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Back in 2014, pro climber Alex Honnold gave us a tour of the 2002 Ford Econoline E150 he used as his mobile base camp. That van served him...
Whether you’re on the trail or on the road, the repetitive movement and high impact of running take a toll on the body. A thorough and consistent stretching routine is key to staying injury-free: it helps speed up recovery and keeps you loose and limber for the many miles to come.
Here are the best stretches for runners, recommended by Caitlin Pascucci, a yoga instructor and the founder of Sangha Studio in Vermont, and Julie Erikson, a Pilates and yoga instructor, the founder of Endurance Pilates and Yoga in Boston, and a runner with 25 marathons and an ultra under her belt.
These moves not only target the big muscle groups of the legs, like the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves, but also the ones often overlooked by runners, such as the hip flexors, adductors (groin and inner thigh), abductors (outer thigh), shoulders, and chest (from a slumped posture at the end of a long run or race), as well as the abs, obliques, and back. “The hip flexors are a big deal, because most of us sit for long periods,” says Erikson.
Make sure you get the blood flowing before you start stretching—do these after a run or short warm-up. If you’re overly sore, go easy, and if a stretch is so intense that you seize up and hold your breath, back off. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds to a minute, with attention on your breathing, sinking a little deeper with every exhale. You’ll need a yoga mat, long foam roller, and either a stretching strap, length of webbing, or resistance band.
What it does: Stretches the hamstrings, the calves, and the lower back.
How to do it: From a standing position, step one foot forward by one to two feet. Interlace your fingers or grab your hands behind your back. Keep your knees straight and back flat as you hinge at the waist to bend forward. When your torso is parallel to the floor, begin to gently round your spine and continue to lower your head to sink deeper into the stretch. Place your hands on the floor, or a yoga block if you can’t reach, for balance if needed. Then, with the front foot, lift your toes and dig in with your heel to increase the stretch on your calf. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds to a minute, then slowly reverse the movement to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
What it does: Stretches the hip flexors and the calves.
How to do it: From a standing position, place your hands on your hips, and lunge forward as far as you comfortably can. Keep your back leg straight and your back heel as low as possible. With the front leg, your knee should not extend beyond your toes. Keep your hips square and your chest open. Tilt back your pelvis and sink lower into the lunge to increase the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute, then repeat on the other side.
What it does: Stretches the quads, the hip flexors, the obliques, the lats, and the back of the shoulders.
How to do it: This stretch is similar to the standing lunge, but it puts more emphasis on the quad over the hip flexors, with the addition of a side bend to target muscles of the upper body. Like before, lunge forward as far as you comfortably can, but this time bend your back knee and lower it to the floor. Your back toes should stay firmly planted on the floor. Keep your hips square and your chest open. Tilt back your pelvis, and sink lower into the lunge to increase the stretch. From this position, extend your arms overhead, clasp your hands together, and without hiking your hips or bending your elbows, lean your hands and torso to one side. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat in the other direction. Reverse the lunge, and repeat again with the opposite leg forward.
What it does: Lengthens the spine and stretches the abdominals, the obliques, the chest, and the front of the shoulders.
How to do it: Lie on your side, with your hips and knees both bent to 90 degrees. Keep your knees together and pressed to the floor (you can use your hand on your lower arm to aid you) as you twist your torso from the waist to open your chest. Extend your upper arm straight and perpendicular from your body, and let gravity gently pull you deeper into the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute, then repeat on the other side.
What it does: Stretches the external hip-rotator muscles and the glutes.
How to do it: Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Cross your right ankle over the left knee. Bring your left knee toward your chest, then grab behind your left thigh, and gently pull the leg toward your chest to increase the stretch. Hold the tension for 30 seconds to a minute, then repeat on the other side.
What it does: Stretches the hamstrings and the calves.
How to do it: Loop a resistance band or stretching strap around the ball of your foot, then lie flat on your back, with your legs together and straight. Gently pull on the strap with your hands to raise your leg (keeping it straight) and increase the stretch on your calf and hamstring—but don’t pull so far that your pelvis tilts or your hip hikes. If your hip flexors are overly tight, relieve tension by bending your knee and putting your foot flat on the floor with the opposite leg (the one not in the strap). Hold the stretch for one to two minutes while slowly easing deeper with each exhale. Repeat on the other leg.
You can perform this stretch without a strap by grabbing below your thigh and pulling up with your hands, but this will only target the hamstring and not the calf.
What it does: Stretches the hip abductors and adductors and the IT bands.
How to do it: Continuing from the previous stretch, with your leg still raised toward the ceiling, use the strap to gently lower your leg out to the side, perpendicular to your body, until you feel a stretch in the inner thigh and groin area. Lower your leg as far as you can comfortably go, without moving your pelvis. Let gravity do the work, and control the intensity of the stretch with the strap. Hold the tension for 30 seconds to a minute, then move the leg across your body in the opposite direction to target the hip-abductor muscles and IT band. Like before, only go as far as you can comfortably and without your pelvis shifting. Hold again for 30 seconds to a minute, then repeat with the other leg.
What it does: Stretches the hip flexors, the abs, and the chest, as well as the forearms.
How to do it: Lie facedown, with your legs straight back and together and the tops of your feet on the floor. Place your palms facing forward and flat on the floor below your armpits. Then press with your hands and straighten your arms to full extension to lift up your torso. Keep your quads and glutes activated as you tilt back your pelvis and press it toward the floor to sink deeper into the stretch. Open the chest and look straight ahead or slightly upward, to target the entire front line of the body. Remember to breathe. Hold the pose for 30 seconds, then reverse the movement.
What it does: Stretches the chest and the front of the shoulders.
How to do it: Lie on your back on a long foam roller, with the roller positioned parallel to and beneath your spine. Extend your arms out to each side, and let gravity gently pull them down to open and stretch the chest. If gravity alone isn’t enough, hold a one-to-two-pound weight in each hand. Hold this position for 30 seconds to a minute, then move your arms toward your head 30 to 60 degrees, to put more emphasis on the shoulders. Hold again for another 30 seconds to a minute.
There are, in very broad terms, two types of scientific advance worth writing about. Some findings tug back nature’s veil to reveal something new about the ineffable mysteries of life and the universe around us. And others, more prosaically, promise to make us stronger or faster or thinner or less gassy.
That distinction is what kept coming to mind as I followed the excitement and subsequent backlash surrounding a new study in Nature Medicine from researchers at Harvard University about a “performance-enhancing microbe” isolated from the poop of Boston marathoners. Did this story belong in the first category or the second category? It’s an important question, because I suspect your reaction to the study will depend in large part on how you classify it.
The gist is as follows: for a week before and after the 2015 Boston Marathon, the researchers collected (more or less) daily stool samples from 15 runners and 10 non-running controls. An analysis of the microbes in their poop identified one particular strain, Veillonella atypica, whose levels spiked in the days after the marathon in those who raced. Even before the race, this microbe was more common in the runners than the non-runners, though the difference wasn’t statistically significant.
This bit of the story (though not the specific name) was already public, having been revealed in a press release in 2017 (and, for that matter, nicely described in this Outside feature last year). Veillonella, it turns out, breaks down lactic acid—which, as that press release put it, “can lead to muscle fatigue and soreness.” To confirm that lactic acid (or, to use the physiologically correct term, lactate) circulating in your blood can make it into your intestine where Veillonella can get at it, the researchers injected lactate labeled with a special carbon isotope into the tail veins of mice. Sure enough, the labeled lactate turned up in the mouse colons, bolstering the idea that the microbes in your gut can help soak up lactate so that you can run farther and faster.
The only problem, as physiologist Mark Burnley swiftly pointed on Twitter, is that this idea is based on a thoroughly outdated understanding of what makes you tired. Lactate doesn’t cause fatigue or soreness; it’s simply a byproduct of hard exercise. Even in the unlikely event that your colon microbes could lower your overall lactate by a meaningful amount—unlikely because the amount of blood flowing to your gut is severely reduced during hard exercise, Burnley added—that wouldn’t make you faster.
But there’s a bit more to the story: it may be that it’s what happens to the lactate that matters. Veillonella transforms lactate into (among other things) a short-chain fatty acid called propionate. Could it be that the addition of propionate, rather than the subtraction of lactate, is what’s helpful?
To test this idea, the researchers turned once again to mouse experiments. Let’s just state, for the record, that mice are not humans. You’d be a fool to assume that results you see in mice will automatically translate to humans. Still, as long as you keep that in mind, it’s possible to gain useful preliminary insights from mouse experiments.
The most attention-grabbing experiment was a straightforward performance test. A total of 32 mice were divided into two groups. Half of them received a daily dose of Veillonella, while the other half received a daily dose of another microbe that doesn’t process lactate. Five hours after receiving the microbes, the mice ran to exhaustion. After a week, the two groups switched microbes and repeated the process for another week. The results were significant: when the mice received Veillonella, they ran, on average, 13 percent longer than when they received the other microbe.
The next stage was to figure out whether propionate itself could be the reason for the enhanced performance. In this case (sorry to be graphic), the researchers simply introduced propionate via the rectum into the mice’s colons, where it could be absorbed into the bloodstream. When compared to a rectal insertion of plain saline, the propionate once again boosted run-to-exhaustion time by a similar amount. That supports the idea that it’s the propionate itself that is the performance-booster.
That’s the main gist of the argument. I’m skimming over some of the ancillary details, because there are a bunch of other sub-experiments. For example, they recruited another 87 ultramarathoners and Olympic Trials rowers, and replicated the finding that levels of Veillonella in your poop increase after hard exercise, presumably because you’re generating lots of lactate that Veillonella likes to eat. But the main flow of logic is: athletes have more Veillonella (either because they exercise a lot, or because they’re born that way); Veillonella turns lactate into propionate; propionate makes you (or, at least, mice) faster for unknown reasons.
You may notice that there quite a few leaps in this chain of logic. For example, it’s far from clear (and not statistically significant) that athletes actually do have more Veillonella than non-athletes, as science journalist Ed Yong, the author of a 2016 book on the microbiome, pointed out on Twitter. The sample sizes are small, and the effects are small—“But sure,” he added caustically, “start a company.”
And there’s the rub. Three of the paper’s authors have indeed started or hold equity in a company called FitBiomics. According to the company’s website, they are “sequencing the microbiome of elite athletes to identify and isolate novel probiotic bacteria for applications in performance and recovery... [and] purifying these novel probiotics and commercializing as ingredients to disrupt consumer health and nutrition and cater to the next generation athlete.”
In other words, what I initially read as a Type I story (isn’t it amazing how the body works?) is actually a Type II story (have we got a pill for you!). Back in 2017, discussing the company’s impending launch, the first author of the new paper, Jonathan Scheiman, said: “I would like to think that a year after we launch, we could have a novel probiotic on the market.” And to be honest, that goal-focused approach makes me read the results with a bit more skepticism. It doesn’t automatically mean the results are wrong. But they didn’t happen to stumble on a neat microbe with potential performance-boosting effects; they were looking for one. And the problem with that kind of science is that you often find what you’re looking for, even if it’s not really there.
My new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now available. For more, join me on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for the Sweat Science email newsletter.