You were so eager to get out there for your run that you skipped stretching and now, ouch! Your knee twinges, your hip creaks, or your lower back squawks. Warming up with stretches is a must to loosen your muscles and tendons. You’ll not only help your performance, but most importantly, you’ll lower your risk for runner’s knee and other running-related injuries.

Injury strikes nearly 70 percent of runners, according to estimates from the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (AAPM&R). Runner’s knee, also known as patello-femoral pain, is the most common injury among runners, AAPM&R says. Learn what triggers knee pain, and how to avoid joining the ranks of the injured.

Run Away from Runner’s Knee

The knee pain that often plagues runners can have multiple causes, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Common culprits for knee pain include:

  • strained tendons
  • soft tissue irritation
  • a kneecap that’s out of alignment
  • overuse
  • weak thigh muscles

If you have an injury in your back or hip, you may experience referred pain in your knee.

To avoid being sidelined by knee pain, warm up before running, advises Deborah Lynn Irmas, a personal trainer based in Santa Monica, Calif.  Bring the same discipline to your warm up, cool down, and stretching routine that you apply to your workouts. Remember that the time you spend warming up and stretching before you hit the trail can save you from being sidelined for days, weeks, or even months.

You Also Need to Stretch Your Quads

The quadriceps are the muscles at the front of your thighs. Loosen them up before you run with this stretch:

  1. While standing, hold on to a chair or wall.
  2. Grab your ankle and pull it up behind you to your backside. Keep your knee pointing downward; don’t pull it to the side.
  3. Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. 
  4. Repeat three times, and then switch to your other leg.

Beginners find it easier to do this quad stretch while lying on the floor, Irmas observes:

  1. Lie on the floor on your right side.
  2. Grasp your left ankle, and pull it up to your backside. 
  3. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
  4. Repeat three times, and then repeat on the other side.

Help Your Hamstrings, Save Your Knees

Your hamstring muscles run down the back of your thigh. Pulled or sore hamstrings are common among runners, but you can sidestep injury with this preventive stretch:

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Bend your right leg.
  3. With your hands under your leg just above the knee, pull your left thigh toward you gently. 
  4. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
  5. Repeat three times. 
  6. Reverse your legs and repeat.

As you build strength and flexibility in your quads and hamstrings, you can do this stretch while keeping one leg straight on the floor and bending the other toward you, Irmas says.

You’re Not Done Yet

After you run, Irmas advises doing three sets each of the quad and hamstring stretches on both legs. Keeping your quads and hamstrings stretched and strong helps your knees. Taking those few extra minutes to stretch while your muscles are still warm helps avoid post-run stiffness and pain in your back, hips, calves, and thighs.

If you already have knee pain, don’t try to run through it. “Knees are tricky,” says Irmas. “Stop everything, ice your knee, and take an anti-inflammatory.”

When the pain is gone, start stretching gently.  If your knee continues to give you pangs, stay off it and check in with your doctor. Until the pain disappears, you can switch to swimming or gentle walking.