Stretching for Marathon Training

I cannot overstate the necessity and benefits of stretching regularly as part of your running routine, let alone your marathon training program. How we stretch, why we stretch, and when we stretch are the keys to making stretching work for you. Following are photos and an explanation of the most important stretches for running:

  • Calf Stretch
  • Hamstring Stretch
  • Quadriceps Stretch
  • Hip Flexor Stretch
  • Iliotibial Band (ITB) Stretch
  • Lower Back Flexion Stretch
  • Shoulder Stretch
  • Shoulder Stretch with Towel
  • Neck Stretch
  • Chest Stretch

Stretching Offers Many Benefits

  • Helps prevents muscular aches, pains and cramping.
  • Reduces the possibility of muscular soreness/fatigue over the next day(s).
  • Decreases the possibility of causing a muscular injury.
  • Great for relaxation.
  • Increases the muscles efficiency/effectiveness of movement (improving your overall speed, stamina, and form) by:
    1. Enhancing the ability of muscles to contract/work more powerfully and economically.
    2. Lengthens stride.
    3. Improves your overall form.

General Stretching Rules for Runners

Stretching Before the Run

One of the greatest misconceptions about exercise and running is that one must stretch before hitting the roads. In fact, the opposite is the case. If you really feel you must stretch, jog or walk for 5 or 10 minutes before stretching to warm those muscles up and to get blood flowing.

Static Stretch Basics

  • Stretch the muscle to the point of its greatest range of motion, but do not overextend. You should feel very minimal tightness/discomfort (but not pain).
  • Hold and control the stretch for at least 30 seconds (and maximum 60 seconds).
  • Stretch all the major leg muscle groups (e.g., calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, groin, hip flexors).
  • Stretch uniformly (after stretching one leg, stretch the other).
  • Don’t overstretch an injured area as this may cause additional damage.
  • CAUTION: Never bounce when stretching (called ballistic stretching). This increases your chances of incurring injury!

For Speedwork and Races

  • Warm up first with 10 minutes of easy jogging.
  • Stretch thoroughly (see static stretch basics above).
  • Do 6 to 8 striders (Short bursts of speed building to race pace lasting approximately 80 meters).
  • Begin the speedwork session or the race.
  • Do a 10-minute cool-down jog.
  • Stretch thoroughly (see static stretch basics above).

Make Stretching After the Run Part of the Run

A workout isn’t over until you stretch thoroughly (part of your cool down period) immediately following the run. Your legs will be most receptive to the benefits of stretching immediately after you run. Waiting 30 to 40 minutes later after your fatigued and tight muscles have cooled down (especially after long or fast-paced workouts) increases your chances of causing injury.

In short, stretch gently and slowly while your muscles are still warm. Make the after running stretch part of the cool down process.

Even if you presently have poor flexibility, a regular stretching program will greatly improve your range of motion through static stretching. Get started now and/or continue stretching as part of your running routine.

How to Stretch Your Major Muscle Groups

Stretch safely

Stretching — along with aerobic exercise and strength training — is a key part of your exercise program. Besides preparing your body to work out, stretching helps maintain full range of motion of your joints, including your shoulders and hips.

Ideally, you stretch after you warm up and then stretch more thoroughly after you cool down. If you have time to stretch only once during your workout, stretch after you cool down. But make sure to warm up slowly and carefully before increasing the intensity of your workout.

A safe stretch is gentle and relaxing. Hold each stretch steady and don’t bounce. Breathe freely as you hold the stretch. Stretch in sets that include stretching both sides of your body — your right and left calf muscles, for example.

Calf stretch

To stretch your calf muscle (gastrocnemius) and Achilles tendon, stand at arm’s length from a wall or heavy piece of equipment. Place your right foot behind your left foot, keeping the knee on your right leg straight, but not locked. Keep your right heel on the floor as you bend your left leg. Your back should be straight and your hips forward. Keep your back leg aligned with the front leg — don’t let your foot rotate inward or outward. You’ll feel this stretch along the back of your lower right leg. Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat with your left leg. If you perform this stretch with the leg to be stretched slightly bent at the knee, you’ll be stretching your deeper calf muscle (soleus).

Hamstring stretch

Your hamstring muscles run along the back of your upper leg, from knee to hip. This stretch isolates the hamstring muscle without placing stress on your back and neck.

Using the outer corner of a wall, or a door frame, lie on the floor and rest the heel of your left foot against the wall, with the left knee slightly bent. Gently straighten that leg until you feel a stretch along the back of your left thigh. You may want to begin a little farther away from the wall. As your flexibility increases, gradually scoot yourself closer to the wall or door frame to maximize the stretch. Maintain a constant, gentle stretch, holding for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat using your right leg.

Quadriceps stretch

This stretches your quadriceps muscle — the muscle on the front of your thigh. Standing near a wall or a piece of equipment for support, grasp your ankle and gently pull your heel up and back until you feel a stretch in the front of your thigh. Tighten your stomach muscles to prevent your back from sagging inward. Be sure to maintain a constant, gentle stretch. If the stretch lessens, continue to pull your heel back until you feel a stretch again. Keep the knee of the leg being stretched close to your other knee. Try to maintain an upright posture — don’t lean too far forward or backward. Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat using your opposite leg.

Hip flexor stretch

Your hip flexor starts the movement of your leg whenever you walk or run. It’s located on your front, upper thigh, just below your hipbone.

Kneel on your right knee. Place your left foot in front of you, bending your knee and placing your left hand on that leg for stability. Place your right hand on your right hip to avoid bending at the waist. Keep your back straight and abdominal muscles tight. Lean forward, shifting more body weight onto your front leg. You’ll feel a stretch in the front of the hip and thigh of the leg you’re kneeling on. Cushion your kneecap with a folded towel. Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat the stretch on your left side.

liotibial band (ITB) stretch

The iliotibial band (ITB) is a band of tissue that runs along the outside of your hip and thigh. Runners, in particular, can have a tight ITB, which can cause pain in the outside aspect of the knee or hip. Although there are variations on this stretch, the arm’s overhead position provides the best stretch for this muscle.

Stand near a wall or a piece of equipment for support. Cross your left leg over your right leg at the ankle. Extend your left arm overhead, reaching toward your right side. You’ll feel this stretch along your left hip. Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat the stretch for your right side.

Lower back flexion stretch

The knee-to-chest stretch (lower back flexion stretch) works the muscles of your lower back.

Lie on your back on a firm surface with your knees and hips bent and backs of your heels flat on the floor. Gently pull one knee up to your chest until you feel a stretch in your lower back. Keep the opposite leg relaxed in a comfortable position, with your knee bent or with your leg extended as shown. Bring the knee as close to your chest as possible. If the stretch is painful, back off to the point where it doesn’t hurt. Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat with your opposite leg. Avoid this stretch if you have osteoporosis, as it may increase your risk of vertebral compression fractures.

Shoulder stretch

This stretches the back of your shoulder (posterior capsule). A tight posterior shoulder capsule can predispose you to rotator cuff problems. For golfers or anyone who participates in overhead racket sports or throwing sports, such as tennis or baseball, this is a good stretch to keep the shoulder loose and to help avoid injury.

Bring your arm across your body and hold it with your opposite arm, either above or below the elbow — not directly on the elbow joint. Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat on your opposite shoulder.

Shoulder stretch with towel

This stretches your shoulder’s internal rotators — the muscles often used in overhead sports. Increasing flexibility of the internal rotators can help protect against rotator cuff injuries.

Use a towel to assist with this stretch. Grasp the towel firmly with both hands, as shown. Gently pull the towel toward the ceiling with your top hand. You’ll feel a stretch in the shoulder of your opposite arm as your lower hand is gently pulled farther up your back. In this photo, the left hand pulls on the towel to stretch the right shoulder. Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds, being mindful not to hold a painful stretch. Repeat on the opposite side.

Neck stretch

This stretches your neck muscles. To stretch the left side of your neck, bend your head forward and slightly to the right. With your right hand, you can gently pull your head downward to assist with the stretch. Don’t tug too hard on your head — you want to hold a comfortable, not painful, stretch. You’ll feel a nice, easy stretch along the back left side of your neck. Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side.

Chest stretch

These upper back exercises, also called shoulder retractions, are great for your posture. Essentially, this exercise squeezes your shoulder blades together, working the muscles located just between your shoulder blades while actually stretching muscles in the front of your chest.

Stand in a relaxed position with your arms extended in front of you, parallel to the floor (top). Pull your shoulder blades together behind you. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together, bending your arms slightly at the elbows. You’ll notice that your arms spread a little wider as you do this (bottom). Hold the position for a count of five, and then relax as you return to your starting position. Repeat five to 10 times.