Whether or not runners should stretch -- and when is the optimal time to stretch -- are popular debates among runners and fitness experts. Recommendations about stretching vary from expert to expert and the research on the subject is conflicting. Runners also have differing opinions about stretching – some swear that regular stretching helps improve their running and keeps them injury-free, while others never stretch and don’t suffer any adverse effects. Like many running-related things, what works for one runner may not necessarily work for another.
Is Stretching Beneficial?
Proponents of stretching for runners say that it helps keeps decreases risk of injuries and prevents soreness. But a comprehensive review of the scientific research about stretching and sports injuries shows that although stretching does increase flexibility, the increased flexibility doesn’t prevent injuries. Researchers who pored over almost 100 published medical studies on the subject concluded that more injuries would be prevented by better warm-ups, strength training, and balance exercises than by stretching.
Stretching regularly will help maintain your flexibility and range of motion, although some studies show and experts will argue that doesn't necessarily improve your running performance. But some runners who stretch say they do it because it helps them relax and it just feels good, and that benefit is difficult to quantify.
I usually advise runners to use their best judgment and determine what works for them. I know plenty of runners who find that stretching after a warm-up helps them avoid tightness in problem areas like their calves or IT bands, or others who saw improvements in their range of motion after starting a regular stretching routine. Masters runners in particular seem to benefit from stretching because everyone loses some of the elastic properties of soft tissue as they age. On the other hand, there are some runners who've stopped stretching after years of doing it and didn’t notice a difference at all.
When determining your individual needs, just remember that stretching or massaging (releasing) tight muscles should be part of a training plan that also includes warm-ups and strengthening exercises to reduce muscle weaknesses and imbalances.
When Is the Best Time for Runners to Stretch?
Whether they think stretching is beneficial or not, most experts will agree that it's never good to stretch cold muscles. Stretching cold, tight muscles or improper stretching can lead to muscle strains, tears, or other injuries. So, if you are going to stretch regularly, you don’t want to stretch before you start running or doing another activity.
Before you stretch (and then start running), it's important to warm your body up first, as cold muscles are more prone to being pulled or torn. Start by doing any low-impact, rhythmic exercise for about five minutes. This can include walking, marching, knee lifts, butt kicks, jumping jacks, or anything else that's easy on your body but gets the blood flowing. Then you can go through your stretching routine or run, then stretch after your run.
Some runners prefer to wait until the end of their runs to stretch, which is fine because your muscles are definitely warmed up. However, be careful when you're stretching after a long run (more than 90 minutes). Your muscles are depleted, fatigued and you don't want to cause more damage. So only do very gentle stretching if you feel like you need it.
Do's and Don'ts for Stretching
Follow these tips to get the most out of your stretching:
- Don't rush it. Stretch slowly and hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.
- Don't stretch through pain. Don't stretch beyond the point where you begin to feel tightness in the muscle. You shouldn't push through muscle resistance, and never stretch to the point of pain. As you feel less tension, you can increase the stretch a bit more until you feel the same slight pull.
- Do stretch both sides. Don't just stretch your left calf because you feel tightness on that side. Make sure you're stretching both sides equally.
- Don't bounce. It's a common mistake, but bouncing risks pulling or tearing the muscle you're trying to stretch. Make sure you stretch your muscles gradually.
- Don't hold your breath. Stay relaxed and breathe in and out slowly. Make sure you don't hold your breath. Take deep belly breaths.
Stretches for Runners
Some of the most important body parts for runners to stretch are: quadriceps (front of thigh), hamstrings (back of thigh), hip flexors, calves, hips, lower back, triceps, shoulders, and groin. Check out Head-to-Toe Stretches for Runners for step-by-step instructions on stretching those areas. You can also try these yoga poses for runners.
Also, check out these videos of stretches for runners:
5 Stretches for Runners
Lower Body Stretches
Andersen, J. C. Stretching Before and After Exercise: Effect on Muscle Soreness and Injury Risk. Journal of Athletic Training 40(2005): 218-220
Thacker, S.B., et al. The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 371–378, 2004
Trehearn TL, Buresh RJ. Sit-and-reach flexibility and running economy of men and women collegiate distance runners. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):158-62.