There’s perfection to the movement of elite runners. Watching them run, I’m often struck by the beauty and grace in their stride, with the perfect alignment of their hip, knee and foot. Their upper bodies seem relaxed, lifted and strong. I wish I could run with such strength and grace.

Regardless of form, however, even the best runners will experience impact and compression. Compression can be both useful and harmful. The right amount of compression is needed to strengthen the joint. Too much or not enough will weaken and break down the joint.

To counter the negative force of impact, an athlete can make subtle changes in alignment, weight distribution and biomechanics. In addition, the nervous system and brain have their own shock protection, such as the disk, the vertebrae and the skull.

These stretches will counter the compressive forces from running and encourage useful joint mechanics. These moves will create mobility at the ankle, decompress the hip and relax the side and back of the leg. Using these three stretches together will allow you to effectively manage the primary muscles and joints used in running, and promote foot, ankle, knee and hip alignment.

Calf with belt

Picture of stretching calf with a belt

Most everyone can benefit from this stretch and it’s good to use anywhere, anytime. The intention is to loosen the foot, challenge the ankle and release the back of the knee. This is vital in running because mobility starts at the lower leg. Athletes like this stretch because it’s passive and effective.

  • Lie on your back and place a strap, towel or belt around the arch or ball of your left foot.
  • Straighten your left leg and extend your left heel up, stretching the calf. The right leg can be on the floor or bent.
  • Each hand holds the strap, the elbows are straight.
  • Hold the stretch for five to 12 breaths.
  • Repeat with other leg.

This stretch will let you fine tune the lower leg. Move the outside edge of your foot down, and use the strap to pull the toes to your shin. Keep your knee straight and move the hip away from the ribs. If your leg is tight, put your heel up on a wall, allowing the lower back to extend. Stretch to where you feel relaxed and effective.

Hamstring/hip with belt

Picture of stretching hamstring & hip with a belt

Use this stretch to balance the power of the hip muscles with the extension of the torso to optimize your effort when running. In addition, you’ll relax the muscles and decompress the ball and socket joint at the hip.

  • Lie on your back and place a strap, towel or belt around the bottom of your left foot just behind the ball of the foot.
  • Hold the strap in your right hand and take your left arm out away from the torso at a 90-degree angle.
  • Straighten your left leg and extend your left heel up. Keep the right leg on the floor with the knee bent or straight.
  • On exhale, lower your left leg across your body as the left hip moves away from the ribs on the left. On inhale, bring your leg back up to the starting position. Repeat three to five times.
  • From starting position, drop the left leg across the body once more and hold the stretch in this position for five to twelve breaths. Roll the left hip/pelvic area away from the ribs on the left side, and use the strap to pull the toes toward the shins. The arm holding the strap stays straight.
  • Repeat with other leg.

When you move into this stretch, go slowly. Keep both shoulders on the ground and rotate the hip away from the ribs, bringing a deeper stretch into the hip. Be sure to flex the ankle and straighten the back of the knee. This position lets you release the tension in the side of the leg and hip. Moving the leg closer to the floor isn’t the point. Take your time to make small adjustments in the leg position. Relax and notice the effects as you move out of the stretch.

Standing hamstring

Picture of standing hamstring stretch

Standing hamstring will let you safely decompress the knee, rejuvenate deep hip muscles and reinforce the length at the waist. It will coordinate the lower leg alignment and positively affect your running gait.

  • Place both hands shoulder width apart on a wall or the back of a chair.
  • Walk your feet under your hips until your legs are perpendicular to the torso.
  • Arch your lower back.
  • Hold this position for five breaths.
  • On inhale, raise your left leg back a little.
  • Straighten your right leg. Your left hip can roll toward the ground.
  • Hold this position for five to twelve breaths.
  • Repeat with the other leg.

The key movement is at the waist and the ribs. After you create space at the waist, adjust your weight on the standing leg, keep the back arched, and move the left hip down.

Notice what happens at the knee when you lift the outside edge of your foot. As you hold the stretch, drop the hip a little more and breathe easy and smooth. If you’re tight, move your hands up the wall so the lower back can arch.

Stretching can be targeted to address specific areas and create certain effects. Focus on your alignment in these stretches, as they directly correspond to your optimal running alignment. Use this set of stretches and feel better, run like a pro, and race and train forever.

Brian Dorfman
February 24, 2006