How to Stretch After a Run

You’ve just finished a good, hard workout and all you want to do is grab a cold drink and sit down for a while. But before you relax, there is one last step to your training session you need to check off your list: stretching.

Cooling down is one of the most important parts of every (yes, every) workout and run. Some days this might include light jogging or walking to prevent lactic acid build up. No matter what, post-run stretching should be a part of your daily cool-down routine.

Stretching is a great way to help your body recover after exercise. Not only can it reduce the risk of injury, it can also enhance athletic performance. We interviewed Nell Rojas, a strength coach and top-10 finisher in the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, for the best pre- and post-run stretching tips.

According to Rojas, the key components to any effective running routine include a warm-up, drills, the workout itself and, you guessed it, stretching and a cool-down.

The Importance of Stretching and Cooling Down

Cooling-down and stretching just might be the key to getting the most out of each run or workout. A proper cool-down allows your body to start recovering immediately.

“After a workout, your heart rate is still elevated and a lot of your blood has gone to your extremities to help bring oxygen to the muscles used during the workout. If you stop immediately after a hard effort, your blood has a harder time circulating and can pool, leaving you feeling stiff and extending your recovery time” says Rojas.

Not only can that stiffness be frustrating and discouraging, but a longer recovery time means you’re spending less time working toward improvement. Think of your cool-down as a way to help your body reset. The same way you warm-up to get your body ready for a tough workout, you need to cool-down to get your body ready to repair and recover.

“It's important to bring your heart rate down gradually and allow your blood vessels to return back to normal from dilation. This way your blood can circulate well, your body temperature comes down progressively, and you can begin to recover from the strenuous activity,” Rojas says.

Stretching should be thought of as a long-term process. Some of the benefits of stretching, like injury prevention, may take time and consistency to become apparent. When performed properly, stretching can keep you physically healthy while you push yourself to new accomplishments.

Stretching: Dynamic vs. Static

A man skips as a dynamic warm up before running.

There are two main types of stretching: dynamic and static. Dynamic stretching involves more active movement than static stretching. Rojas explains, “Static Stretching is a passive movement that you hold for an extended period of time, and dynamic stretching is a movement that you hold for a short period of time. Static stretching is physically lengthening the (muscle) tissue” as opposed to preparing the muscle for movement.”

Most likely, you are already somewhat familiar with static stretching. Static stretching exercises include the traditional quadriceps stretch, figure-four stretch, and toe touch. Many static stretching exercises can be performed while sitting down and standing in place.

Dynamic stretching on the other hand, might not immediately look like what we tend to think of as stretching. Sometimes confused with drills, dynamic stretching is a great way to warm-up the muscles for a run or workout.

Examples of some dynamic stretches are walking knee-hugs, deep lunges with a lumbar twist, and a walking hamstring stretch. If you have ever participated in a team sport, you’ve very likely engaged in dynamic stretching before a competition or practice. Dynamic stretches can help prevent muscle strains and tears during strenuous activity, making them a very important part of any workout.

When Should You Stretch?

To put it simply, stretching should be done before and after each run or workout. However, the type of stretching and when you perform it is important in helping your body perform and recover.

“It's important to stretch dynamically before workouts,” says Rojas. “Dynamic stretching prepares your nervous system to move well by getting your proprioceptors warmed up, which resets tight muscles, so they can move effectively."

Workout Day

On a workout day, dynamic stretching should come after a warm-up jog and before the start of the high-intensity phase of the workout. A slow jog helps the body ease into moving, and dynamic stretching prepares the body for sharper, more intense movements.

A man performs some dynamic warm ups before a run.

Easy Day

On an easy or recovery day, dynamic stretching can be performed immediately prior to your run. Make sure to perform each movement slowly and gently, because this is the first movement that will be activating your muscles.

Dynamic stretching can also be a part of your cool-down routine. Remember that the goal of cooling down is to bring the heart rate down gradually and allow blood to circulate well. Light dynamic stretching after a cool-down jog can assist in this process.

Don't Do Static Stretches Before You Run

Unlike dynamic stretching, static stretching should never be performed prior to working. Rojas explains that static stretching should never be a part of your warm-up routine because “it can ‘turn off’ the muscle, and decrease tension which will decrease muscle power and function.”

The purpose of static stretching is to lengthen muscle tissue, which is a long-term process, and not necessarily needed by all athletes. “The lengthening of the muscle tissue is only important to do if a muscle is too short,” says Rojas.

The simplest way to tell if a muscle is too short is to jog for five to 10 minutes and look for any unusual sensations of tightness. Most often this will happen a few days after a high intensity session, which is a great time to work on regaining muscle flexibility.

To incorporate static stretching at the end of a workout, make sure you set aside plenty of time so each stretch can be held long enough to be effective. Rojas suggests holding each stretch for about three minutes, and practicing static stretching four to five days per week.

Focus on Mobility, Not Flexibility

Ultimately, dynamic stretching can have a greater positive effect on your performance than static stretching. Static stretching only works to increase flexibility, which has less of an effect on injury prevention than mobility.

“There's a common misconception that flexibility equals mobility. The most important thing for a runner is to have proper mobility around each joint. Flexibility is passive and simply describes how far you can push a structure. Mobility is how far you can actively move, which is much more important. Flexibility can help improve mobility, but so can strength and motor control,” Rojas says.

You want your muscles to be flexible enough to perform movements necessary for exercise without straining or tearing, but mobility will have a greater impact on performance. Dynamic stretching is key to improving and maintaining mobility.

4 Post-Workout Stretches to Add to Your Routine

Ashley Arnold demonstrates the kneeling hip flexor stretch

Kneeling Hip-Flexor Stretch

Benefits: Improves hip extension, and loosens up the hip muscles.

Kneel on your left knee with your right knee bent at 90 degrees in front of your body. Without arching your back, gently push your hips forward until you feel a light stretch at the front of your left hip.

Hold this position for about 20 seconds. To increase the stretch, slowly lift your left arm straight over your head, and gently lean to the right. Repeat on the other side.

Ashley Arnold demonstrates the calf stretch

Calf Stretch

Benefits: Can help prevent shin splints, calf strains, and certain types of tendonitis.

Stand facing a wall with one leg in front of the other, about a foot apart. Gently bend the front leg while keeping the back leg straight. Place your hands against the wall for balance, and continue bending the front leg until you experience a light stretch in the calf or your back leg. It’s important to keep the back heel on the floor.

If you are in an outdoor location without a wall, you can do this stretch in the downward dog position, as pictured.

Hold this position for 15 to 20 seconds and repeat on the opposite leg.

Ashley Arnold demonstrates the runner's lunge

Runner’s Lunge

Benefits: Great for stretching and improving mobility in the hip flexors.

Start on all fours, and bring your right leg up between your hands. Bend your right leg to a 90-degree angle, and straighten your back leg, bringing your body into the low-lunge position. If this position creates an intense stretch in the hip flexor of your back leg, hold this position for 20 seconds and repeat on the other side.

To increase the stretch, leave the hand on the outside of your front foot on the ground, and slowly rotate, lifting the hand on the inside of the front foot to the sky. Place your hand back on the ground and repeat this motion with the opposite hand.

Repeat this entire sequence with your left leg in front.

Ashley Arnold demonstrates a walking hamstring stretch

Walking Hamstring Stretch

Benefits: This dynamic stretch can be performed before and after your run.

Step forward with your right foot and plant your heel into the ground with your toes pointed up towards the ceiling.

Keeping your back straight, slowly reach towards your heel with both hands on either side of your leg. In a sweeping motion, continue moving your hands past your heel towards your toes and slowly straighten your torso back to standing. You should feel a stretch along your hamstring.

Repeat this motion by stepping forward with your left foot. Do not reach your hands any further than necessary to create a light stretch.

Move slowly, and repeat five times on each leg.

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