If you're rushing to squeeze in a run, you might be tempted to ax your warm-up and jump straight into your exercise routine. But bear in mind that blowing off your pre-run stretches could hold you back during (and even after) your workout.
Inconvenient as warming up before a run might seem when you’re itching to get started, its benefits make it worth prioritizing. “It really helps you run better and avoid getting injured,” Peloton instructor Susie Chan says. “You'll have a better experience.”
The best part? It takes less than five minutes from start to finish. So, we asked experts to explain the importance of warming up before a run and deliver advice on how to do it as efficiently as possible.
Why Should You Stretch Before Running?
There are many reasons to stretch before running, but before we unpack them, it’s important to know the difference between the two main types of stretches: static and dynamic. While doing static stretches, you hold a position for a set amount of time (think: 30 to 60 seconds). Dynamic stretching is more active and involves moving your limbs through a full range of motion.
This article focuses on the latter, as dynamic stretches are considered the “gold standard of how you would warm up before a run,” says Anh Bui, a California-based physical therapist and founder of Run Resiliently. Susie also suggests sticking to dynamic stretching before a run and avoiding any “long holds” (which can actually come in handy after a workout, but more on that later).
The benefits of doing dynamic stretches before a run include:
Increased range of motion. Research published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine in 2019 found that when a group of 12 adults did dynamic stretches (10 sets of 15 reps), they experienced increased hamstrings’ range of motion and decreased hamstring stiffness for a sustained period (90 minutes in the cited study). That’s a big plus for runners since your range of motion helps you engage your muscles while you stride, Bui says.
Reduced injury risk. Running with tightness in a joint can cause the surrounding body parts to work extra hard to compensate for the restriction, Bui explains. Overloading these areas increases your chances of getting hurt. Luckily (and as we just mentioned), dynamic warm-ups can increase flexibility and decrease muscle stiffness, mitigating your risk for injury.
Enhanced performance. A review of 11 studies published in Frontiers In Physiology in 2020 suggests that dynamic stretching before a run can boost performance. So if you’re trying to set a new PR, carve out time for a warm-up with some of the dynamic stretches we outline below.
Improved experience. Increasing your heart rate and blood flow before starting your workout can help you feel better during your run. Whereas if you “come into it a little bit cold, it's going to take your breathing and your body time to adjust to the movement,” Susie explains. Warming up gives your body a chance to prepare itself, instead of jumping directly into the activity, adds Spencer Agnew, a physical therapist and founder of Peak Endurance Performance and Physical Therapy in Madison, Wisconsin.
How to Stretch Before Running
Now that you know why it’s important to stretch before running, let’s break down how to do it correctly. Below, you’ll find dynamic stretches that target key areas of your body:
Quads and hamstrings
Calves, feet, and ankles
The muscles and joints in these areas of your body all play a major role in helping you stride, so it’s important to properly warm them up before hitting the road, trails, or treadmill. That said, don’t feel like you need to do every single stretch listed below; We’ll explain exactly how to put them together into the perfect pre-run sequence.
How to Stretch Your Upper Body
Most people think of running as a lower body activity, but proper running form also requires upper body coordination and activation, Agnew says. More specifically, you want a strong arm swing and upright posture. Here are two great stretches to prime your upper body for a run.
Start in a standing position and lift your right knee up to hip height. If you want, you can reach your left arm toward the ceiling.
Place your right foot on the ground. If you want to make this stretch more active, speed up the movement or add a step between sides.
Repeat this movement on the other side, alternating between sides.
Beginner’s Tip: As you do high knees, focus on keeping your trunk upright. Imagine there’s a string connecting the top of your head to the ceiling to help you maintain good posture.
High Knees with a Twist
Start in a standing position and lift your right knee up as you simultaneously reach your left arm across your body. Let your right arm naturally swing behind you. You should feel a stretch across your back and into your shoulders.
Place your right foot on the ground and shift your weight forward into your right foot. Repeat these movements with your left knee and right arm.
Continue stepping forward and alternating sides. As you do this dynamic stretch, square your hips as much as possible so the twist happens primarily in your upper body. Think about keeping your trunk upright and maintaining good posture throughout the entire movement.
How to Stretch Your Hips
Many people don’t fully extend their hips as they run, Agnew says, and this error in form can limit their stride and make it harder to engage their glutes. He recommends doing stretches that require a more extended range of motion in your hips than you need while running. That way, you’ll have all the mobility necessary to run comfortably and effectively, he says. Here are two hip stretches to try.
Walking Figure 4 Stretch
Stand in an upright position, place your right ankle on top of your left knee and sit back until you feel a stretch in your hips.
Hold this pose for a few seconds before returning to a standing position.
Walk forward for three steps.
Repeat this movement on the other side, placing your left ankle on your right knee. Again, hold for just a few seconds before taking another three steps forward.
Continue stepping forward and alternate sides.
Stand in an upright position with your hands on your hips.
As you take a step forward with your left foot, lift your right knee to the side at hip height.
Rotate your right hip forward as you bring your right knee to the center, keeping it at hip height.
After you bring your raised knee to the center, drop your right foot to the ground.
Repeat these movements on the left side.
How to Stretch Your Quads and Hamstrings
Your hamstrings help your body decrease its running speed and prepare for the impact of your foot hitting the ground, which your quads absorb, Agnew explains. Here are two moves to try to stretch these areas. (The first one activates your quads, and the second one focuses on your hamstrings.)
Walking Quad Stretch
Start in a standing position. Grab your right ankle with your right hand and pull your right foot toward your butt.
Reach your left arm directly overhead to help with balance. If you need additional support, gently rest your left hand on a nearby object, such as a chair or wall.
You should feel this stretch in your right quad. Hold this position for a few seconds, return to a standing position, and then take three steps forward.
Repeat these movements on the left side, pulling your left ankle toward your butt and reaching your right arm overhead. You should feel this stretch in your left quad. Hold this position for a few seconds, return to stand, and then take three steps forward.
Continue stepping forward and alternating sides. Maintain a tall posture throughout the movement.
Walking Hamstring Sweep
Start in a standing position.
Step your right foot in front of you, placing your heel on the ground. Keep your right leg straight and point your right toes straight up.
Bend your left knee and push your hips back as you reach your arms down toward your knees. Then, sweep them forward and up. As you move your arms, keep a flat back rather than rounding it or hunching forward. You should feel a stretch in your right hamstring.
Return to a standing position and take three steps forward.
Repeat the movement on the left side and remember to keep a flat back. You should feel a stretch in your left hamstring.
Return to standing and take three steps forward.
Continue stepping forward and alternating sides.
How to Stretch Your Calves, Feet, and Ankles
People tend to overlook their calves during pre-run stretching sessions, Agnew says. But that’s a mistake considering your calves help you change speed and reduce injury risk. Plus, they’re connected to your feet and ankles, which absorb ground force and help power your stride. Here are two dynamic stretches that target your lower leg.
Walking Calf Raises
Start in a standing position with your toes pointing straight ahead.
Maintain this stance while lifting your heels off the ground. You should be standing on your toes.
Walk forward 10 steps for a more active variation or return to your neutral standing position.
Stand with your heels grounded. Lift your toes and point them forward.
Maintain this stance while taking 10 steps forward.
Keeping your toes lifted, turn them inward and walk 10 more steps forward.
With your toes still raised, turn them outward and walk another 10 steps forward.
How to Build an Efficient Routine for You
The dynamic stretches mentioned above are great for activating key body parts before a run, but as we mentioned earlier, you don’t need to do all of them before every run. “The most important warm-up is the one you're going to do consistently. And the only way you're going to do it consistently is if it fits in your schedule,” Agnew says.
Here’s his step-by-step plan for how to build a pre-running stretch sequence.
Step 1: From the four areas of your body listed above, identify one or two that typically feel the tightest. For example, maybe your hips are chronically achy, or your upper body is often stiff.
Step 2: Do all the stretches suggested in those categories.
Step 3: Sprinkle in stretches from the other categories as your schedule allows. For example, if you do both of the quad and hamstring stretches, you might choose one stretch from each of the remaining categories. Once you’re familiar with the movements, you should be able to do a comprehensive, personalized routine in five minutes or less.
Step 4: Repeat this sequence before every run, aware that the categories you choose may change depending on how you’re feeling that day.
If you have some extra time, consider adding on one or two glute activation exercises (such as clamshells or side steps) for an even more well-rounded warm-up. For more guidance, Peloton App users can choose from a variety of stretching routines, like this 5-Minute Pre-Run Warm-Up led by Susie.
It’s also worth noting that the duration of your warm-up depends on the intensity of your run. “If you're going to do a nice, easy run, your warm-up would be different than if you were hitting a hard HIIT interval,” Susie explains. “The higher the intensity of work, the longer the warm-up needs to be.”
Should You Also Stretch After Running?
It’s much more important to stretch before your workout than it is to stretch after. From a physical standpoint, post-run stretching isn’t as beneficial as people think, Agnew says. However, if you enjoy stretching after a workout, go right ahead. As long as you don’t push your body too hard, Bui says there’s no harm. She recommends holding easy static stretches for anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes.
If you want a cooldown that offers proven benefits, consider foam rolling. When done correctly, foam roller exercises can aid in your recovery and even increase your range of motion. You can target the same muscles you did during your warm-up for 10 to 15 minutes, or you can follow along with a foam rolling class in the Peloton App, like this 10-Minute Foam Rolling: Quads & Hamstrings or this 10-Minute Foam Rolling: Hips led by Peloton instructor Hannah Corbin.