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ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Flexibility Training for Runners: How Much Is Too Much?

Flexibility Training for Runners: How Much Is Too Much?

Reading Time: 5 minutes 56 seconds


DATE: 2021-08-09

Flexibility training is too often overlooked. It's an easy part of a workout to skip when you're pressed for time. Flexibility is important for everyone because it makes the body more effective in its movements, warms it up for workouts, and prevents and manages injuries.

For runners, it's important to find the right balance between under- and over-stretching. Too much, and you lose run efficiency. Too little, and you can get hurt. Take the time to develop targeted, individualized flexibility training for your running clients. It will improve their performance and reduce injury risk.

Why Flexibility Training for Runners is Important

Stretching and flexibility are essential for everyone. For runners, there is an important balance to be found. Specific, targeted stretches can benefit a runner in a few ways, from improving recovery to preventing injuries.

On the other hand, when you run, certain muscles shorten, giving you a more efficient stride. This, in turn, helps you run faster. Think of these muscles like rubber bands. The tightness and tension provide more elastic energy to propel you forward. For runners, finding the balance between the benefits and downsides of stretching is essential.

Flexibility Training for Runners Can Prevent Some Injuries

Tight muscles, joints, and connective tissue can compromise form for runners, and that means an increased risk for a running injury. A major issue in running is a tight iliotibial band. The IT band runs from the knee to outer hip, and often tightens and shortens in runners. This is a common source of pain on the outside of the knee that can be avoided by keeping it stretched and looser.

Stretching Can Help You Manage Existing Injuries

Stretching is also often useful in managing injuries when you already have them. Plantar fasciitis is one example. This heel pain can stop a runner in their tracks. A tight calf muscle is a contributing factor, so regular stretching can relieve the pain.

Stretching May Enhance Recovery

Light stretching after a run or on active recovery days can help your body bounce back faster after tough workouts. In addition to managing and preventing injuries, stretching gets the blood flowing in a gentle way. Increased blood flow helps repair the damage you do to muscle tissue during workouts. This is why a light stretching workout, like a yoga session, is ideal for many runners on their rest days.

Stretching isn't everything. Here's a run-down of everything you need in a post-workout routine for maximum recovery.** **

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Flexibility Training for Runners: How Much Is Too Much?, Lunge Stretch

Best Running Stretches to Improve Flexibility

It is always important as a trainer to target workouts and routines to each individual client. For your runners with specific injuries, tight areas, or nagging pains, direct their flexibility routines to those specific issues. More generally, most runners can benefit from these stretches to reduce injury risk, have less pain, and improve performance.

Pre-Run Warm-up Stretching

A warm-up before a run is essential for preparing the muscles and joints for the workout. It helps the body better respond to the stress of the run, minimizing injury risk. A warm-up gets the blood flowing so that muscles work more effectively. There is no need to static stretch before a run. A dynamic stretch session is much better:

  • Leg swings. To get a little stretch in the hamstrings and open the hip joint, swing each leg forward and backward several times and then repeat going side to side.

  • Butt kicks. These will give you a little stretch in the quads, knees, and ankles. Jogging in place, kick your leg back, foot pointed and flexed, all the way to your glutes if you can.

  • Lunge matrix. Lunge forward and backward, to the side, and at a 45-degree angle to get a full range of motion and stretch through the hips and glutes.

  • Wide-leg toe taps. Warm up and stretch your core with this move. Standing with legs apart and arms up, reach down to touch your left foot with your right hand. Repeat several times alternating with the left hand to the right foot.

Runner's Stretch

This stretch was made for runners. It targets the hip flexors, which tend to get so tight in people who both run and sit a lot. Get into a lunge position and gently rest the back knee on the floor. Keep your front knee bent at a right angle. Move your back leg farther back if you need more of a stretch. You should feel this right in the front of the hip.

Groin Stretch

Just like the hip muscles, the muscles in the groin area can easily become tight from sitting and running. A simple way to stretch them out is to hold a side lunge. Hold the position where you feel a significant stretch.

IT Stretches

Stretching the IT band is important for nearly every runner. Tightness here can cause knee pain and even injuries. Use a foam roller after runs to gently and slowly roll along the outside of each thigh, targeting the IT band all the way from the hip down to the outside of the knee.

Also try this standing IT band stretch: Cross your left foot over your right so that they are side-by-side. Arms up, lean over to the left, stretching out your side. You should also feel the stretch along the outside of your right leg. Repeat on the other side.

Calf and Achilles Stretches

The calves are often overlooked, but tightness here can contribute to injuries like plantar fasciitis. You can stretch the calves in a lunge position. You can also loop a resistance band around the bottom of your foot and pull it toward your shins. This will also stretch the Achilles tendon.

Piriformis Stretch

This glute muscle is essential for walking and running and can get tight. To stretch it out, lay on your back with knees up and feet flat on the floor. Pull one knee toward your chest. With your hands, pull that leg toward the opposite shoulder and hold.

Try these stretches to target the hard-to-reach sartorius muscle, often responsible for tight hip flexors.

Other Ways to Improve Joint and Muscle Flexibility

Runners can also add flexibility workouts to their routines on rest days or active recovery days. Encourage your runners to do a weekly or twice-weekly yoga session. Yoga improves overall flexibility but also provides a chance to build strength with a low-impact workout that's gentle on joints.

Tai chi is another type of low-impact workout that's great for recovery. In addition to focused movements and stretching, it puts an emphasis on breathing and mindfulness. You'll get a good stretch but also gentle strength work and improvements to range of motion.

Another low-impact way to build strength on off-running days is to use resistance bands. Not only do these simple tools provide a resistance workout, but they also stretch the muscles. You can do an entire strength workout just with bands.

Try foam rolling with your running clients as a recovery and stretching tool. They can use this as a cool down for any workout. The roller helps release the fascia, connective tissue that can become tight from running. Target specific muscles to get individual benefits.

Common Mistakes Runners Make During Flexibility Training

The biggest mistakes runners make in flexibility training is overdoing it. There is a balance to be found between overstretching and losing your running economy and being so tight you experience pain and even injury.

Instead of doing a general flexibility routine with every client, tailor stretching programs to each individual. If you have a client with a tendency to develop plantar fasciitis, for example, include calf and Achilles tendon stretches.

If a client is working on speed goals for upcoming races, avoid overstretching leg muscles. Focus instead on light stretching and foam rolling routines for recovery and injury prevention.

Another potential mistake is neglecting the hip flexors. Running, but more importantly sitting at a desk all day, really shortens and tightens the front of the hips. This can lead to a lot of pain, limited mobility, and a compromised running stride. All runners, but especially those who sit a lot, should engage in regular hip stretches.

As with any kind of training session, flexibility workouts should be focused on each client's individual needs. There are no one-size-fits-all stretching routines, even among runners. Pinpoint each client's goals, needs, and injury risks to create a targeted flexibility routine.

With the Certified Personal Trainer - Self-Guided Study Program from ISSA, you'll learn everything you need to know to train runners, lifters, and more. It serves as a foundation for training people with all varieties of health and fitness goals.

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