how to stretch when training for a marathon

Post summary: this week we look at what and how you should be stretching to help your recovery, along with how you could be stretching and making your muscles tighter without even realising it.

Stretching is one of those things that most people know they should be doing, and don’t.

Not just because after a run you’re tired and just want to collapse on the sofa, but also because if your muscle’s aren’t hurting, why bother?

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When You Should Stretch

As we mentioned earlier in the series, you shouldn’t be doing static stretching before you run.

Dynamic warm-up, yes. Static stretching – that should be saved for after.

The point of stretching is to relax and loosen muscles AFTER you’ve been contracting them over and over and over again. Stretching before you run is like washing your dishes before you’ve eaten off them.

Your stretching programme should include two types of stretching – a 20 second stretch or release for every muscle you’ve used right after a run, and a longer stretch or foam roll where you’re focusing only on the really tight muscles in the evening.

The Basic Steps for Stretching

The whole mechanism of correct stretching will be covered in another, longer post, but for our purposes I’m going to give you a quick overview.

70% of our clients actually make their muscles tighter when they’re stretching.

How do they do that?

With an approach I call ‘overstretching’.

Overstretching – How You May Be Stretching

Most people are so conditioned that everything they’re doing should hurt that they push into their stretches as hard as they push into their runs.

If your stretch is at a 7 or 8 on the intensity scale (with 10 being super-intense feel-the-burn), your muscle will be contracting against your stretch (in an effort to protect itself), which makes your muscles much tighter than when you started.

End result? You’ve wasted the time you just spent stretching. And possibly micro-tore your muscles.

Very pointless.

How You Should Stretch

Follow these three steps when you stretch, and you’ll not only actually have looser muscles, you’ll feel more benefit in less time.

  1. Go to a 3 or 4 out of 10 on your intensity/pain scale. You may not feel a stretch – if that’s you, put your hand on your muscle to feel how taut it is.
  2. Take a few deep breaths and focus on releasing the muscle on each exhale. Your stretch will either decrease (if you started at a 3 or a 4), or you may find you start to feel a stretch (if you didn’t feel one initially) as your muscle relaxes.
  3. Follow that stretch in as it releases, for up to 20 or 30 seconds.

Which Muscle to Stretch

Now you know the basic formula, here’s your stretching checklist to cover either after each run, or in the evening when you’re watching TV.

  1. quadriceps (front of the thigh)
  2. hamstrings (back of the thigh)
  3. upper and lower calf muscle (back of the lower leg)
  4. piriformis/glute (back of the hip)
  5. hip flexors (front of the hip)
  6. foam roll your ITB

You may also want to throw in some chest, side, or abdominal stretches depending on how your posture is.

The Opposite Principal

One thing to be wary of: don’t spend too much time stretching any muscle that really bothers you.

Sounds counter-intuitive, but most of the time where you feel the problem isn’t the cause of the problem.

Your hamstrings may feel tight, but it’s usually because your quads, hip flexors, or piriformis is tight and aggravating them.

Whenever you have one specific muscle that’s bothering you, first stretch the opposite muscle carefully. Before stretching the muscle that is bothering you, first check if it feels better after the first stretch.

A Note on Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is a great way to spot-release specific areas of tension, or work on muscles/areas that are hard to stretch because of their position.

Similar to stretching, foam rolling is best done gently.

If you’d like more information about foam rolling, here’s our ultimate guide to foam rolling without killing your legs.

Using Massage for Recovery

Stretching is mainly to help your muscles release tension and recover after you train.

Sports massage can help with your recovery, similar to stretching, and has some benefits of its own.

As a sports massage clinic, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention them here 😉

In a sports massage, the therapist will assess the muscles and let you know where you’re feeling most tight. Unlike stretching, massage can target specific tight spots in a muscle, vs stretching which releases the whole muscle more or less equally.

We can also give you some advice as to what your underlying problems might be, or where you need to spend a little extra time when you’re doing your evening long-hold stretches.

A Last Note on Stretching

Stretching is a fantastic way to help your muscles recover after a run, and many of our clients feel their soreness isn’t as severe when they incorporate stretching.

If you stretch carefully, and gently, you should find that your legs feel a bit lighter and a little stronger with regular stretching.

Remember, though, that you DO want a little muscle tone – muscles shouldn’t feel like jelly. Muscles are there to hold us up. Muscles should feel solid but not hard. So stretch, but don’t get rid of ALL your muscle tone.

Your Action Step

If you’re not already stretching after each run (or, if you realise you may have been overstretching), try this little experiment.

For one week, spend 5 minutes stretching the muscles listed above after each run, as per the stretching instructions included here.

Then spend 2-3 minutes before bed stretching one muscle that’s been particularly tight (changing as you go through the week).

After the week, tell us either on our facebook page or here in the comments, have you noticed any difference in your recovery time, or how you feel during your runs?


This post is part of our 3m2m marathon training series. If you’d like to receive these straight to your inbox and in order, click here to sign up and you’ll get the first email now, followed by a weekly email with actionable tips for every aspect of marathon training.

This post has been drawn from our 3 Months to Marathon Stretching and Recovery Guide, by Katherine Creighton Crook (which will be available soon).

If you’d like to browse the 3 Months to Marathon range of packages including massage and PT sessions, you can visit 3m2m.co.uk.

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