work and after to make sure it’s ready to cool down is the best way to mitigate much of that danger.
Runners often overlook stretches, but they’re a necessary component to your body’s continued health. Here, we’ve compiled all the stretches you’ll need to prepare for a run and subsequently ease your body out of one. We split each into digestible steps in the hopes that you’ll find them easy to perform.
Before the Run
Runners often spend their stretching time focusing on their hamstrings and quadriceps. While they are large and important muscles, the ankles should not be overlooked. Not properly warming up the ankles can lead to bone and ligament damage, so before anything, the first thing you’ll want to do is Ankle Rotations.
- While sitting, use your hands to rotate the ankle in clockwise and counterclockwise directions manually.
- Engage in range of motion movements.
- Repeat 15 to 20 times.
- Switch ankle.
One-Legged Heel Hops
The hard ground is unforgiving on feet, especially if in your professional life you wear dress shoes or high heels. It’s even worse if you wear those shoes for work while also running in your spare time. Good exercises will strengthen your feet and make you less susceptible to injury. Perform heel hops without shoes if possible.
- On one foot, hop up and down.
- One set of 20-25 reps for both feet.
Seated Calf Stretch
Up next is the calves. This is an important don’t-skip-leg-day type of thing. Sure, you want beautiful quads and hamstrings, but you don’t want to have Popeye’s forearms with a pair of twigs sticking out of them. The calves connect to the feet and the thighs and neglecting one for the other will lead to bad results, both aesthetically and physically. We recommend the Seated Calf Stretch with a resistance band. Of course, you can use a towel or anything else for resistance if you don’t have one handy. This will not only warm up the calves but the hamstrings as well.
- Sit on the floor with both legs extended.
- Place resistance band around the upper section of one foot.
- Carefully pull your toes toward your kneecap until you feel a stretch.
- Hold for 15 to 20 seconds.
- Repeat with the other leg.
You can also do it the following way:
The gluts and the hips have underappreciated importance in running. Forgetting to stretch can lead to unnecessary pain. Piriformis exercises will not only help exercise and enable greater flexibility for your glutes and hips, but it can also prevent and treat Piriformis Syndrome.
- Lie on your back with your knees pointed upward and feet flat on the floor.
- Pull your right knee up toward your chest until you feel a stretch.
- Cross your right leg over your left.
- Pull your left leg toward your left shoulder until you feel a stretch.
- Hold for 20 seconds.
- Switch legs and repeat.
Okay, not the sexiest-sounding exercise, but it’s particularly important—especially if you’re a city slicker. Since most runners do not have a park or softer-surface access, most of us run on hard surfaces like concrete and asphalt. That’s tough on the ankles and the spine. Spine stretches also helps improve the alignment of the spine and can relieve tension in the shoulders. You may also feel a stretch down the hamstrings, calves, and the soles of your feet.
- Sit on the floor with your legs spread wide.
- Slowly begin to nod forward while sinking your chin into your neck.
- Hold for 10 seconds when you feel a stretch.
- Repeat with five reps.
Finally, we’ve moved our way up to the quads. I think we’ve neglected the quadriceps for long enough, and that’s not something runners should ever do. The quads are the large muscles spanning the front and side of your thighs. Before going on a good run, Jump Squat is an important warm-up to add to your checklist. It’s fast and simple but will make a world a difference as time goes on.
- Like all squats, you’ll want to keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
- When in position, jump up explosively.
- Land carefully back into the squat position.
- Do two or three sets of 10 reps.
NOTE: Jump Squats come with the added benefit of working out the gluts. Trust us, even if you don’t think that matters much, your partner will certainly appreciate it. And if you don’t have a partner, Jump Squads will make finding one easier.
The first cousin to the Jump Squat is the Long Jump. Of course, it works the quads too. And like all jumping exercises, be sure to land as softly as possible. You’re going to need those feet for the actual running eventually.
- Keep feet shoulder-width apart.
- Squat down and explode forward.
- Use arms to propel further.
- One set of 10 reps.
We’re surprised this one was never used as a sobriety test. While many of these exercises can be done before or after a workout, we strongly suggest this one be done before running but still well into the warm-up phase. Balance and flexibility are important here, so you’ll want your calves and quads loose but not rubbery.
- Extend arms out for balancing.
- Extend left leg while squatting down as far as possible while keeping the back straight.
- One set of 10 reps.
- Switch legs.
The Iliotibial band runs between the hip and shin, and you need both of those things working for you when you run. The band itself is rather thin and can easily be injured if not properly warmed-up before a run. (Don’t worry, we don’t know how to pronounce it either.) When done correctly, Iliotibial band exercises will make you feel a stretch in the crossed leg.
- Cross your right ankle over your left.
- Stretch your left arm over your head, reaching for your right side.
- Once you feel the stretch, hold that position for at least 30 seconds.
- Repeat with the other leg.
Did you know you can do running exercises and help define that stomach of yours too? The only drawback to side planks is the balance you’ll need for this. Of course, it’s worth it in the end. If internet dating has taught us anything, it’s that everybody wants abs.
- Lay on your side with your forearm and foot as balance.
- Elevate hips and flex your core.
- Hold position as long as possible (optional range is the 30 seconds to one-minute mark).
- Switch sides.
Remember when planking was a thing on the internet for a while? Well, here’s how it’s actually done.
- Hold the position with your forearms and toes.
- Stay level.
- Flex your core, keep it tight.
- Hold the position as long as possible (optional range is the 30 seconds to one-minute mark).
This full-body exercise will help with endurance, flexibility, and speed. You’ll need good hand/eye coordination, so take that into account.
- Step your right leg behind your left.
- Cross legs at the thighs while making sure there are several feet between each foot.
- Transfer your weight from one leg to the other while in lateral hops.
- Increase speed to your comfort.
- Repeat 20-30 times.
Admittedly, this is more of a full-body exercise, but the squats are definitely good for the quads.
- Put your hands on the floor while in squat position.
- Jump as high as possible and drop to a push-up position.
- Do the push-up.
- While pushing up, return to the squat position.
- One set of 10-15 reps.
After the Run
Now that you’ve stretched and gone on your run, we come to the cooldown workout. Your heart rate is still probably jacked, and your muscles need to be eased back into a relaxed state.
Cramps and charlie horses are nobody’s friends. By doing these cooldown exercises, you’ll be able to avoid unnecessary pain.
Warm muscles are malleable muscles, and cooldowns help with muscle flexibility.
The workouts we chose here can also easily be done before running as well. You may want to rotate what exercises you do before and after a run if only to keep things exciting.
Quad Stretches are as basic as it gets. You’ve been doing them since your junior high school gym classes (or high school at the latest). Hell, even non-runners do Quad Stretches just to keep muscle-tightness from setting in (getting older is not fun in any way, shape or form).
- While standing, pull your leg behind you without pulling your toes.
- Pull your shin toward your thigh
- Keep your knee pointed downward to protect the knee joint.
- Hold the stretch for thirty seconds before switching sides.
After focusing on the front and side of the thigh, we’ll move to the hamstring at the back. Admittedly, Hamstring Stretches aren’t the most comfortable (I saw stars the first time I did them), but the more you do them, the more the muscles will become accustomed to the movement and the easier this will become. Besides the hamstring, this exercise will also work out your calves and glutes, so the pain pays for itself eventually. We promise.
- Sit on the floor with one leg extended and the foot of the other nestled toward the inner thigh of the extended leg.
- Bend forward to touch the toe of the extended leg.
- Keep the extended leg flat on the ground.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
- Repeat with your other leg.
Lunging Calf Stretches
Working our way down again, let’s continue the focus on the calves. Calf stretches are easy, and a great follow-up to the hamstring stretches from before.
- Step one leg forward.
- Bend the front leg while keeping the back leg straight.
- Keep the back leg straight while pushing the heel of the foot into the ground.
- Hold for 15 to 20 seconds.
- Repeat with the other leg.
Connected to the inner-thigh and the hip, stretching the groin aids in flexibility and general mobility. Try some groin stretches for increased running elasticity and actually feel the difference for yourself.
- Spread your legs wide—more than shoulder-width apart. Keep your hands at your hips like Superman.
- Shift your weight onto your right knee until you feel a stretch (without moving your left leg)
- Hold this stretch for 30 seconds.
- Switch and repeat.
Cat-Camel Back Stretch
The starting position will be familiar to anyone who does yoga or pays taxes. The Cat-Camel is a low-impact exercise. However, this is still the spine we’re dealing with, so this exercise should be performed slowly and carefully. It will work out all three sections of the spine and aid in flexibility over time.
- On your hands and knees, slowly arch then round your back.
- You should feel stretches in the upper, middle and lower parts of the spine.
- Repeat as one set with five reps.
We’re going to borrow this from our yoga-centric friends on this one. Also, be sure you can walk and chew gum at the same time if you’re planning on doing this exercise. Birds Dogs are a great exercise to do before or after Cat-Camel stretches. It’s low impact and works your core along with your gluts (everyone wants a good to see a slender core and a tight pair of gluts).
- While on your hands and knees, extend your right arm and your left leg.
- Simultaneously flex your glutes and core.
- Switch arms and legs.
- One set of 10-15 reps per side.
- Muscle and Performance, Best Stretches for Runners
- Healthline, Essential Stretches for Runners
- Self, 5 Essential Calf Stretchs
- Best Health Mag, 10 Stretches for Your Back
- Active, 14 Running-Specific Strength Training Exercises