For runners who came of age in the 1980s, with memories of Jane Fonda’s flexible limbs and the directive to “always stretch first,” it can feel counterintuitive to skip those calf stretches, attempts to touch your toes and quad stretches where you reach behind your back and try to grab your ankle. But the body of evidence goes against static stretching (stretches that you hold) cold muscles. “Static stretching is basically putting the muscle to sleep, and what you want to do before you run is wake the muscle up,” says coach and trainer Dan McDonogh with Under Armour’s Athletic Performance Team.
That’s why the better alternative to old-school stretching is a quick, dynamic warmup. “Warming up first helps to prevent injuries, because you are increasing the blood flow to the muscles and tendons,” says physical therapist and athletic trainer Jenn Lyng, of SouthPark Physical Therapy in Colorado.
BEFORE YOUR RUN: ACTIVE WARMUP
McDonogh is a big advocate of foam rolling as the first step in warming up muscles. Don’t have much time? You don’t need it. “Just roll each calf, each hip and your spine for 30 seconds,” McDonogh says. Then take another few minutes for some dynamic mobility exercises.
McDonogh’s favorite move is down dog to a runner’s stretch with rotation. To do this exercise, start in down dog. Step your right foot to the outside of your right hand and bend your right knee (a modified runner’s stretch). Leave your left hand planted on the ground, and gently twist as you reach your right hand to the sky. Place your right hand back on the ground again and push back to down dog. Repeat on other side. Cycle through 12–20 times.
Lyng’s favorite warmup exercise is progressive tightening. To do this exercise, stand on one leg (hold onto wall if necessary); bend other leg and lift in front, as if you were marching. Flex the foot of the leg that’s lifted and raise up on the toe of your other foot (like a calf raise). Tighten your quad muscles, then your glute muscles, then your stomach muscles and then (with everything now tight) hold for 10 seconds. “If you do 10 of those on each side, you’ll be warmed up,” Lyng says.
MID-RUN: QUICK STRETCH IF NECESSARY
Something feeling tight? Killing time at a stoplight? Once you’re warmed up, you can have at those stretches you thought you should do at the beginning of your run. You can even revisit your lunges (aka runner’s stretches) from warmup, but turn it into a stretch by putting your back knee on the ground and stretching your hip flexor. Just be gentle in any stretches you do.
READ MORE > POST-RUN YOGA STRETCHES | 5-POSE YOGA FIX
AFTER YOUR RUN: SINK INTO PIGEON
“One of the best stretches to do after running is pigeon pose,” Lyng says. Pigeon (also called “half-pigeon”) is an ideal stretch for getting into your glutes (on the side with the bent leg) and your hip flexor (on the side with the straight leg). If you’re able to lean forward, surrender your upper body to the ground and reach your arms out in front for a good shoulder release as well.
McDonogh is also a fan of pigeon pose. After pigeon, he likes to close out a workout with a standing stretch that will open up the body (versus constricting it). It can be as simple as transitioning from pigeon back to down dog, and then walking your feet and hands together into a forward fold. Slowly roll up to standing, and reach your arms out in either direction to stretch the front side of your body. “This helps you finish your workout feeling open and uplifted,” he says.