Stretching for Runners: The How, Why, and When
Stretching. It’s not exactly seen as the most fun activity in the eyes of runners. Much like the always needed rest day, it can be difficult to see how stretching can really benefit your running.
And there’s so much controversy out there about stretching.
Do you stretch before your run? After a warm-up? After your run?
Do you do static stretching? Hold for 15 seconds or 30 seconds?
Or are dynamic stretches the only way to go?
With so much confusion out there, it can be tempting just to skip it altogether.
Okay, but here’s the thing. Stretching is important if you really want to optimize your running.
Let’s talk about why stretching is important for runners, when you should stretch, and how you should stretch.
Why is stretching important for runners?
The end goal of stretching is actually to improve your range of motion (ROM) at the joints. In running that could mean the range of motion of your hips, knees, and even ankles.
A lot of the power that you use in running comes from creating an elastic effect. You use your muscles to stretch the rubber band, then release them as you spring forward. The greater you can stretch and pull that rubber band, the more powerful the release and springing effect will be.
There is potential to overdo it. Go back to that rubber band. The further you stretch it, the further it will fly when you release it, right? But stretch it too far, and you could cause damage to that rubber band or even break it.
Most people aren’t in danger of stretching past the point of benefit, but it’s still important to note that you’re aiming for the right amount of flexibility. The one matches the required flexibility for that particular movement.
So what actually happens when a runner stretches?
To understand the principle of how stretching actually works, we need to define two parts of the muscle:
The Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO)
Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO)
The GTO is a nerve receptor that is located at the point where the muscle meets the tendon. When you stretch, the GTO senses tension and resistance. It sends a message to the spinal cord, which then tells the muscle to relax.
Why does it want your muscle to relax?
Let’s go back to the rubber band example. Imagine your muscle starting as a piece of plastic, like the kind you find on the tag of new clothes. As you pull on this plastic and put tension on it, your body knows that if you pull too hard, you’re going to break it. So instead, it tells that plastic to relax and turn into a rubber band. Now, as you continue to pull, the rubber band is able to stretch rather than break.
Your body doesn’t want you to put too much tension on your muscles and cause damage, so it tells your muscle to relax.
Muscle spindles are located deep within your muscles. They sense when your muscles are stretching. They take into account how far you’re stretching as well as how fast you’re stretching.
If you take your stretch too far or too quickly, the Myotatic Reflex (aka the stretch reflex) causes your muscle to contract. It doesn’t want you to stretch any further. It protects you from the risks involved with overstretching.
In general, the main goal of stretching is to minimize the stretch reflex so the muscle can be lengthened.
What does that mean for your stretching?
Don’t overstretch. Take it too far, and you’ll trigger the stretch reflex.
Take it slow. Take it too fast, and you’ll trigger the stretch reflex. Take it slow and easy and you’ll be able to trigger the Golgi Tendon Reflex instead.
When should a runner stretch?
I have to admit, this can be a bit of a controversial subject.
One theory is that when you stretch before you workout, you get the muscles into a relaxed state with that Golgi Tendon Reflex. Since your muscles are relaxed, you’ll have greater Range of Motion, and you’ll therefore have greater potential power.
Let’s revisit that rubber band once again. That rubber band has been sitting, unused, all day. Maybe all week. It’s a little stiff. But if you take the time to stretch it out gently before attempting to fling it across the room, it's more likely to perform how you’d like it to.
In contrast, other theories suggest that when you stretch before you workout, your muscles may be stretching further, but you’ve taken away some of that elasticity… and therefore some of your potential power.
Stretching before a run could cause you to lose potential power! And negatively impact your running efficiency!
In this instance with the rubberband, it has been sitting for a while. It’s stiff. Try to pull back, and it doesn’t take much force for it to reach its limit. You release, and it goes flying. Now, stretch that same rubberband before you fling it across the room. It’s more elastic now. Pull back the same amount as you did when it was stiff, and it isn’t going to fly as far… it has less potential power.
So what’s a runner to do?
The studies that show that stretching before your workout decreases your power, have examined activities that require maximum force… things like heavy lifting and sprinting. So in theory, distance runners have less to worry about when it comes to this loss of power from prestretching.   
Interestingly, one study found that foam rolling before exercise increases Range of Motion without decreasing power. Foam rolling relaxes the muscles without overstretching them . So one theory could be to skip the pre-stretching, and implement a pre-run roll instead!
In general, it wouldn’t be ethical of me to recommend pre-stretching, avoiding pre-stretching, or even pre-foam rolling to you. The science is just too controversial. Do what you find works best for you. How does your body best respond? Experiment on yourself, and be your own n1… or reach out to your trusted physical therapist (PT) for help.
What type of stretching should runners do?
There are four types of stretches for runners:
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
Static stretching is what most people think of when they think of stretching. You’re staying still and holding different stretches for long periods of time.
You can either do it yourself (active stretching), or someone else can help you get into the stretch (passive stretching).
If you’re doing static stretching, it’s important to hold the stretch for a long period of time. That means at least 40 seconds, but ideally for longer.
Holding the stretch long enough allows your muscle spindles to get used to the new length. Eventually, they stop telling your muscle to contract quite so much, and the Stretch Reflex is reduced.
Dynamic stretching involves taking your legs, and other body parts, through their entire range of motion that is needed for running. When you see runners swinging their legs gently before a run, this is an example of Dynamic Stretching.
Dynamic stretching has been shown to increase your Range of Motion without the risk of decreased power. It seems to be the most recommended form of stretching as a warm-up for sports that require jumping or running .
First of all, don’t do it.
But what is it?
It’s when you “bounce” at the end of your Range of Motion. It’s using your momentum to stretch past that end point. There’s a huge risk of injury with ballistic stretching. So please, be more gentle on yourself, and try something else!
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
PNF is a type of “pre-contraction” stretching. It is usually done with the help of a partner, but you can also use something like a yoga strap to help you out.
How to do it:
It starts with you contracting the target muscle you want to stretch. Hold for 10-15 seconds. Then relax the muscle. That’s when the partner stretches that muscle to your Range of Motion limit. Hold the stretch. Then contract the muscle again. Hold. Relax. Stretch. Repeat the cycle 2-3 times.
Interestingly, one study even suggests that doing PNF on just one side of your body increased the participants’ Range of Motion on both sides of their body!  I’m not sure if I’d try only stretching one side myself, but it was interesting nonetheless.
It’s definitely an effective method of increasing Range of Motion. You’ll find that with this method, your partner will be able to stretch your muscle to a new limit after each contraction.
Most Important Muscles for Runners to Stretch
A lot of runners neglect their upper body when stretching their muscles. Don’t be one of those runners! Running is a full-body experience, so don’t half-stretch it. Here are some muscles you’ll want to think about and examples of how to stretch them.
(Visuals coming soon!)
Pectoralis Major (aka your “Pecs”)
Static Stretch: Hold onto a doorway with one hand. With a slight bend in the elbows, stretch your arm back until you feel your Pecs stretching. Hold for at least 40 seconds. Switch sides.
Dynamic Stretch: Clap your hands directly in front of you. Then, keeping your arms parallel with the ground, hands facing forward, rotate them back until you feel your limit. Do this in a controlled manner, and repeat.
Latissimus Dorsi (aka your “Lats”)
Static Stretch: Place one hand on top of the other, reach up, and place them on a wall. Reach down with your body while keeping your hands in place. Hold for at least 40 seconds.
Dynamic Stretch: Reach up with your arms. Do big, slow, controlled circles with your arms. Reach all the way forward, and all the way back. Switch directions.
Rhomboids/Lower Trapezius (between your shoulder blades)
Static Stretch: Hold onto a doorway or a post with both hands. Keep your feet stable and reach your body back. Allow your shoulder blades to rotate forward. Hold just when you start to feel the stretch. Hold for at least 40 seconds.
Dynamic Stretch: When doing those same arm circles as you did for your Lats, make sure you’re reaching forward enough to feel the stretch of your Rhomboids.
Static Stretch: Reach one arm directly overhead. Then, bend at the elbow until your hand reaches your back. Keep your elbow pointed up. Grasp onto your elbow with the opposite hand, and gently pull your elbow toward your midline. Hold for at least 40 seconds. Switch sides.
Dynamic Stretch: Do the same stretch as the dynamic stretch without the hold. Gently move into the stretch, then gently release and switch arms. Continue to repeat this slow, controlled stretch and switch motion.
Levator Scapulae (your lower, outer neck muscle)
Static Stretch: Stand relaxed. Tilt your head to the side and slightly forward. Hold for at least 40 seconds. Switch sides.
Dynamic Stretch: Do slow and controlled head rolls, making sure to feel that gentle stretch on either side.
Static Stretch: Stand with your palms facing behind you. Bend slightly at the hips. Reach your arms back and up. Hold for at least 40 seconds.
Dynamic Stretch: Stand with your palms facing behind you. Starting backward, rotate your arms in a slow and controlled fashion, always making sure your palms are facing backward during the start of each rotation.
Rotator Cuff (your shoulder muscles)
Static Stretch: Place your wrists on your hips. Rotate your elbows in front of you. Hold for at least 40 seconds.
Dynamic Stretch: Slow and controlled arm circles. Make sure to switch directions halfway through.
Static Stretch: Stand in front of a chair, coffee table, or even some steps. Prop one leg up, and bend slightly at both knees. Bend forward until you feel the stretch in your hamstrings. Hold for at least 40 seconds. Switch legs.
Dynamic Stretch: Slow and controlled leg swings. You’ll feel the hamstring stretch as your leg extends forward.
Gluteus Maximus (aka your “Glutes”)
Static Stretch: Sit down and extend one leg in front of you. Place the opposite foot to the outside of your extended leg’s knee. Place your elbow on your bent knee and gently twist until you feel a stretch in your glutes. Hold for at least 40 seconds. Switch sides.
Dynamic Stretch: Stand on one leg. Hug the opposite knee to your chest. Step down and switch. Check out an example video here.
Piriformis/Gluteus Medius (the more inner, smaller muscles of your “Glutes”)
Static Stretch: Sit on a chair with your knees at a 90-degree angle. Place one ankle on top of the opposite knee. Keep your shin as horizontal as possible. Lean forward slightly until you feel the stretch. Hold for at least 40 seconds. Switch sides.
Dynamic Stretch: Stand on one leg. Step forward, and pull the shin toward your chest. Step down and switch. Check out an example video here.
Gastrocnemius (your major Calf muscle)
Static Stretch: Place your hands on a wall. Reach one leg back, reaching down with your heel until you feel your calf muscle stretch. Hold for at least 40 seconds. Switch sides.
Dynamic Stretch: Go into a plank or downward dog type of position. Alternate between pressing each heel down until you feel that stretch of the calf muscle.
Soleus (just below your Gastrocnemius, also considered part of your Calf)
Static Stretch: Stand in front of a chair. Place one foot on the edge of the chair. Lean forward slightly until you feel that lower part of your leg stretch. Hold for at least 40 seconds. Switch sides.
Dynamic Stretch: Place your hands on a wall. Bend at one knee, and pick the other foot up. Gentle rock backwards and forwards on your standing leg. You can also lean left and right. Allow your opposite leg to swing naturally as you perform this motion. Switch sides. Check out an example video here.
Hip Adductors (your inner thigh)
Static Stretch: Stand with your legs far apart. Bend one knee, and feel the inner thigh of your straight leg stretch. Hold for at least 40 seconds. Switch sides.
Dynamic Stretch: Stand with your legs far apart. Bend at your left knee, and reach down with your right hand to touch your left toe. Keep your right leg straight. Alternate between sides.
Hip Flexors (your hips)
Static Stretch: If you do yoga, you’ll know that this stretch is often referred to as “lower lunge”. Kneel on the ground. Place one foot in front of you with the knee bent at 90 degrees. Place the other knee and foot behind you. Reach up and stretch down with your hips. Hold for at least 40 seconds. Switch sides.
Dynamic Stretch: Do the same position as the static stretch, but pull your back knee in a few inches. Then, slowly rock your body forward and backward. Check out an example video here.
Obliques (your side abs)
Static Stretch: Stand with your feet shoulder distance apart. Reach up, lace your fingers together, and stretch to one side. Hold for at least 40 seconds. Switch sides.
Dynamic Stretch: Do the same as the static stretch, but gently rotate your body back and forth between sides.
Rectus Abdominis (your central abs)
Static Stretch: In yoga, this is your “cobra” stretch. Lay belly-down on the floor. Place your hands slightly in front of your shoulders. Press up, keeping your knees on the floor, until you feel your abs stretch. Hold for at least 40 seconds.
Dynamic Stretch: Get into that same cobra stretch. Now gently rotate back and forth, lifting each side of the hip up as you do so. Check out an example video here.
Thoracic Spine Musculature (upper back)
Static Stretch: On the floor, place your knees under your hips and your hands beneath your shoulders. In yoga, this is your “table” position. Then, place one hand just above your ear. Your elbow should be pointed down. Rotate your body until your elbow is pointing outward and you feel the stretch in your upper back. Hold for at least 40 seconds. Switch sides.
Dynamic Stretch: Stand, Cross your arms into a square in front of you with opposite hands on opposite elbows. Hold your arms parallel with the floor. Rotate your body back and forth, feeling the stretch on either side.
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Jillian Beckham is wife to Brent and admits to neglecting her stretching routine. After writing this, she swears to do better. She’s also a health and wellness copywriter. If you need science-backed blogs, newsletter, or web copy for your business, feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out her website www.beckhamcopywriting.com.