Stretching for runners has been a highly debated topic for years now. Some runners swear by stretching; others never stretch and manage to never get injured. Many runners don’t stretch and then feel guilty about it. So what is right? While there is no one right answer for each individual runner, I’ve always been interested in this topic and have pulled together some information to help you make a decision about what may be best for you.
My history of stretching as a runner
I grew up dancing, and always had a lot of flexibility. Now, at almost 40 years old, I’ve been running for over 20 years and have had desk jobs for most of that time as well. My body feels much different than it did in high school. Yet I’ve had many sports medicine professionals tell me that I don’t really need to be stretching. (A few have given me very specific stretches for very specific areas or injuries I was addressing).
A few years ago I made a trip to the UVA speed clinic for a full running analysis, and one of the points I learned was that I have enough flexibility and do not need to stretch. Even my hip flexors, which I always felt like I needed to stretch. Years later I still don’t spend much time stretching, and have actually been injured much less than I was when I spent hours a week following a regimented stretching routine. Instead, I put my time into strength training and mobility work. So let’s dive into some of the details to help you understand if runners need to stretch.
Disclaimer: am not a physical therapist or other type of medical professional; I am a certified running coach but this information is based on what I have learned through my own experiences and articles I have read, in which case I will link to those sources.
Why do our muscles seem tight?
In a perfect world, when a muscle felt tight we could stretch it for 30 seconds and it would feel better. However, that isn’t usually how it works. Have you ever found that the same areas always feel tight, and no matter how much you stretch them it just doesn’t get better? If so, there is a reason for this. There is also a reason why you may feel initial relief in that area after you stretch, only for the pain or tightness to return again later.
The tightness we feel in our muscles is strongly connected to our nervous systems, and can be affected by more than just our physical endeavors. Even our emotions can cause certain areas of our bodies to tighten up. It’s also important for runners to think about what they are doing when they are not running. If you are sitting at work all day, feeling stressed, eating poorly, etc, these things will have a negative affect on your body and could even cause your muscles to tense up.
There is also an interesting protective factor to muscle tightness. In some cases your body might not allow you to get into your full range of motion in a certain area because of compensatory patterns that have developed due to other areas that are weak, or your body is just not used to that range of motion and tenses up to protect itself from going too far.
We also need to consider why the same areas may always feel tight. Do we always sit a certain way? Are we overusing those muscles for some reason? Maybe there is a way to prevent those muscles from getting tight to begin with.
What are the benefits of stretching for runners?
We want to have enough range of motion in our bodies to be active, but depending on your activity of choice that ideal range may be different. Dancers and gymnasts need more flexibility than runners, but people who are inactive could benefit from any type of movement. If you are exercising, and doing a range of activities, you can potentially be taking your body through some of those ranges which is good. If you only do one type of physical activity, you many need to think about improving range of motion in areas that are not addressed through that activity.
As runners, we don’t typically take our hips into full flexion (think pulling your knee to your chest). When we sit our hips are flexed at about 90 degrees, which is about how far we will also flex them while running (maybe less depending on form and speed). So it could be beneficial to bring your hips into full flexion a few times a day. This could be by including deep squats into your workout routine, or squatting on the floor while reading blogs.
What are potential negative effects of stretching for runners?
For this question I am not talking about moving your body gently into different ranges of motion but about those of us that pull our bodies into a stretch after we exercise with the aim of improving flexibility. Your hamstrings feel tight after a run, so you try to touch your toes by reaching as far as you can towards the ground. What happens when your force this type of movement?
There has been a lot of research showing that doing this can actually cause the muscle to tense more as a defense mechanism, and ultimately become tighter. Also, when we stretch an injured muscle it can delay healing by straining the muscles fibers and connective tissues more. However, stretching an injured area may lead to temporary relief because sensory stimulation (like rubbing an injured area) can block pain receptors.
Why should runners stretch?
If you know for sure that you are missing range of motion in an area, and need to improve it in order to participate in your sport efficiently, you can take a structured approach to working to lengthen that area. Based on my research, this is way more complicated than “improve muscle flexibility” as it includes more than just muscle length. A fairly conservative plan of gently stretching often and for longer periods of time along with self-myofascial release may be a good place to start. It may also be worth consulting with a professional.
I also think we need to keep in mind that our bodies are meant to move. If we sit all day, it’s important to try to move more. Maybe that includes a little bit of gentle stretching. We don’t want to get used to being in the same position all the time, which is what can lead to some restrictions in other positions.
Remember that mobility and range of motion can be achieved in other ways besides stretching. Strength training, cross-training, yoga, and other activities can lead to improvement in these areas if done mindfully and strategically.
Why do runners’ muscles feel tight even if they have enough range of motion?
Sometimes our nervous system can cause us to feel tension in our muscles due to psychosocial factors such as stress and other emotions. Also, we can feel tension or notice restrictions in movement due to more than just “short muscles”. Think of factors that affect mobility, such as soft tissue restriction, joint capsule restriction, motor control problems, joint range of motion dysfunction, and neural dynamic issues.
As runners, we need to remember that we are using our bodies dynamically. Any flexibility we need for our gait cycle is different than just static flexibility. Just because you can touch your toes doesn’t necessarily mean you have the dynamic flexibility to run. This is where dynamic stretches or mobility work (think leg swings, myrtle routine, lunges) can help and may actually make you feel better while you are running.
What about yoga for runners?
Yoga shouldn’t be thought of as just “static stretching” because it is intended to be much more than that. There is an important mindful component where you should actually be improving your own body awareness. This will help you be better able to recognize your own limitations, and slowly make changes to improve in areas where it’s needed. Another helpful piece of yoga is that many of the poses build strength, which is so important for runners. It seems there is a perfect balance of moving the body through different positions (to improve range of motion, as discussed above), while also building strength and developing body awareness.
Final thoughts on stretching for runners
Now that you have more information about stretching for runners, keep in mind that if what you are doing is working for you, you probably don’t need to make any drastic changes to your routine. However, if you are constantly stretching an area of your body that has given you ongoing problems, maybe you need to think outside the box. From what I have read we can’t stretch our way out of an injury. Also, if you absolutely hate stretching and just “go through the motions” every day, it may not really be helping you anyway.
Stretching should be specific and with a purpose, and we should never overstretch. It will probably be something you need to figure out for yourself. Consider rethinking the idea of “flexibility” and instead think about the range of motion required for your sport. Also consider what types of movement you could benefit from adding into your routine. As with most things, I think that moderation is key. And if you decide not to stretch, you don’t necessarily need to feel guilty about it! (Just make sure you are including strength and mobility into your workout routine).
You may also like:
The Great Stretching Debate
Do you stretch? If so, what is your routine like?
What is your opinion stretching for runners? If you don’t stretch, is it because you don’t like it or because you don’t need it?
Some of the information for this post was taken from the following sources:
- Ingraham SJ. The role of flexibility in injury prevention and athletic performance: have we stretched the truth? Minn Med. 2003 May;86(5):58-61. PMID: 15495679.
- Jones AM. Running economy is negatively related to sit-and-reach test performance in international-standard distance runners. Int J Sports Med. 2002 Jan;23(1):40-3. doi: 10.1055/s-2002-19271. PMID: 11774065.
- Williams PE. Use of intermittent stretch in the prevention of serial sarcomere loss in immobilised muscle. Ann Rheum Dis. 1990 May;49(5):316-7. doi: 10.1136/ard.49.5.316. PMID: 2344211; PMCID: PMC1004076.
- Improve your Concept of Flexibility to Improve as a Runner
- Stretching Doesn’t Work the Way you Think it Does
- Fascial Fitness and Flexibility
- Yoga and Flexibility
- Stretching an Injury
- Anatomy for Runners
- Becoming a Supple Leopard
Now it’s time for the Runners’ Roundup! Link up your running and fitness posts below! Join myself, Coach Debbie Runs, Confessions of a Mother Runner, and Runs with Pugs. Post your favorite running tips, experiences, race and training recaps, workouts, gear, and coaching ideas!
Michele @ paleorunningmomma says
Love this because I know it’s relevant to me and probably everyone! I do love stretching with yoga but I also know I have a tendency to overstretch, so I have to check myself. I think my muscles tend to feel tight as a result of running and then sitting at the computer all day, so midday yoga really feels good to counteract that. That said, I usually feel tight again once I’m sitting again.
Isn’t it interesting to think about how it feels to stretch and what is actually happening when we do? I definitely think mid-day yoga would be beneficial to get things moving between all the sitting!
Susie @ SuzLyfe says
Such a fantastic spost. Often, our muscles and fascia are tight and need to be released, not stretched. If you are too “stretchy,” you won’t have enough support for your joints! But it really is a balance of what feels good and what you need to do.
Exactly! And I definitely prefer the term “release” to “stretch”.
Megan @ Meg Go Run says
I used to never stretch but now that I made it a habit, I love it. My stretching takes about 15 minutes. I do pigeon, couch stretch, a calf stretch, and I just like to hang down and touch my toes. Feels so good!
Glad you found a routine that works for you!
Cori @ She's Going the Distance says
Lisa you are so spot on with my views of stretching/flexibility/mobility! My hips tend to get off balance and as soon as my chiro told me to stretch one side, but not the other it made a huge difference. It took some time for my brian to wrap my head around “not being even” while stretching, but’s worth it.
That’s so interesting about only stretching one side, but it definitely makes sense! It’s tough to shift our thinking behind this but it’s nice when you have figured out what is best for your own body!
meredith @ Cookie ChRUNicles says
so very interesting. I stretch with pure barre and during the few short yoga videos I started doing lately but other than that, I was not a big stretcher. I am not usually tight anywhere(I don’t think? lol) but I do like the stretch segments of pure barre a lot.
Stretching can definitely feel good, and I think it’s great when people enjoy it and can do just enough to feel good. I actually look forward to the stretching pieces of workout videos too because it’s like getting a break from the harder stuff!
I’ve been on board with this approach for years. It is so interesting to me how stretching is just ingrained in our thinking as runners–there are people who will never be convinced otherwise!
Glad to hear you agree with this! I’ve been reading about it for awhile and slowly making the connections, but you are right that it is thought to shift our thinking around this!
I don’t stretch as much as I probably should. But I don’t feel that much more different or better when I do take the time out to stretch. I should start doing yoga though.
If you don’t feel any different or better than maybe you don’t need to as much as you think. Yoga is great for becoming more aware of any areas that may hold extra tension!
Laura @ This Runner's Recipes says
This is such an informative and well-written post, Lisa! I tend to only stretch a bit – like maybe a toe touch and quad stretch – if I feel tight. Once I discovered foam rolling, right or wrong, that took place of stretching!
I alos prefer foam rolling to stretching! And based on what I’ve read it seems like the better option. But as we know the research on all this is constantly evolving, so who knows how long this will last! As long as you are staying healthy and feeling good that’s all that matters, I think!
I don’t stretch, no. Hardly ever. It’s only been lately that I’ve been stretching my lower back and hamstrings and hips since that stupid back injury I had over the holidays. That really did a number on me! I was so stiff and my back was spasming so much that I lost giant parts of mobility. I’m slowly getting it back, and then I’ll go back to my non-stretching self. 😉
I always get into a stretching routine after an injury but looking back I wonder if it really helped me at all anyway. In your case it sounds like you need to work on getting that mobility back, but in other situations I definitely felt like I was just going through the motions.
Jen B. says
This is really interesting. I stretch because mainly it just relaxes me and makes my body feel good, not because I necessarily think I need to do it. And I agree, I feel much more tense when I’m also stressed out. I sit at my desk a lot during the day so I try and make it a habit to get up and walk around each hour, even if it’s just for a minute or so.
Stretching can definitely feel relaxing! I’s so important to figure out ways to deal with stress which could be another whole post:) But the relationship between our emotions and our muscle tension is interesting.
Alyssa @ renaissancerunnergirl says
I stretch mainly to relieve tightness and also to maintain flexibility I have from dance and gymnastics, but realize that as a runner I also require more focus on different areas than I did back then and have no need for those oversplits I used to be able to do (I want to hang on to splits though!)
I lost those splits years and years ago! And now I worry I would hurt myself if I ever tried to do one again:)
I need to stretch my hips more because of all the sitting, and I’m slowly doing more and more yoga. I started small, and think I can keep adding shorter routines on the days I strength train and run.
Yoga is a great compliment to all the other stuff, but it can certainly be hard to fit everything in!
Megan @ outlawontherun says
Really interesting! I have chronically tight calves and hip flexors, which have definitely contributed to some injuries. I stretch what my PT says, and that is it!
It’s nice to get that personalized feedback so you aren’t just going through the motions!
This is a great topic and great post. Ever since I started pursuing running as a sport last year I’ve felt less flexible. Probably due to new muscles developing, getting tight, new stresses on the body that it isn’t used to, etc. And so of course I started off using stretches to counteract that. And of course when you get an overuse injury (common to new runners or runners increasing mileage) Dr. Google recommends stretching, stretching, and more stretching to prevent it from coming back. But I’ve given myself injuries stretching just as much as I’ve gotten them from running. I’m talking the “lite” kinds of injuries that go away with a few days of not putting stress on the area – but still. For example, Dr. Google recommends calf stretches for just about every below-the-knee injury from achilles tendonitis to planter fasciitis. I have a very short achilles tendon which no amount of stretching throughout my life has changed. In fact, since I’ve upped the stretching in that area, convinced it will reduce injury, I’ve noticed other ankle tendonitis develop from the stretching, which can be exacerbated by running, but was a result of the stretching, not the running. Moral of the story: Just run. don’t beat that area up with stretching. It’s not going to budge.
I’ve been kind of awed by how little flexibility running requires. I like being flexible, and I like yoga, but I like running more. And if pursuing running means backing off the aggressive hot yoga stretching (or at least moves that target naturally inflexible areas for me) to reduce chances of injury – which seems to be the case – so be it.
Dr Google will always recommend stretching! And sometimes its tough not to buy into all that, especially because alot of really good PTs, chiros, etc still recommend stretching. While there may be a place for it, I think we need to consider alot of other factors before sure stretching an area. I like the analogy in “Anatomy for runners” when he talks about how a tight muscle is like a rope with a knot in it- if you pull in the knot will only get tighter- instead it needs to be released first.
Jennifer @ Dashing in Style says
This is really interesting. Thanks for all the info and links! I do a bunch of different stretching for different reasons. I wake up early and run first thing, so I do dynamic stretches to warm up a bit and loosen me up. I do more dynamic stretches after my warm-up run before I start speedwork. I do some light stretches after I’m done running because I’m always running for more than an hour now, and it just feels good. In the evening after I do foam rolling I do a short session of gentle yoga, which are basically hip and some other stretches but with the meditative aspect that you mention. And then once a week I try to do yin yoga. Yin yoga was recommended to me by a yoga teacher to help heal hip pain when I first started running. It helped my hip get back to normal very quickly, and I do it once a week to prevent further injuries. I know being injury free is a result of many things, but I’ve been injury free ever since I started doing yin yoga, so I’m going to keep doing it!
Yin yoga sounds really interesting! I definitely want to look into it after hearing you say so many good things about it. And you are right that avoiding injury can involve alot of factors, but its all about finding those little things that will get you there and keep you there!
Wendy@Taking the Long Way Home says
I’m one of those people who needs to stretch! I’m not very flexible to begin with, and I get pretty stiff after a workout. But I also do foam rolling a lot–I think that addresses tightness in a different way. You did a great job reviewing the pros and cons of stretching!
I definitely think the foam rolling can address the tightness in a different way! I like the analogy in “Anatomy for runners” when he talks about how a tight muscle is like a rope with a knot in it. If you pull in the knot will only get tighter, instead it needs to be released first (like with a foam roller, lax ball, etc), but he also talks about chronically tight areas that need a little extra TLC through stretching to make them long enough for the sport required.
I have a great dynamic warmup routine I’ve been doing for years that includes some but not much stretching. I’ve let my post-run stretches fall away for the most part, mostly out of sheer laziness. I totally agree that muscles can be over stretched.
I think dynamic warm ups are the way to go! And its weird not to stretch after a run anymore, but its kind of nice because it gives me time to do other things like a better cool down, core work, etc.
jill conyers says
Stretch or not to stretch has been debated a lot over the past few years (probably longer). I tried the no stretch and it’s not for me. I NEED to stretch.
Love that you included yoga being so much more than a stretch session.
Thanks for sharing with friends at Fitness Health & Happiness. Have a great weekend!
I’m glad you figured out what works best for you!
Sheena @ Paws and Pavement says
I definitely need to stretch more especially after my run. I am always just hopping in the shower and not taking the time but it’s so important.
Its to tough to fit in everything we should be doing other than running!
I’m terrible when it comes to stretching and pay for often! Time to go foam roll LOL!
Haha I know I should definitely foam roll tonight but instead Im laying down blogging! Maybe a little later:)
I am so tight, often in my calves, because I do a lot of standing. O_O I need to do more stretching. I do actually love dynamic warm-ups. P90X are some of my favorites. I need to get back into those.
I’ve never tried P90X and didn’t realize they had dynamic warm ups! My calves feel stiff when I wear certain shoes, so I always try to stick to flats!
I work in an office all day and sit behind a computer. It would be very simple to make time to get up and stretch several times during the day. If I know how important this is why don’t I do it? I’m like you I wish I could squeeze in a short yoga class about middle of the afternoon, lol 🙁 Great info on stretching Lisa.
It’s so hard to remember to get up and move during the day! I always tell myself I will do it more and then I get wrapped up in what I’m doing.
There’s definitely a time and place for stretching. I like to give my clients basic stretches but don’t necessarily hold them to do them. Thanks for linking up!
Debbie @ Coach Debbie Runs says
I changed my thinking about stretching after earning my certification as a fascial stretch therapist. Stretching properly, without pain, can balance the body and improve performance. My goal now, both for myself and my clients is to stretch not only the muscles, but the fascia and joints as well. Thanks for sharing at the Running Coaches’ Corner!
That certification sounds so interesting! Your clients are lucky to work with someone so knowledgable about stretching!
Sue @ This Mama Runs for Cupcakes says
I do some good dynamic stretching before a run and a few static stretches afterwards, but I don’t have a consistent routine. I would prefer to do my stretching via yoga!
I definitely like dynamic stretching before a run. And I would rather do yoga than just stretch too!