Every doctor, work-out video, and physical therapist remind us to warm up before exercise. Even though walking is not a strenuous form of exercise, it’s still important to limber up before hitting the path. There is more to stretching than simply rolling your shoulders or touching your toes, though. Some stretches can actually hurt you if they are performed at the wrong time. So why should walkers stretch, when should they stretch, and how should they stretch?
Benefits of Stretching
Careful stretching has several important benefits. These go beyond simply avoiding injuries, though. A proper, pre-workout routine can actually help you get more out of your exercise. Stretching engages muscles you may not regularly use, and helps your whole body. Benefits include:
- Reduced risk of injury
- Reduced soreness post-workout
- Improved range of motion
- Reduced tension
Before you stretch, you need to warm up. Stretching cold muscles can do more damage than good. Static stretches are especially dangerous. Walking may be a low impact exercise, but it is still exercise, and your muscles will perform at their best when they are warm. They are also more flexible when they are warm, which is especially important for stretching.
While fitness experts and doctors advise walking as quickly as possible during the bulk of a workout, walkers should move slowly during the warm up. Begin with an easy stroll and then slowly work up to a regular pace. It may not seem like much, but this simple step will go a long way in preventing injury. You should walk slowly for several minutes, at least five to ten. This will get your body ready for stretches.
Once you’ve warmed up, it’s time to stretch. Even though your muscles could handle static stretches at this point, you will get the most benefit from such poses later on in your workout routine. The stretching portion of your warm up routine should include dynamic stretches. Unlike static stretching, dynamic stretching uses motion to train your muscles. Dynamic stretches do not involve holding positions, either. By performing slow motions, such as very slow kicks or twists, your body learns how far it can move. Repeating these motions regularly increases flexibility and forms a link between range and strength.
Since walking demands more from your legs than any other portion of your body, most walking stretches are tailored to hamstrings, calves, shins, thighs, and hips. The best stretches for these areas are high-stepping, heel to toe steps, hip circles, and lunges. While most people are already familiar with lunges, the others might be new to you.
- High stepping requires you to lift your knee as close to your chest as possible and pull it even higher with the aid of your hands. Then you drop the leg and step up with the other. Imagine you’re climbing the world’s tallest steps.
- Heel to toe steps are nothing more than exaggerated walking. Simply put your foot forward, heel to the ground and toes up, then roll your weight onto the foot. As you move forward, rise onto the ball of your foot. Pretend you are a rocking horse, and your rails curve so your entire “foot” cannot be on the ground at the same time.
- Hip circles are the lower body equivalent to the arm circles most of us had to do in elementary gym class. Hold on to a counter or chair for support, then lift one leg to the side as high as you can. Move the leg in circles at least ten times in each direction, both clockwise and counterclockwise. Just think of your legs as lower arms and spin away.
Your back can also take a lot of shock while you walk. It does not require the same amount of pre-workout stretching that your legs do, but it’s still a good idea to perform ten to twenty simple twists. Just stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, place your hands on your lower back, and turn your torso from side to side without moving your hips. This will help limber up your back muscles, which are often among the first to ache or cramp after moderate exercise.
If you have upper back or shoulder cramps during or after your walks, try performing some arm circles before you walk. Spread your arms horizontally and move them in circles, both forwards and backwards, in broadening circles. This is the same exercise referenced above in the section about hip circles. It’s the same motion, and once you understand one, it’s easy to perform the other. The only difference is that you can move both arms in circles at the same time, but only one leg at a time. Not only do we need a leg to stand on, but we need the height that leg offers to perform circles so close to the ground.
Although this article primarily explores pre-walking stretches, it’s important to remember post-walking stretches, too. These can do the most to improve flexibility and capitalize on your thoroughly-loosened muscles at the end of your walk. Static stretches, while dangerous for stiff, cool muscles, are ideal for muscles that have just been exercising. Unlike dynamic stretches, static stretches are all about holding a position at the very edge of your range.
If you’ve ever reached down to touch your toes and stayed in that pose for several seconds, you’ve already learned a basic, static stretch. Static stretches are more particular to every individual’s level of flexibility, but remember to stretch out the same areas you warmed up, at the very least. Pay attention to your legs, hamstrings, hips, and back. Always be careful not to over-stretch and hurt yourself.
A workout, like a story, needs a beginning, middle, and end. Begin with a warm up and some dynamic stretches to prepare key parts of your body. Only then can you get the most out of the main workout. Save static stretches for the cool down, when your muscles are most willing to cooperate. To get the best results, it’s important to complete the right routines at the right time.