5 Stretches To Do Before Running

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You’ve laced up your sneakers, tuned into your favorite workout playlist, and have stepped out into the broad world of running. But before you dive into your jog or sprint, it’s important that you take a few minutes to maximize your performance and minimize your chance of injury. To keep your workout both safe and effective, knowing what stretches to do before you run is just as important as knowing how to actually run.

Even though the art of stretching is enjoying a rise in popularity, not all stretches are created equal. It’s so important pay attention to your personal history of injuries, stiffness, and running successes instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach to your pre-run routine. Prime example: one myth about stretching that I groan about with my fellow personal trainers is that static stretching, or holding a stretch so that a muscle reaches a point of tension for around 30 seconds, is the way to go before a run. Evidence suggests that static stretching does not prevent long-term running injuries, according to a 2019 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Before your run, the study suggests, it’s actually more helpful to take your lower limbs through a full range of motion — aka dynamic stretches — to prepare your body for the type of run you’re about to dive into.

Any time you increase your running frequency, intensity, or length, make sure you’re doing it gradually so that you don’t shock your muscles into an immediate overuse injury. These five stretches can help you get prepped for an awesome run, whether you’re jogging, sprinting, or somewhere in between.

1. Lunges

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Your body needs to move before you start full-out running, and static stretching prepares your body to relax more than it prepares you to contract your muscles the way you'll need during your run. So making your stretches more dynamic can be a real help during your warmup.

No matter what kind of running you're about to do (distance or sprinting), getting in a few rounds of at least 10 walking lunges per leg is a great way to wake up the muscles in your hips, glutes, hamstrings, and quads. (Yes, you're sort of stretching, but you're mostly doing a silly walk, which is more fun.) Your calves, too, will engage to help you keep balance.

2. Leg Swings

If your body doesn't like lunges, no problem. Go right into gentle leg swings — literally swinging your legs (one at a time, folks) forward, back, and side-to-side. You can brace your hand on a bench, table, or wall as needed for balance. There's no need to kick super high, because you don't need to achieve Rockette-level leg control to get prepped for your run. Just let your muscles and joints swing through a solid range of motion, whatever that means for your body. Cycle through a few circuits before you start your run.

3. Wake Up Your Calves

Sink into pushup position with your toes braced on the ground and your hands under your shoulders. And then... pedal. Push off one foot at a time like you're about to stand up, but keep your toes on the ground and your torso and upper body stable. In other words, pedal your feet so that your calves start to feel activated and a little bit toasty. If you want or need a deeper stretch and activation, hop up into jumping jacks. The short bounds of jumping jacks might look like an "exercise" rather than a "stretch," but who says you can't have both? Your calf muscles will stretch plenty, if very actively, through jumping jacks. And that activation is exactly the kind of stretching you need before running.

4. Sprinting? Use A Foam Roller

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If you're heading into a sprint session, you might want to also grab a foam roller to help stretch into parts of your muscles you can't access through regular stretching. To foam roll most effectively, I always tell my clients to go slowly, letting the roller gently sink into the belly of your muscles (never foam roll on the backs of your ankles, your knees, or your spine!). Find what spots feel like they need more massaging, and let the roller work its magic by shifting back and forth on it for no longer than 30 seconds per muscle. Start with your calves, then hamstrings, glutes, and quads.

Mind you, this is most effective before you sprint or do other high-intensity activities. According to a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, foam rolling may actually negatively impact a long run, whereas it can help shorter, faster runs. So be selective about when to use this stretching method.

5. Kneeling Hip Stretch

Take a knee like you've just scored the ultimate touchdown and find a sense of balance. Lean forward by leading with your hips, shifting your weight up toward your front foot. Keep your torso steady and upright, because you're focusing on stretching your hip rather than your back. When you've rocked back and forth this way for a few good seconds, re-establish your balance and this time, reach both hands up toward the ceiling or sky. Gently tilt your arms and torso to one side, then the other, letting your rib cage get into the stretch as well. When you're ready, switch sides and repeat.

No matter what kind of running you're about to do, stretching can definitely help your body get ready for a great workout. Just make sure you're catering your stretching style to your own body and the specific workout you're about to do, and you'll be good to go.

Studies Referenced:

Alexander, JLN. (2019) Infographic running myth: static stretching reduces injury risk in runners. British Journal of Sports Medicine, https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2019/11/06/bjsports-2019-101169.info.

Giovanelli, N. (2018) Short-term effects of rolling massage on energy cost of running and power of the lower limbs. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29745784.