“Stretching. Some people love it, some people hate it – or at least see it as an inconvenience they just don’t have time for,” says PT and ultra runner Lucy Hilton. “The truth is that stretching is essential.”
We spoke to two experts to find out why stretching is so important to runners, and what, when, and how to stretch to get the maximum benefit for recovery.
Why should runners stretch?
We know that stretching helps to prevent soreness and cramping after running. But there’s much more to it than that. “Stretching increases performance, protects joints and gives us increased range of motion and flexibility, all of which contribute to reducing injury risk,” says Lucy.
There are two different types of stretching that runners should be doing:
- post-run stretching to realign the muscle fibers
- a dedicated stretching session to work on flexibility and range of movement.
When to stretch
You should stretch at the end of every run or workout. Post-run stretches should be held for just 8-12 seconds each so even the busiest runner should be able to fit these in.
“When your session is complete, walk for 1-2 minutes to cool down, then move straight into your stretch sequence,” she says. “Once it is part of your routine it will become habit, once a habit you will start to feel the benefits and keeping it going will become easier.”
Longer stretching sessions to work on flexibility can be done later in the day or on a rest day. During these you can hold each stretch for around 30 seconds each.
If you find that you just aren’t getting your stretching done on your own, don’t be afraid to outsource it with a yoga or dedicated stretching class.
What muscles to stretch
“As a minimum, you want to be stretching out all the major muscle groups used in your activity,” Lucy advises. “For running, this would be calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes, hip flexors and lower back.”
check out our 8 simple stretches for runners.
Rachele Gilman is the director and lead stretchologist at stretch.inc, with two assisted stretching studios in London and an online offering.
She shares her top three stretches to do for post-run recovery.
- quad stretch
Stand with feet firmly planted, pull the tail bone down to help engage the pelvis and prevent unnecessary arching in the back. Drop your left hand to your side, lift your left foot back and hold your ankle in your hand. Work on pushing the engaged quad back to deepen the stretch while keeping the hips facing forward and bringing the knee into alignment.
- Hamstring with a strap
From your back, bring knee to chest, wrap the strap around the center of foot. Extend leg up, keeping it straight and simultaneously keeping your other leg down and straight. Use the strap to increase the stretch by pulling the leg closer to your body. Keep breathing and keep pulling.
- prone figure-4
Start on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Push your head, and back into the floor as you cross the right ankle over the left knee, flexing the right foot. Work the bent knee out so that both knees are in the same plane. Pull the left knee towards your chest.
Lucy Hilton is a PT and ultra runner who works with running insole brand Enertor.
“Ideally, you should be stretching each muscle group in isolation,” she says. “However, when I’m short on time, I like to choose good ‘bang for buck’ stretches that cover a couple of areas at once.”
She shares her favorites:
- Quads and hip flexors
Stand on your right leg. Bend left leg to hold ankle in left hand. Stand up straight, push left knee towards the floor to stretch your quads. Make sure you keep parallel knees. When the stretch wears off, pull the same ankle out behind you making sure your hips stay in position; this will stretch your hip flexors (top of thigh). Repeat on the right leg.
Stand in front of a wall; place both hands on the wall, feet about one foot from the wall. Step left leg back, bend right knee slightly whilst keeping right leg straight. Press into the wall to stretch the top of your calf; bend the back knee slightly to stretch lower calf and achilles. Repeat on other side.
Stand with straight legs, feet hip distance apart. Bend at the waist trying to get fingers as close to the ground as you can. Don’t bounce, just relax into the stretch.
- Lower back, glutes and ITB
Lie on your back, knees bent and feet on the floor. Allow both knees to drop to the right, pause to stretch lower back. Then straighten the top leg and allow foot to drop toward the floor to stretch muscles around the ITB and glute. Bend the top leg again, bring both knees back up to the start, with feet on the floor. Do the same on the other side; repeat 2-3 times each side.
Lucy advises to play with the angles of the stretches to find your own areas of tightness and focus on these. Is one side tighter than the other? Note the differences and work in tight areas.