How to Stretch for Better Running Performance

A Good Stretch can Benefit Any Runner

Whether you’re lapping the neighborhood flats or exploring new mountain trails, you’re using the same general muscle groups. Stretching will help your overall running performance—it keeps your joints healthy and limbs balanced—especially after a run, when your muscles are warmed up and most pliable for enhancing recovery.

Feeling tight after a run is natural, and not only in your legs. Your trapezius muscles (“traps”) and low back, for example, also get worked on a run, where stretching offers ample opportunities to loosen up. Just don’t do too much too soon. Don’t go diving for your toes with über-straight legs right away; ease into it, starting with small gentle movements so you don’t pull any muscles. And if you’re stretching prior to your run, consider dynamic movements that gradually increase range of motion, engage muscles, and increase blood flow. Running is always more enjoyable when you’re feeling loose and relaxed.

Pre-Workout Stretches

Downward-Facing Dog Pose

An oldie but a goodie, “down dog” gets blood flowing throughout your body and wakes up your legs. Plant your palms at the top of your mat. Place the ball mounds of your feet at the back of your mat. Lift your hips up to the sky so you’re in an inverted “V” shape. Press into your index fingers and thumbs. Draw your shoulders away from your ears, shake out your head. Keep a micro-bend in your knees at all times, and work toward pressing your hips upward.

  • Make it dynamic: Bend one knee, then the other, rocking your hips side to side, also known as “walking your dog.” Repeat as feels good.

Low Lunge

Start with one leg at the top of your mat, one leg at the back, and set your feet about hips-width apart (don’t be walking on a tightrope here). Lower your back knee to the ground and reach your arms up to the sky, opening your chest and the front side of your thigh and hip flexor.

  • Make it dynamic: Move through a “cat-cow” motion here. Place your hands on the ground, framing your front foot. Inhale: Reach your heart forward, drop your belly button toward the floor, look up. Exhale: Curl and round your spine, drawing your belly button up and inward, curling your chin toward your chest. Repeat as desired. 

Side Lunge

Set your legs in a wide stance, feet pointing in the same direction as your hip bones, and keep a microbend in your knees (so your legs aren’t pin-straight). Bend forward over your hips, folding your torso over your thighs. Place your fingertips on the ground. Pick a side. Bend that knee, and drop your hips to hover right above your heel (it helps to lift that heel off the ground). Your other leg sticks out straight, with your heel on the ground, toes pointing up. Feel the stretch in your straight leg’s hamstring, inner thigh, and groin. Count to 20 breaths, then switch.

  • Make it dynamic: Keep your palms on the ground and move your hips from one heel up and over to the other heel, side to side, making a large arc motion with your hips as you bend one knee, then the other.
A woman stretching out her legs

Workout Stretches

Maybe you feel a little niggle on the trail, or suddenly your knee or your calf feels a little tight, pull off to the side and try one of these targeted, standing stretches.

Knee tightness: standing figure-four and quad stretch.

Standing Figure-Four Pose

If you’re feeling tightness on the outside of your knee, stand with your feet hips-width apart, shift all your weight into one leg, and bring the weightless knee up in line with your hip, hovering your foot off the ground. Cross that ankle over your standing thigh, and sit your hips back and down to feel a stretch along your outer hip, extending down your IT band. Keep your chest up and open.

  • Option I: Rest your hands on your thighs to relieve pressure in this one-legged squat position.
  • Option II: Bring your hands together near your heart and practice balancing on a single leg. (This’ll wake up your ankle musculature too!)

Quad Stretch

Relieving pressure in your quad can often relieve some of the pressure (tension) in your knee. Stand on one leg, kick the opposite foot into your hand, and gently draw that heel in toward your glutes. (And don’t pull too hard and risk ripping something in your knee!) Feel the stretch along the front line of your thigh—your quadricep. Count 20 breaths, then switch, and repeat as necessary.

Low-back tightness: side-body stretch and gentle forward fold.

Side-Body Stretch

Cross one foot in front of the other, so the outer edges of your feet are parallel and in close proximity. Reach your arms overhead, identify the wrist on the same side as your front-crossed leg, grab it with your other hand, and gently start to pull your torso up and over to the side. Keep both feet firmly rooted on the ground, creating an arc or half-moon shape. Feel the stretch along the outside of your low back, breathe here for a count of 20, then switch to the other side. (Bonus: This move also helps with IT band tightness along the outside of your leg.)

Gentle Forward Fold

Bring your feet about hips-width distance apart, bend your knees generously, and fold your torso over your thighs like an empanada. Relax your head and neck, gently start to straighten your legs. Focus on lifting your hips up and lengthening your low back. Feel the stretch there as you reach the crown of your head toward the ground. 

Lungs, shoulders, and neck tightness: interlaced-fingers chest expansion and looking up.

Interlaced-Fingers Chest Expansion

To start, lift your shoulders all the way up to your ears, then draw them back, away from your ears, and down your spine. Interlace your fingers at your low back. Feel your chest open, your lungs expand. Keep the fingers interlaced and repeat the shoulder rolling motion as often as feels good.

Looking up: Don’t forget to do that sometimes! Glimpse the sky instead of the tops of your running shoes. Smell the roses, too!

Post-Workout Stretches

After most runs is an excellent time to stretch, creating a true cooldown effect. Once you’re back at home, kick things off with “legs up against the wall” then head to your mat.

Legs Up Against the Wall

Simple: Sit on the floor, facing a wall, lie down and slide your legs up the wall. Scootch your butt as close to the wall as possible, and lean your legs on the wall so you’re hardly exerting any force. Relax, reduce the inflammation in your legs, and stay for 5 minutes. 

Figure-Four Ground Pose

Lying on your back, plant your feet flat on the ground, under your knees. Pick a leg and cross that ankle over the opposite thigh, so both legs together make the shape of an upside-down 4. Feel a stretch in the outside of your glute and IT band, basically your entire outer hip system. Alternate and stretch each leg for 1 to 2 minutes.

  • Option I: To add an inner thigh stretch, gently press into the inner thigh that’s facing you, pushing away your bent knee while your ankle stays firmly crossed.
  • Option II: To deepen the outer hip stretch and engage the other leg, reach your hands around the hamstring that’s facing away from you (one hand through the opening between your legs), and begin to pull the hamstring toward you. Keep your lower back on the ground. 

Runner’s Lunge

A great hip flexor stretch, this lunge lengthens one side of your body at a time. Start with one leg at the top of your mat, one leg at the back, with your stance about as wide as your mat. Bring both your hands to the ground on the inside of your front knee, and drop your back knee down so your hip flexor is completely extended. Feel the stretch along the front of your hip. Relax your head and neck, maybe drop down to your forearms if the action doesn’t strain your lower back.

Cross-Arm Stretch

This’ll help relieve any tension that might’ve built up in your neck or traps during your run while swinging your arms. Stack your shoulders over your hips (can be seated or standing) and center your skull over your shoulders. Pick one arm, cross it over your chest, just above your nipples. Use your other arm to gently secure this cross-body hold and feel the stretch in the outside of your shoulder. From here, feel free to move your neck and chin, gently lengthening your neck and traps.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.