yesSummer is almost here (finally!) and that means more daylight and more time outdoors. Whether you’re able to take a vacation or are just happy to get out of the house more often, most of us walk a lot more than usual. When the sun is shining, our plans are more likely to take us outdoors: on hikes, during shopping and sightseeing trips, and even just strolling along the shoreline to find the perfect beach spot.
Walking in the summer is great for your body, but if you have a sudden increase in your level of physical activity, your legs and feet may feel achy and scream. To help keep your muscles from cracking after all those extra miles, we reached out to Dave Candy, DPT, a board-certified specialist in orthopedic physical therapy and owner of More 4 Life PT.
Which muscles are crying out for a good stretch?
Dr. Candy says that the calves and glutes are the main drivers of the stride when walking, as they are the muscles that propel the body forward during stride. The hip flexors also help with the swing part of the stride, when the leg is off the ground.
Additionally, the hip abductor muscles on the outside of the hip “help balance the body in a side-to-side direction when standing on one leg,” says Dr. Candy. And while walking on level ground doesn’t put much effort on the quadriceps muscles, “the demand on the quadriceps increases if you walk hills or climb stairs.”
Finally, the muscles of the shin, ankle, and foot work together to allow an adequate amount of foot pronation.
The two best stretches to do after walking
After a long day of racking up that number of steps, stretching can help your body recover. As physical therapist Corrine Croce previously told Well+Good, stretching after any type of exercise can “reduce tightness and shortening of working muscles, increase blood flow, and … help remove waste byproducts that build up while we exercise. ” Setting aside even a few minutes at the end of a long day of walking will help reduce stress and keep you mobile.
Dr. Candy says the most important muscles for walkers to stretch are the calves and hip flexors. That’s because if your calves aren’t flexible enough to allow your toes to curl far enough toward your shin as you take a full stride, “your body will find an alternate path around your foot, which usually results in overpronation,” he explains. “Similarly, if you can’t get your leg behind you when you push off by extending your hip, it can cause your lower back to arch, which can cause back pain when walking.”
- Stand facing a wall with both feet pointing toward the wall.
- Step forward with one leg and keep the leg you’re stretching out behind you with your heel flat on the ground.
- Keep the arch of the rear foot vaulted:not allow the foot to flatten or turn inward.
- Hold for a minute, then repeat on the other side.
hip flexor stretch
- Kneel in a lunge position with the knee of the leg you’re stretching on the ground and the other foot forward.
- Roll your pelvis under you to keep your lower back flat.
- Push your pelvis forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your grounded leg. Do not allow your lower back to arch. (You’ll be surprised how quickly you feel a stretch if you keep your lower back in a neutral position.)
- Hold for a minute, then repeat on the other side.
Watch trainer Traci Copeland demonstrate this stretch at 2:03 in this video:
Cross-train with these six strengthening exercises for walkers
As in the rest of life, a proactive approach will serve you best. If you prepare your body to handle more walking this summer by not only stretching, but also strengthening the muscles you’ll use to take those steps, you won’t feel as sore at the end of the day. Dr. Candy recommends the following:
single leg balance
Dr. Candy says that this simple exercise is actually one of the best for preparing your body for walking. “It strengthens the hip abductor muscles, which can prevent falls in older adults as well as prevent back, knee, and hip pain when walking in people of all ages,” he explains.
- Stand tall with good posture, engaging your core and glutes, and then stand on one leg for 30 seconds.
- Try not to hold on to anything, but stand near something you can grab just in case.
While many people are familiar with heel raises, Dr. Candy says we often do them incorrectly. “It’s important to keep your heel and Achilles tendon vertical and not allow your heel to twist too far outward (pronation) or inward (supination),” she says.
- Stand with one or both heels hanging off a ladder.
- Drop your heels and then rise up onto your toes, making sure to keep your heels straight instead of turning your ankle in or out.
- Complete 20 repetitions with both feet together, or 12 to 15 with each leg individually.
By using the small muscles in your foot to slightly bend your toes into an arch with this exercise, you can help prevent excessive pronation, which is a common problem. “It can also be combined with one leg balance to save time and make it more difficult,” says Dr. Candy.
- Stand tall in bare feet, curl your toes under, creating a “C” shape with your foot, accentuating your arch.
- Hold the position for a few seconds, then relax and repeat.
- Complete 12 to 15 repetitions per foot.
Lunges, like squats, are one of the classic exercises to strengthen the glutes and quadriceps. However, Dr. Candy believes that lunges are superior to squats for walkers and runners because the load is primarily on the front leg. “Lunges allow the hip abductors and rotators to get stronger at the same time,” he explains.
To maximize the strengthening benefits of lunges and prevent knee pain, Dr. Candy recommends keeping your weight in your heel and keeping your knee in line with your toes. “When your weight is more in your heel than your toes, you use your gluteus maximus muscle more than your quads. Also, keeping your knee from falling into (the most common mistake) or off your toes also helps strengthen your hip abductors,” she says.
Make sure you do your lunges the right way to get the most benefit:
Single Leg Mini Squats
Although single-leg mini squats strengthen some of the same muscles as lunges, the exercises target these muscles somewhat differently. According to Dr. Candy, “Single-leg mini squats require more balance to control the leg, so they generally help strengthen the hip abductors and rotators more than lunges, but not as much the gluteus maximus.”
- Stand tall with good posture and engage your core as you lift one leg off the ground.
- Bend your knee and hip over your supporting leg as you squat down, only going as deep as you can manage.
- You can gently hold onto a surface for balance, but try to use your supporting leg to get back up, don’t rely on your arms.
- Complete 10 to 15 repetitions per side.
Walking on your heels with your toes up may seem like fun, but it can help strengthen the tibialis anterior muscle at the front of your shin. “This helps ensure that you lift your toes correctly when you swing your legs, so they don’t drag on the floor and cause you to trip,” says Dr. Candy. This exercise can also help prevent your foot from “slamming” the ground and can help absorb shock. Ultimately, this can help prevent leg cramps, a common and sometimes debilitating injury in walkers and runners.
- Keeping your core engaged and your posture upright, walk on your heels for 30 to 50 meters, then walk backwards.
- Repeat two or three times.
Additional tips for walking safely during the summer
Increase your mileage slowly: Increasing your activity level too quickly can cause injury. “After the winter, many people are claustrophobic and motivated to get outside and start a walking routine,” says Dr. Candy. “However, if you start walking too much too soon, you can cause an injury that prevents you from walking as much as you’d like for the rest of the summer.”
Drink a lot of water: You sweat more than you think. Staying properly hydrated can help your muscles recover.
Get enough sleep: The body needs to recover from the extra activity. Practice good sleep hygiene with a consistent sleep routine to optimize your rest.
Eat nutritious food: Your body needs nutrients like protein, vitamins, minerals, and enough energy to repair tissues after exercise.
Don’t ignore the pain “If you have pain that is more than just pain, or if it bothers you and doesn’t seem to go away, see a physical therapist to get it checked out and find out what you can do to walk more safely,” advises Dr. Candy.
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