Physical Therapy

Warm up, cool down, and stretching strategies for runners

Published August 26, 2021
By Health Loft

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As a runner, the proper warm up and stretching program is essential. An aerobic warm up not only decreases the risk of injury, but it can improve athletic performance.1-3 Additionally, dynamic stretching prior to a workout or race can help avoid muscle strains and prepare your body for the upcoming challenge. We will take you through the proper sequence and timing of the warmup routine required to avoid injury and perform their best.

Warm up

Warming up before a training run or race usually consists of light jogging, riding a bicycle, or using the elliptical trainer. Research has demonstrated increased body temperature, elevated oxygen uptake, and even positive psychological changes following a warm up.4 Improvement in running performance following an active warm up occurs secondary to increase in muscle temperature.1 Increased muscle temperature produces an increase in how quickly you can contract your muscles.4 In fact, the rate at which leg muscles can contract increases by 8.5% following a moderate paced jog prior to competition.3 Additionally, elevated muscle temperature facilitates increases in both the energy available to the muscles and the number of muscle fibers contracting simultaneously. By increasing the number of muscle fibers firing, the runner is essentially able to decrease the overall demand on individual muscle fibers, leading to improved endurance of the muscles.4 Although it is suggested that warm ups should range between 5 to 15 minutes,1,4 there are few studies that examine the optimum intensity and duration of a warm up for runners.4 According to a review of the relevant literature, 8 studies demonstrated improved running performance following an active warm-up.4 Of those studies, only 1 examined the influence of a warm up on non-sprint running performance.5 In this study,5 the athletes completed a 4 part warm up as follows: 10 minutes of jogging, followed by stretching, 50 meter strides, and at least one 200 meter repetition at their race pace. The inclusion of at least 1 short effort at race pace resulted in a 1% improvement in race time. Although a 1% improvement may seem irrelevant to the average person, runners know that a race often comes down to the last few seconds. This system has been shown to be effective in improving performance by structuring a pre-race or workout warm up as follows: a light jog of 15 minutes or less, stretching, and at least one race-pace effort.4,5

Pre run stretch:

Stretching prior to running is recommended to improve joint range of motion (ROM) and reduce the risk of muscle strain during exercise.4,6 Some have recently argued against stretching prior to competition, as there are multiple studies demonstrating a decrease in muscle force production following static stretching;7 however, there are studies in disagreement.6 The mechanism behind the reduction of muscle strength is due to the muscles being less capable of contracting after static stretching. However, it is important to note that these studies looked at the effects of only performing static stretching on muscles, and then only testing strength immediately following the stretch. This methodology does not consider other influential pieces of preparation prior to running which occur between the stretch and performance, such as strides, dynamic stretching, and the time between stretching and the start of a workout or race.8 Additionally, these studies did not consider the overall increased excitement of the nervous system, which is commonplace prior to a race.8 This reported decreased muscle contractibility also facilitates decreased resistance to the muscle elongation, which is required during large range of motion movements while running.8 Therefore, this seemingly negative effect may lead to less muscle strains and improved functional ROM. Additionally, stretching as a part of warm up prior to training or competition facilitates improved performance and decreased muscle strains.8 However, there is disagreement whether stretching should be completed statically or dynamically. Some have proposed ballistic stretching as an alternative but we it has been shown to have drastically higher rates of injury.4

Static stretching

Static stretching involves slowly extending specific muscles to their end range of motion, followed by a static hold at end range. In a study of 13 physically active male college students, it was found that the students who completed a combination of aerobic warm up followed by static stretching demonstrated the greatest muscle endurance and best mental preparedness for physical activity versus those who did not warm up or warmed up without subsequent stretching.1 There is no clear consensus on the optimal hold time, with a range of 15 to 60 seconds being commonly cited.8 However, recent research showed that a continuous stretch of 30-60 seconds is required for an individual muscle to become more plyable.8 Regardless, static stretching is proven to enhance flexibility.1,8.9

Another important factor to consider is the longevity of these improvements secondary to stretching. Unfortunately, increased flexibility from static stretching quickly reverts over time, as the effects of less than a 4-minute hold time of a static stretch only lasts 10 minutes or less.8 At this rate, it would be impossible to stretch all of the major muscle groups without the effects of the first stretch wearing off prior to finishing your last stretch. Based on the time it takes to improve muscle flexibility in combination with how quickly the effects are negated, static stretching is best left for after competition when time is not a factor. A program of stretching should involve stretching the key major muscle groups for 3-5 sets of at least 30 seconds performed. Follow the outline of static stretches below after your run to improve your flexibility and avoid injury. And remember, no bouncing as you stretch!

Stretch 1: Gastroc stretch

  • While standing, step back with the leg you are stretching, keeping your heel flat and your knee straight. Then, lean forward until a stretch is felt in your calf muscle.

Stretch 2: Soleus stretch

  • While standing, step back with the side you are stretching, keeping your heel flat. Next, bend your knee and then lean forward until a stretch is felt just below your calf muscle.

Stretch 3: Quadriceps stretch

  • While standing, step back with the leg you are stretching, keeping your heel flat and your knee straight. Then, lean forward until a stretch is felt in your calf muscle.

Stretch 4: Adductor stretch

  • While standing, spread your legs apart. Next, lung toward the opposite side of the leg you are stretching.

Stretch 5: ITB stretch

  • While standing, cross the right leg behind the left. Next, lean to the left until a stretch is felt on the outside of the R hip. Repeat on the opposite side..

Stretch 6: Hamstring stretch

  • While laying on your back, bring your hip on the leg you are stretching up toward your chest until it makes roughly a 90 degree angle with your body. While holding behind your knee with your hands, straighten your leg until a stretch is felt in your hamstring muscles.

Stretch 7: Piriformis stretch

  • While laying on your back, bend one knee until your foot is flat on the floor. Then, cross the opposite ankle (the leg you are going to stretch) onto the bent knee and pull your knee toward your opposite shoulder until a stretch is felt on the outside of your buttock area.

Stretch 8: Single Knee to Chest stretch:

  • While laying on your back, bring your hip on the leg you are stretching up toward your chest until a stretch is felt in the back of the buttock.

Dynamic stretching

Dynamic stretching requires active movement while placing the muscle you wish to target towards its end range of motion.1 These dynamic stretches are intended to mirror an exaggerated form of the movements that running requires. This type of dynamic stretching has been shown to improve muscle power and increase running energy.10,11 In a study examining the effects of dynamic stretching on the performance of well-trained male runners, improved endurance while running at speeds equal to a 3k-5k race was demonstrated.11 Luckily, the optimum velocity and volume of dynamic stretches has been published in a recent review (which examined the results of over 60 studies).12 Multiple studies confirm the repetitions of dynamic stretches should be completed “as fast as possible.”11,12 Additionally, the researchers concluded that 1-2 sets of 10-15 repetitions is optimum. Follow the outline of dynamic stretches below before your run to improve your flexibility and performance.

Stretch 1: High knees

  • Run forward slowly while driving your knees up as high and quick as you can.

Stretch 2: Butt kickers

  • Run forward slowly while trying to kick your heels against the buttock.

Stretch 3: Power skips

  • Spring off of one foot while you drive the opposite knee in the air. Alternate side to side as you skip forward.

Stretch 4: Leg swings

  • While holding onto a fence or railing, stand on one leg as you swing your opposite leg forward and backward. Next, repeat the same procedure but swinging your leg from side to side.

Stretch 5: Lunges

  • While standing, lunge backward with one leg, then repeat on the opposite side. Then, lunge out to the left and right, alternating legs as you go.

Time between your warm up and run

With the relatively quick decline in muscle temperature following a warm up and the rapid decline in muscle extensibility following stretching, a training session should begin less than 5 minutes after the end of the warm up and stretching period. However, this is not a reasonable suggestion for race day, as the typical marshalling period for a track race lasts 10-20 minutes.3-5, One study5 found that the inclusion of strides and a short race pace effort between the end of stretching and the start of the time trial helped mitigate that effect. However, when planning the start of your aerobic warm up before the race start time, take into account the time it takes to complete your warm-up and stretching, aiming for no more than 20 minutes between the end of the stretching and beginning of the race. Additionally, if the weather is cold or a long transition period between the warm up and race is required, warm clothing can be utilized to extend the thermal benefits of a warm up.4

Cool down

Most athletes use a cool down run as a way to recover following a competition or hard workout. In a survey of 331 athletes,13 it was found that 57% of athletes use at least one recovery strategy. The athletes rated land-based recovery (such as a cool down jog) as the least effective.13 Interestingly, the research agrees with this conclusion to a large extent. A recent narrative review found that an active cool-down is ineffective at preventing injuries, long term performance improvement, and same day performance.14 However, some improvement in performance the following day and accelerated rate of cardiovascular and respiratory system recovery was noted.14

As runners, we want to make every effort to perform our best and remain injury free. Knowing what is supported by scientific evidence is more important than outdated rituals. Completing at 15 minute aerobic warm up, followed by 1-2 sets of 15 repetitions of a dynamic stretch helps improve running performance. Additionally, using strides and 1 short race pace effort prior to competition prolong the benefits of a proper warm up. After your race or workout, take time to statically stretch each of the major muscle groups to improve your flexibility and protect yourself from unnecessary muscle strains. At the end, take the cool down period of your liking and congratulate yourself for a great effort!

Apart from stretches, warm ups, and cool downs, regular physical therapy for runners can help with general upkeep and maintenance of muscles. Running can prove to be especially hard on your knees, so ensuring that you periodically check in with physical therapist can save you a great deal of discomfort in the future.

For personalized treatments and check-ups from physical therapists for runners, consult with one of our physical therapists in Chicago, IL (virtually via our telehealth platform or in person) by calling us at (312) 374-5399 or by scheduling an appointment online.
Remember to also check out our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages for more fun facts and articles on nutrition, physical therapy, and exercise!


Written by Ethan Dinan
Edited by Alexander Franz
Reviewed by James Caginalp PT, DPT, CSCS, CES, PES


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  2. Powers, S., & Howley, E. (2014). Exercise Physiology: Theory and Application to Fitness and Performance (9th ed.). Knoxville, Tenessee: McGraw-Hill Education.
  3. Pearce, A. J., Rowe, G. S., & Whyte, D. G. (2012). Neural conduction and excitability following a simple warm up. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 15(2), 164–168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsams.2011.09.001
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  8. McHugh, M. P., & Cosgrave, C. H. (2009). To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 1. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.01058.x
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  11. Yamaguchi, T., Takizawa, K., & Shibata, K. (2015). Acute Effect of Dynamic Stretching on Endurance Running Performance in Well-Trained Male Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(11), 3045–3052. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000000969
  12. Yamaguchi, T., & Ishii, K. (2014b). An optimal protocol for dynamic stretching to improve explosive performance. The Journal of Physical Fitness and Sports Medicine, 3(1), 121–129. https://doi.org/10.7600/jpfsm.3.121
  13. Crowther, F., Sealey, R., Crowe, M., Edwards, A., & Halson, S. (2017). Team sport athletes’ perceptions and use of recovery strategies: a mixed-methods survey study. BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation, 9(1), 6. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13102-017-0071-3
  14. Van Hooren, B., & Peake, J. M. (2018). Do We Need a Cool-Down After Exercise? A Narrative Review of the Psychophysiological Effects and the Effects on Performance, Injuries and the Long-Term Adaptive Response. Sports Medicine, 48(7), 1575–1595. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-0916-2

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