Did you know that for every 1,000 hours of running, between 2.5 to 12.1 injuries occur? Of these injuries, 50-75% occur due to repetitive movements resulting from long-distance running, such as with marathoners and ultramarathoners. (1)
If you identify as a runner and love pushing your limits and paces, the best thing you can do to prevent injury is train progressively with regard to running volume, move as well as you can, and recover as well as you can.
One of the best ways to promote recovery post-running is by performing a cool down followed by static stretching combined with breathwork. (2)
Static stretching combined with deep breathing is a great way to transition your body from your high-energy, sympathetic nervous system-demanding running workout to a parasympathetic state where the body is primed for recovery and returns to homeostasis. (2)
Today, we’ll review twelve of my favorite stretches I have frequently used with my running clients over the last ten years as a strength & conditioning coach and performance physical therapist.
The Post-Run Stretches:
Incorporating these into your post-run cooldown can assist your recovery from training and prime yourself for your upcoming workout.
- 1. Supine Hamstring Stretch With Strap
- 2. Saddle Pose
- 3. Seated Forward Fold
- 4. Gastroc Stretch At The Wall
- 5. Pigeon Pose
- 6. Quadratus Lumborum Stretch
- 7. Butterfly Stretch
- 8. Samson’s Stretch
- 9. Sphynx Stretch
- 10. Child’s Pose
- 11. Downard Dog
- 12. Plantar Stretch
- Stretching 101
- Final Thoughts On Post-Run Stretching
1. Supine Hamstring Stretch With Strap
I love using this stretch variation for the hamstrings because it lets you ultimately offload the tissues to work into the stretch. It is also very easy to modify the force of stretch because you use the arms to lengthen the hamstrings and have good leverage on the leg.
Using a strap to stretch the hamstrings has been shown to increase muscle flexibility around the hip joint, which is vital for runners as a hamstring that can fully extend allows for an optimal stride length. (3)
How to perform the supine hamstring stretch with strap:
- Begin by laying on your back with one leg extended.
- Loop a strap, belt, or band around the target leg.
- Pull up on the strap using the arms to lift the leg as high as possible.
- Maintain a slight bend in the knee to relieve tension on the sciatic nerve.
- Maintain contact with the ground with the opposite leg.
2. Saddle Pose
When it comes to lower body flexibility, the hamstrings and calves get most of the attention- rightfully so, as they are essential in stride mechanics during running. However, the flexibility of the quadriceps is just as crucial for performance and reducing knee pain.
The saddle pose is a great stretch to target both quadriceps together. With enough range of motion, it can also target the muscles of the hip flexors. The saddle pose also allows you to work passively into the stretch, maintain deep breathing, and use the arms to assist in modulating the intensity.
How to perform the saddle pose:
- Begin by kneeling on the ground with both legs.
- Position your legs comfortably with your hands on the ground behind you.
- Allow your hips to sit back onto or between your heels.
- Continue to lean back at the hips and walk your hands backward until a stretch is felt in the quadriceps.
- Once a tolerable amount of tension is reached, stop and hold the stretch.
3. Seated Forward Fold
The seated forward fold, also known as a “pancake” stretch, targets multiple muscles simultaneously, including the adductors, hamstrings, and lower back, making it a great bang for your buck stretch. Keeping the adductors flexible after running is vital to avoid a narrow stride in the future, which may impact your running speed.
How to perform the seated forward fold:
- Begin by sitting on the ground with both legs extended and abducted (away from the center of the body)
- Initiate the stretch by hinging at your hips and reaching out in front of you as far as you can.
- As you descend in front of your body, ensure that the back stays neutral and the chest stays up.
- Hold the stretch once you feel tension in the groin, hamstrings, and lower back.
4. Gastroc Stretch At The Wall
As mentioned above, keeping good flexibility in the calves is vital to proper running mechanics. The lower leg muscles responsible for plantarflexion, or the “gas pedal down” motion, include the gastrocnemius, the soleus, the perroneals, and the tibialis posterior.
But that also means that when these muscles become stiff, they can limit the opposite motion, dorsiflexion, or the “toes up” motion.
When dorsiflexion is restricted, it can have many negative consequences up the chain, such as altered mechanics at the ankle, knee, hip, and even the lower back. Most people I have worked with have restricted dorsiflexion to some degree. Still, it is critical to maintain at least a minimum amount for proper gait mechanics, which is about 10 degrees. (4)
Using this stretch consistently after your runs can help improve your calf flexibility and dorsiflexion range of motion.
How to perform the gastroc stretch at the wall:
- Begin by facing a wall, squat rack, curb, or bench.
- Move one foot towards the wall and place the bottom of the foot on the wall with the other leg positioned behind the body for stability.
- Keeping the front knee extended, shift the hips over the target ankle.
- Continue moving towards the wall until you feel a stretch in the calf, and hold the stretch.
5. Pigeon Pose
The pigeon pose is a classic yoga pose that incorporates the muscles of the glutes, piriformis, and hip flexors. These muscle groups are commonly restricted in runners, making it an ideal selection for post-run stretching.
The pigeon pose works into external rotation of the target hip and hip extension of the opposite hip. This stretch can be harsh on the knee of the target leg, and thus, providing support from the ground by using a yoga block or an elevated surface like a bench or table can be helpful.
How to perform the pigeon pose stretch:
- Begin in a plank position on the ground.
- Bring the target leg untoward the chest and assume a 90-degree angle of the hip and knee.
- Maintain full extension of the opposite hip and knee.
- Gently lower both hips to the ground until you feel a stretch in the lateral hip of the target leg and the opposite hip flexor.
6. Quadratus Lumborum Stretch
During running, the quadratus lumborum’s (QL) role is to help stabilize the lower back and core versus being a driver of actual movement. But the QL is optional for runners. Weakness in the QL can increase the risk of overuse injuries of the spine during running. (5)
But a tight QL can also lead to lower back pain and discomfort, so it is a good idea to incorporate some stretching of the QL into your post-run cooldown like this one.
How to perform the quadratus lumborum stretch:
- Begin by sitting on a bench or chair.
- Initiate the stretch by placing your forearm between your knees.
- Rotate the trunk towards the target side.
- Extend the arm on the target side and bend over the opposite forearm to lengthen the QL.
- Continue side bending until you feel a stretch in the lateral trunk of the body, and hold the stretch.
7. Butterfly Stretch
The butterfly stretch is a classic groin scratch that uses downward pressure on the arms to create a lengthening effect for the adductors. Unlike the seated forward fold stretch, the butterfly stretch is a more targeted stretch for the groin muscles.
Do you find that your groin is tight after running? The butterfly stretch should be your go-to option. You can use your arms to modulate the stretch intensity and gradually lengthen the groin muscles.
Since you are in a more relaxed seated position, you can also easily incorporate deep breathing to increase the parasympathetic effect.
How to perform the butterfly stretch:
- Begin by sitting on the ground with the soles of the feet facing one another.
- Place the hands on the ankles and the elbows on the knees.
- Gently apply pressure to the knees towards the floor.
- Continue down until you feel a stretch in the groin, and hold the stretch.
8. Samson’s Stretch
The Samson stretch is one of my favorites for the hip flexor muscles. The hip flexors are one of the primary drivers of gait. Thus, they can get stiff from high activity, especially on longer distance running like marathons and ultramarathons.
Research has shown that a hip flexor that lacks complete passive motion can impact your performance at high running speeds. So, if you have any performance goals regarding running, you’ll want to incorporate the Samson stretch to improve your hip flexor flexibility. (6)
How to perform the Samson stretch:
- Begin in a lunge position with the hands resting on the front leg.
- Posteriorly rotate the pelvis by “tucking the tailbone.”
- Maintain the posterior rotation and shift the weight forward toward the front leg.
- Maintain a vertical chest and torso.
- Continue moving forward until you feel a stretch in the trailing leg.
- Once a tolerable amount of tension is felt, hold the stretch.
9. Sphynx Stretch
The sphynx stretch is excellent for the anterior core, hips, and lower back muscles. During running, it’s easy to remember how active the core muscles are since you can feel them working to stabilize your trunk.
The sphynx stretch allows you to stretch them comfortably and passively to prevent stiffness. I have also found that the sphynx position is excellent at providing feedback for deep diaphragmatic breathing since the core tissues are tensioned. With each breath, you can feel them stretch a little further as the belly expands.
How to perform the sphynx stretch:
- Begin by lying facedown on the ground.
- Bring your elbows under your shoulder with your forearms flush to the ground.
- Lift the chest off the ground, extending through the spine while maintaining contact of the hips with the ground.
- Feel the abdominals, hips, and lower back stretch and hold.
10. Child’s Pose
The child’s pose does the opposite of the sphynx position. While the sphynx stretch stretches the anterior core muscles, the child’s pose stretches the posterior core muscles — specifically the multifidus and paraspinal or erector spinae muscles.
If your lower back gets tight as you run, the child’s pose can be a great addition to your cool down. The stretch lengthens the muscles surrounding the lumbar spine and creates decompression as they stretch.
How to perform the child’s pose:
- Begin in a quadruped position on hands and knees.
- Reach the arms out in front of you until you feel a stretch in the sides of the torso.
- Allow your hips to sit back and the lower back to gently round.
- Continue moving backward until a stretch is felt in the lower back and hold.
11. Downard Dog
The downward dog is another great stretch for your posterior chain. It effectively lengthens the tissues from the shoulders to the back and the backside of the legs.
But, as an added benefit, if you have the range of motion to push into the stretch, it can also be a great way to stretch the front side of the shoulders and chest.
How to perform the downward dog stretch:
- Begin in a push-up plank position.
- Lift the hips to the ceiling to form an arch position.
- Press the heels down towards the ground to feel strength in the back of the shoulders, legs, and lower back.
12. Plantar Stretch
Even though you use your feet to run, it’s common to forget that the feet also have their muscles. Some of them don’t even go above the ankle; they attach within the bones of the feet. The feet also have the plantar fascia, a thick band of connective tissue under the foot.
The plantar fascia can become stiff with high-volume running or irritated during running with fault mechanics anywhere up the chain.
If you have ever suffered from plantar fasciitis, you know this area of the body very well. A simple plantar stretch can help keep the plantar fascia and the intrinsic muscles of the feet mobilized and help prevent stiffness or discomfort.
How to perform the plantar stretch:
- Begin in a quadruped position with the toes pulled up.
- Allow the toes to extend under the feet.
- Gently shift your weight back towards the heel, increasing the extension of the toes and the tension in the bottom of the feet.
- Once a tolerable amount of stretch is felt, hold the stretch.
The best way to perform your stretching post-run is to focus on controlled movement into the stretch and target a gentle stretch. As you spend time in the stretch and focus on deep breathing, the tissues will gradually yield, allowing for an increased range of motion. Hold for several seconds and then return to the starting position.
Diaphragmatic Breathing 101
Diaphragmatic breathing engages the diaphragm and improves the body’s ability to exchange oxygen, optimizing lung capacity and promoting relaxation.
To effectively use this technique, you can begin by closing the mouth with the tongue resting on the rook of the mouth. Next, breathe in through the nose, allowing the belly to expand and rise above the chest. Once full capacity is reached, you slowly exhale with pursed lips.
The best way to describe pursed lips is by imagining you slowly blowing out a candle. Doing so creates back pressure and maintains an opening of the alveoli or tiny sacs within the lungs.
The pursed-lip exhaling improves ventilation and gas exchange in the lungs. I will typically have clients perform 10 to 20 slow diaphragmatic breaths at a time and monitor for any dizziness or lightheadedness.
Should I foam roll after running?
Foam rolling can be an excellent option to include in your cooldown post-running to reduce muscle soreness. Research has shown that adding foam rolling immediately after an exercise session for twenty minutes can minimize muscle tenderness associated with delayed onset muscle soreness. (7)
What happens if you don’t stretch after running?
Plenty of people choose not to stretch after running, and many of them may have no negative consequences. But if you find yourself stiff after your workouts or want to optimize your recovery, a post-run stretch and breathing routine can be very beneficial.
How soon after running should you stretch?
The best time to begin stretching after your run would be right after an immediate cool down to take advantage of the increased flexibility of your muscles due to an increased core body temperature.
For example, if you ran 5 miles, you could walk 400 meters immediately afterward to bring your heart and respiratory rate down and then begin stretching.
Final Thoughts On Post-Run Stretching
The stretches above can be an excellent addition to your post-run cooldown routine. Keeping your muscles supple and reducing the resistance to stretch can keep you feeling good during and outside your workouts.
After your next run, try these stretches and see how you feel. Once you start stretching post-workout, you may never stop!
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- Farinatti, P. T., Brandão, C., Soares, P. P., & Duarte, A. F. (2011). Acute effects of stretching exercise on the heart rate variability in subjects with low flexibility levels. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 25(6), 1579–1585. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e06ce1
- Medeiros, D. M., Cini, A., Sbruzzi, G., & Lima, C. S. (2016). Influence of static stretching on hamstring flexibility in healthy young adults: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Physiotherapy theory and practice, 32(6), 438–445. https://doi.org/10.1080/09593985.2016.1204401
- Yoon, J. Y., An, D. H., & Oh, J. S. (2013). Plantarflexor and Dorsiflexor Activation during Inclined Walking with and without Modified Mobilization with Movement Using Tape in Women with Limited Ankle Dorsiflexion. Journal of physical therapy science, 25(8), 993–995. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.25.993
- Raabe, M. E., & Chaudhari, A. M. W. (2018). Biomechanical consequences of running with deep core muscle weakness. Journal of biomechanics, 67, 98–105. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbiomech.2017.11.037
- Mettler, J. H., Shapiro, R., & Pohl, M. B. (2019). Effects of a Hip Flexor Stretching Program on Running Kinematics in Individuals With Limited Passive Hip Extension. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 33(12), 3338–3344. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002586
- Pearcey, G. E., Bradbury-Squires, D. J., Kawamoto, J. E., Drinkwater, E. J., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2015). Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal of athletic training, 50(1), 5–13. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01
- Witvrouw, E., Mahieu, N., Danneels, L., & McNair, P. (2004). Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure relationship. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 34(7), 443–449. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200434070-00003
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January 31, 2024
Dr. Will Murtagh, PT, DPT, MS, CSCS, CISSN