The most important exercise you can do as a new runner is, of course, running. But your risk of injury will go down–and your enjoyment of running will go up–if you take a few minutes a day to stretch and strengthen key parts of your body. Here are simple exercises that will help you run more smoothly and efficiently.
1. Calf Stretch
Goal: Increase the flexibility of your calf muscles and Achilles tendon.
Why: Running takes your lower legs through a fuller range of motion than most other activities. Better flexibility in your calves and Achilles tendons will allow you to push off more forcefully and lower your risk of straining these muscles or tendons.
How: Sit with your legs in front of you, straight but relaxed. Place your hands or a rope or towel wrapped around the ball of your foot. Contract your shin muscles to pull your toes toward your shin. Keep the top of your ankle loose so that you feel the stretch in your calf muscles and Achilles tendon. Exhale into the stretch, and hold it for 2 seconds. Lower your foot to the start position, and repeat. Do 10 stretches for each leg.
When: Like most non-dynamic stretches, this is best done after your run.
Consider: You’ll need to be diligent about calf and Achilles flexibility if you’re a new runner who has worn high-heeled shoes for many years. Try walking around your house barefoot or in socks to help lengthen your calf and Achilles.
2. Hamstring Stretch
Goal: Increase the flexibility of the large muscles that connect your butt and knees.
Why: Good running form entails using the large, strong muscles along the backs of your legs to propel you forward. But because of tight hamstrings, many runners overuse their quads, the muscles along the front of their legs, to more lift themselves up and down instead of flow along smoothly.
How: Lie on your back with one foot flat on the floor. Wrap a rope or towel around the ball of the other foot, and keep that leg straight. Contract the quad of the leg you’re stretching, and bring the sole of that foot toward the ceiling or sky. Use the rope only to guide the motion, not to pull the leg. Raise the leg until you start to feel a comfortable stretch in your hamstring, then lower. The whole movement should take only a few seconds. Do ten stretches on each leg.
When: Stretch your hamstrings before you run, especially if you’re running first thing in the morning or after you’ve been sitting for a while. A few times a week, also stretch them after you run. This second bout of stretching will help lengthen the muscles while they’re warm.
Consider: Sitting at work and driving wreak havoc on hamstring flexibility. If your life involves a lot of sitting, try to get up and move around every hour.
Goal: Improve strength and mobility in your hips and glutes.
Why: Core strength means a lot more than having strong abs. Your real core strength resides in the large muscles of and around your hips. Strong hips and butt muscles that can move fluidly through a wide range of motion play a big part in having good running form. Also, having strong hips has been linked to having fewer running injuries elsewhere, such as in the knees, because your legs stay better aligned as your feet land and roll through to toeing off.
How: Stand with your hands behind your head and your feet pointing straight ahead. Keep your back “set” but relaxed; don’t let your upper body slump forward. From your hips, squat toward the ground while keeping your knees positioned over your feet and your chest positioned up. Go down only as far as you can while maintaining good form (long torso, knees aligned over feet). At your bottom position, drive back up using your hips and glutes. Start with two sets of 10, and work up to three sets of 25.
When: Set aside two to three days a week for a strengthening exercises, including squats. This can be either after you’ve done an easy run, or if you have a short block of time somewhere else in your day. If you do your strength exercises at a time other than after a run, precede them with some easy stretching and a little walking to warm your muscles.
Consider: If you have a history of lower-back or knee problems, don’t squat lower than your thighs parallel to the ground.
4. Double-Leg Pelvic Tilt
Goal: Have a flexible lower back that remains level when you run.
Why: By some measures, more than 70% of American adults have lower-back pain at some point. For runners, imbalances and tightness in the lower back can tilt the pelvis and pull on the glutes and upper hamstrings, setting off a cascade of dysfunction that can lead to injury anywhere from hip to foot.
How: Lie on your back. Begin with both knees bent and feet flat on the surface on which you’re lying. Place your hands behind your knees/thighs to prevent pressure on the knees and provide a little assistance toward the end of the movement. Using your abdominals and quadriceps, lift your legs toward your chest until you can go no farther. Gently assist with your hands, but do not pull. Hold the end range of motion for 1.5–2 seconds and return to the start position. Perform eight to 10 repetitions per set.
When: As with the hamstring stretch, this is best done before running, to help you start your run with good form. And as with the hamstring stretch, if you frequently also do it after you’ve run, over time you’ll see significant improvements.
Consider: This exercise is a must-do for runners who sit for long stretches of time.
Goal: Improve your ability to run “tall.”
Why: It’s common for runners, especially when they tire, to bend forward at the waist. Doing so means you have to work harder to overcome gravity, and it causes your back and upper-leg muscles to overcompensate in an effort to keep you more erect. The result: You run slower, but with greater discomfort, than if you were to keep a better upper-body position. Planks increase your ability to maintain a tall, relaxed posture when running.
How: Get in a pushup position, except your body weight should be resting on your forearms instead of your hands. Push your body to the “up” position, tighten your stomach, and keep your shoulders, back, buttocks, and heels in a straight line. Hold for 30 seconds (or less if you start to shake or feel your lower back buckling). Rest briefly by sitting on the ground, then resume the plank position and hold for another 30 seconds. Over time, work up to holding the position twice for one minute each time.
When: You can do planks every day, but you’ll want to do them at least three times a week to start to see benefits. After an easy run is a good time.
Consider: Because they engage your entire abdominal area, planks are more time-efficient than crunches or other ab exercises that target more specific areas.
Goal: Run with your shoulders aligned over your hips rather hunched forward.
Why: Good running form entails a straight line from your feet through your hips on up to your shoulders and head. Many runners, however, hunch forward in the upper back and shoulders. Doing so unnecessarily tired your shoulders, arms and neck, restricts your breathing, and detracts from smooth movement in your hips and hamstrings. Dips are a simple way to strengthen the muscles of your upper back so that you can more easily hold good running form.
How: Place your palms on the edge of a chair or other steady surface of a similar height, facing away from the chair. With your legs straight and your upper heels on the ground, lower yourself until your arms are bent at a 90-degree angle, then raise yourself back up. Maintain as straight of a line as you can from your chest through your feet. Start with 10 dips (or fewer if you can’t maintain good form for 10). Work up to two sets of 20.
When: Do dips on the days you do squats and planks.
Consider: If you spend a lot of time bent staring at a phone or working on any sort of screen, take breaks throughout the day to loosen and realign your shoulders. While standing tall, roll your shoulders from front to the back at least 10 times, taking note of what it feels like to have your shoulders low and level.