Im sure most people reading this do some form of stretching on a regular basis, whether during warm ups, cool downs, or maybe in front of the TV at night, however I often get asked what kind of stretching is best for runners, how much they should do etc… There is lots of varied advice regarding stretching, but I will try to keep this specific to running, and particularly endurance running.

A lot of runners have a tendency to do a lot of flexibility work on one particular area,calves being a very popular one, but then neglect other muscle groups, saying“its only my calves that get tight” However there are two reasons why this can be less effective, the first being that without targeting the flexibility of other muscle groups, you fail to address other problems that are contributing to specific tightness in the first place. In the above example it may be that stiffness around the lumbar spine could be contributing to chronic tightness in the calves.

The other reason this specific stretching of one muscle group can be a problem is because it is done spontaneously and may only last 2-3 minutes, some times less. This gives no time to increase the blood supply or to warm the tissue up at all, so the length reached during the stretch, and therefore the overall lengthening effect are both minimised. However, if you were spend 20-30 minutes stretching a variety of muscle groups, the overall lengthening effect on all of those muscle groups would be increased. The same goes for during a warm up, although the desired effect may not be lengthening this time, and the stretches may be completely different, the warm up effect would be increased if all the major running muscle groups were targeted rather than just the calves or glutes.

Many athletes use stretching along side other techniques such as foam trolling for injury prevention. A review of the literature around this subject by McHughand Cosgrave (2009) found that stretching, done separately from warm ups and training, in specific stretching bouts, has been shown to decrease the incidence of muscle tears when training. They also found, however, that short static stretches as part of a warm up, have no correlation to the incidence of overuse injuries at all. In fact, at distances of 1500m and less, there is a lot of evidence to support no static stretches during a warm up at all. This is because, in the short term, static stretching reduces the compliance of the muscle tendon unit. It is less significant in longer distances such as 5km and above though as a compliant muscle tendon unit is of less importance in these events, due to their more aerobic/endurance based nature.

Taking this into account, it would be advisable for endurance runners to spend around 20 minutes a day working on general flexibility of all major muscle groups including, gluteals, quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, calves and the lower back. When doing this kind of stretching session, 30 seconds and above for each stretch will help encourage as much lengthening as possible. Example stretches may include:

  • Lie on your back with arms spread and bring one knee to 90 degrees. Let that knee fall over the other leg to the ground whilst keeping both shoulders flat. You can take it further by turning to face away from the knee and by using a hand to push the knee further towards the ground. This stretch is great for the glutes and for getting a good twist through the lumbar spine and torso:
  • Start in a kneeling position and sit back onto your heels. Then stretch the arms out as far in front as you can reach. Hold for thirty seconds before taking a big breath of air in and trying to stretch the hands even further. This is great for the lumbar and thoracic spine:
  • Use a carpeted surface or a mat to get the knee as close to a wall as possible. Use the other leg to support you up against the wall with the knee bent to the acutest angle possible. If struggling, then bring the knee further from the wall. Hold for at least thirty seconds each side. Make sure the supporting leg is straight and not bent past 90 degrees. This is great for increasing the length of the quads:
  • Use a towel or resistance band to wrap around the foot. Then lie back and raise the leg as far as you can, keeping it straight. You can then use the towel to pull on the foot and increase the stretch through your hamstrings. You can also move the towel to the ball of the foot to make it more calf-specific or you can pull the leg from side to side to change the angle of the stretch. Great for calves and hamstrings and made better when you use the different angles:
  • Perform a straight arm plank position and then push your hips up and backwards so that your body forms an ark. Walk the hands back slightly and push the heels towards the ground. This is a pose called the downward dog that is used a lot in yoga and is great for calf and hamstring flexibility. It can easily be varied by treading the heels or raising one leg into the air as well:

    The above are just a few examples of stretches that you could include in a flexibility program, but grouping them together in one session will most definitely be more beneficial to the runner seeking either injury prevention or improved performance.

    As I have already mentioned, the evidence for static stretches during a warm up is somewhat contradicting. There is more evidence to suggest that for shorter distances (up to a mile), it may even be detrimental to performance. Therefore, a lot of people will only use dynamic stretches in their warm up. However, every human responds differently,and if static stretches as part of a warm up have been useful to you in the past, then there is no need for you to change that. I have never read a study where 100% of subjects suffered diminished performances from static stretching,as not every subject responds the same!

    It is important to mention also that when suffering form a specific injury, the above theories may not necessarily apply. It would be best to perform the specific exercises or rehab given by your physio.


    M. P.McHugh, C. H. Cosgrave. (2010). To stretch or not to stretch: The role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scand J Med Sci Sports: 20:169–181

    WitvrouwE, Mahieu N, Danneels L, McNair. (2004). Stretching and Injury Prevention: An Obscure Relationship. 2004 - Volume 34 - Issue 7 - pp443-449