Stretching your muscles regularly is vital, no matter what your activity level. When your muscles are tight, you have a higher risk of getting injured during a workout.
Two of the tightest muscles that most people have are tight hip flexors and hamstrings. According to nutritionist and chiropractic sports physician Dr. Len Lopez, you risk pulling them whenever you run, whether you’re sprinting or running the bases in softball.
While professionals disagree over whether it’s better to stretch before or after a workout, most doctors recommend stretching as part of an exercise routine, particularly if you’re doing activities such as running or biking.
Flexibility doesn’t happen overnight, however. Some people are naturally less flexible than others, so it may take weeks of regular stretching to loosen muscles. Carol Michaels, founder of Recovery Fitness, is certified by the Cancer Exercise Training Institute, the American Council on Exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine, and is a member of ACSM and IDEA. Here are four leg stretches she recommends to improve flexibility and reduce risk of injury. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds.
The quadriceps, or quads for short, is the muscle group in the front of your thigh. You use these muscles when you walk, run, or do lunges.
To stretch your quads:
- Stand with your side to the wall, placing a hand on the wall for balance.
- Hold your outside foot with your outside hand and lift the foot up toward your rear end, keeping your thighs and knees together.
- Hold for a cycle of relaxation breathing, then do the same for the other foot.
Hamstring and Calf Stretch
The hamstrings are the muscles along the back of your upper leg, running from the thigh to knee. They help you to bend your knee and move your hip. These muscles are used when you’re playing sports or running.
Your calf muscles are along the back of your lower leg; they help move your heel during activities such as walking, running, or jumping.
To stretch both muscle groups together:
- Place your right foot in front of you.
- Hinge at the waist to lean your torso forward toward the extended right leg, and bend your supporting knee.
- Slowly flex your right ankle so that your toes are pulling up toward your body.
- 4. Hold for a cycle of relaxation breathing then repeat with the left foot.
Inner Thigh Stretch
The inner thigh muscles help to stabilize your hip and knee joints. Exercises that focus on working inner thighs are often recommended to tone and strengthen the legs.
To stretch your inner thighs:
- Place your left leg out to the side with a flexed foot.
- Bend your supporting left knee and hinge at the waist to lean your torso forward, pressing your hips back.
- Hold for a cycle of relaxation breathing, then shift your weight to the other side and repeat with the left leg.
Supine Leg Stretch
This stretch works your lower back, hamstring, calf, and ankle. All of these areas are used in your daily activities, and while running or biking.
To perform this stretch:
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
- Bend one knee and hug it into your body.
- Unfold that leg up toward the ceiling, straightening it and pulling it toward the torso until tension is felt behind the leg.
- Point and flex the foot three times and perform three ankle circles in each direction.
- Lower the leg and repeat with the opposite leg.
All four of these stretches can help you avoid injuries if you’re a runner or if you play any sport that works your legs. Do them either before or after a workout, or any time your leg muscles are feeling tight.