Stretch It Out: 6 Best Cool Down Exercises For Runners

Runners run on a paved greenway

Picture this: you just crushed your long run for the week. You get home, rehydrate, shower, eat and presumably collapse on the couch ready to participate in some well-earned laziness for the rest of the day. In the back of your mind you know you need to do more stretches to cool down, but you tell yourself, “I’ll do it later.” Before you know it, you’re crawling into bed with tight legs and sore muscles. You never did make time for stretching. While it may not seem like a big deal, these skipped sessions add up. Cool down exercises like dynamic and static stretching are an essential part of almost every workout–especially running.

Why is stretching important for runners?

Strenuous exercise can temporarily shorten your muscles, leading to limited performance and increased injury risk. Stretching is important as it improves blood flow and restores your natural muscle length, helping you recover before your next run.

Without practicing stretching and mobility exercises, your muscles will become overly tight and your joints won’t move as optimally, causing you to compromise your movements while running.

A group of runners stretch before their run.

When and how should you stretch after running?

The optimal time for post-run static stretching (holding a single position) is when your muscles are still warm. Think of your muscles as a rubber band – the best time to stretch that band is when it’s warm and more pliable. Otherwise, you risk snapping or damaging that rubber band.

The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (IJSTPT) recommends focusing on holding a stretch for at least 30 seconds to see some benefit. If you’re feeling super tight, you can hold that stretch for 60 seconds or longer. You should feel the stretch in the targeted muscle, but it shouldn’t feel painful. You should also avoid bouncing or jerking motions while static stretching as it could result in a pulled muscle. Instead, pull yourself into the stretching motion slowly while focusing on your breathing. Breathe out to further release into the stretch, helping to let go of any tension in the muscle.

Dynamic stretches, as shown in the above video, can be done before or after your run. These exercises help activate key running muscles while priming your body to go from sitting in your desk chair to pounding the pavement. More specifically, they bring heat and blood flow to your muscles making them more engaged, pliable and ready to run.

What muscles should you stretch after running?

Because we all have slightly different gait patterns, different runners will feel tightness in different ways while running. Some runners feel their calves burning during interval reps, while others feel the pain primarily in their quads or hamstrings. The reality is that running works a variety of different muscles, many of which you can’t even feel until later on when post-workout soreness hits. According to an article published in the Journal of Biomechanics, the main muscles utilized during running are the following:

  • The glutes
  • The quadriceps
  • The hip flexors
  • The hamstrings
  • The calves
  • All core muscles

Not surprisingly, runners are most likely to get injured in these areas. Spending just a few extra minutes post-run to stretch these muscles can reduce your risk of injury and help you enjoy running for the long haul.

6 best cool down stretches for runners

Let’s dive into a few key stretches to add into your daily cool-down routine. The first three exercises are a great way to loosen up your hips, hamstrings, calves and everything in between that may have tightened during your run. The following two are static stretches for a deeper stretch and release immediately after running.

1. Dynamic Leg Swings

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  • Balance on your left leg, holding onto the wall if you need extra support. Engage your core muscles to maintain stability and good posture throughout the exercise.
  • Swing your leg forward in a controlled manner, keeping it straight or slightly bent at the knee. Allow your leg to swing to a comfortable range of motion.
  • Swing your leg back to the starting position.
  • Be sure to hinge from the hips and not the low back.
  • Switch legs and repeat. Do 10 to 20 reps per side.

2. Hip Circles

  • Stay standing with your left foot planted onto the ground, and slowly move your right foot backwards and downwards into a split lunge position.
  • Plant your hands on the ground with your right foot extended all the way backwards and your left leg forward with your heel level with your shoulders.
  • Rotate your hips in a circular motion.
  • You should feel a deep stretch within your hamstring and your glutes.
  • Do 10 reps in each direction, then switch legs.
  • Feel free to customize this stretch to suit your needs. If you want to do larger circles, do that. If smaller circles feel better, stay small. It’s all about what feels good for your body.

3. Downward Dog Stretch

  • Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position, with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.
  • Lift your hips up and back, straightening your arms and legs to come into downward dog position. Your body should form an inverted V shape.
  • Bend your right knee slightly while pushing your left heel down into the floor. You should feel the stretch in your left calf and then do the same thing on the opposite leg.
  • Pedal your feet back and forth for 30 to 60 seconds. Don’t forget to breathe.

4. Quadricep stretch

  • Stand upright with your feet hip-width apart.
  • Bend your right leg behind you and take hold of your right ankle, pulling your foot towards your glutes.
  • Make sure your right knee is pointing straight downwards towards the ground and your left leg is straight.
  • Make sure you stay standing straight without bending your back. This will help you stretch all parts of your quadricep.
  • Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then release your right ankle and slowly lower your leg back down to the ground.
  • Repeat with your other leg.

5. Couch Stretch

  • Start by positioning yourself in front of a wall or couch, with one knee on the ground and the other leg bent at a 90-degree angle with your shin against the wall.
  • Your back leg should be extended behind you while the front leg is in a lunge position with the foot flat on the ground.
  • Slowly push your hips forward and down towards the ground while keeping your upper body upright and your core engaged.
  • You should feel a stretch in your hip flexors and quadriceps of your back leg.
  • Hold this position for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, then switch sides and repeat.

6. Piriformis stretch

  • Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground.
  • Cross your right ankle over your left knee, so that your right ankle is resting on your left thigh.
  • Reach behind your left thigh with both hands and pull your left knee towards your chest.
  • As you pull your left knee towards your chest, you should feel the stretch alongside your right glute.
  • Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then repeat with the other side.

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