There's an endless number of runners who seem perfectly able to squeeze in many hours of running every week but who just don't seem to have the time to stretch for five or ten minutes before and after. Find the time.
Sure, it's not as fun as hitting the road, and the benefits may not be as immediately obvious. But a good and consistent stretching program can save you a lot of trouble and keep you running when you might otherwise become injured. Along with training gently and choosing the right shoes, stretching is the most important thing you can do to protect your body from the rigors of the road. You'll also find that the benefits of stretching include reduced muscle soreness after running and even better athletic performance.
That said, you should be careful about how you stretch. If not done properly, stretching can actually cause injury rather than prevent it. Rule number one in stretching: do not bounce. It's a common mistake, but bouncing risks pulling or tearing the muscle you're trying to stretch and relax. Muscles must be stretched gradually. If a stretch is applied too quickly, the muscle responds with a strong contraction, increasing tension. If the stretch is applied slowly, however, this contraction reflex is avoided, muscle tension falls, and you may stretch the muscle further. The lesson here: stretch slowly and hold the stretch for 30 to 40 seconds.
Do not stretch beyond the point where you begin to feel tightness in the muscle. Do not push through muscle resistance, and never stretch to the point of discomfort or pain.
Build stretching into your regular schedule both before and after your daily run -- it's best to do your pre-run stretching after a gentle warmup run of five or ten minutes, since "warm" muscles stretch more easily.
For a model stretching program, try out the 12 stretches recommended below. If you must abbreviate the routine, at least do the three types of wall pushup, the hamstring stretch, the heel-to-buttock stretch, and the groin stretch.
Repeat each stretch two or three times:
Stand about three feet from a wall, feet at shoulder width and flat on the ground. Put your hands on the wall with your arms straight for support. Lean your hips forward and bend your knees slightly to stretch your calves.
2. Wall Pushup #2
From the previous position, bend forward to lower your body to waist height. Bring one foot forward with your knee slightly bent. Lift the toes of the front foot to stretch the muscle under the calf. Stretch both legs.
3. Wall Pushup #3
Put your feet together, rocking back on your heels with your hands on the wall and your arms straight to form a jackknife with your body. This stretches your hips, shoulders, and lower back.
4. Back Scratch
Grab your elbow with the opposite hand and gently push the elbow up and across your body until your hand reaches down to "scratch" your back. Gently push on your elbow to guide your hand down your back as far as it will comfortably go, stretching your triceps and shoulders. Stretch both arms.
Lie down with one leg straight up in the air, the other bent with foot flat on the ground. Loop a towel over the arch of the lifted foot, and gently pull on the towel as you push against it with your foot. Push only to the point where your muscles contract. Stretch both legs.