Peripheral nerves in the limbs stretch to accommodate changes in length during normal movement. The aim of this study was to determine how stretch is distributed along the nerve relative to local variations in mechanical properties. Deformation (strain) in joint and non-joint regions of rat median and sciatic nerves was measured in situ during limb movement using optical image analysis. In each nerve the strain was significantly greater in the joint rather than the non-joint regions (2-fold in the median nerve, 5- to 10-fold in the sciatic). In addition, this difference in strain was conserved in the median nerve ex vivo, demonstrating an in-built longitudinal heterogeneity of mechanical properties. Tensile testing of isolated samples of joint and non-joint regions of both nerves showed that joint regions were less stiff (more compliant) than their non-joint counterparts with joint: non-joint stiffness ratios of 0.5 +/- 0.07 in the median nerve, and 0.8 +/- 0.02 in the sciatic. However, no structural differences identified at the light microscope level in fascicular/non-fascicular tissue architecture between these two nerve regions could explain the observed tensile heterogeneity. This identification of localized functional heterogeneity in tensile properties is particularly important in understanding normal dynamic nerve physiology, provides clues to why peripheral nerve repair outcomes are variable, and suggests potential novel therapeutic targets.