The importance of stretching and relaxing your muscles before and after exercise cannot be over emphasized.
WARNING: Advice on these pages are taken from my own personal experience and do not constitute professional advice. Everyone’s experience and ability is different. Before starting on any new physical activity it is a good idea to consult a Doctor. It may also be beneficial to work with a Coach or a Guide to develop the necessary skills to support such activity.
On a rainy, late autumn, day last year I plodded slowly up from sea level out of Dunure Harbour towards the village of Fisherton. The climb was about 300ft, relatively steep and I was going to use the lamp posts in Fisherton as markers for my first hill sprint session in 20 years. I felt freedom and exhilaration as I exploded into my first sprint of the session. A sudden sharp pain at the top of my left leg had me pulling up before the end of the third sprint. I was soon limping back to the car with a pulled hamstring. It would literally be months before I would run pain free again.
For any athlete who takes part in any sport, it is vital to work through the ritual of stretches and warm up before any training session or events. For those of us carrying weight it is even more important to work through those routines. For work on your feet such as running or hiking, the more weight you carry, the more strain you put on the framework of bones and muscles supporting you. Muscles need to be kept supple and the blood needs to be easily circulating to carry the necessary oxygen to them to enable you to keep working.
Pulled muscles, weak or grinding knees or lower back pain have all become everyday obstacles for me to have to overcome through years of physical work whilst being overweight. The thing is the onset of such conditions can be delayed or removed altogether and the effects of them reduced by making stretching and warm up/down a routine part of your exercise.
Focussing on stretches, the exercises below are the ones which I tend to do as I find them most achievable and comfortable for me. It’s worth noting however that there are loads of different stretches that can be done for the different muscles in your body. You should explore these widely and find the best exercises for you. To assist I have added lots of links in the exercises mentioned which open up the wide and varied world of stretching and warm up.
Warning: Care must be taken not to overwork or overstretch muscles during these exercises. Move slowly and gently into all positions described never jerk or swing yourself suddenly into a change of position. If you feel pain at any time, stop immediately and seek qualified medical advice before continuing. It is best to work with a qualified Gym or Sports Coach when first doing stretches.
The video below shows a demonstration of the full exercise routine encompassing all stretches described in this post.
This exercise stretches the calf muscles. This is the large muscle that runs along the back of your leg from your heel to the back of the knee.
- Find a wall and place your hands on the wall
- Extend one leg behind you
- To achieve the stretch on the calf muscle on the extended leg, place that entire foot on the floor with the toes pointing forward and bend the non extended knee
- You should feel the area behind your extended leg, between the heel and the knee, tightening
- Hold for a count of approx 10 sec
- Switch legs and repeat.
Here, we stretch both sets of muscles running up the back of the leg. Calf, as previous exercise and hamstring. Your hamstring runs up the back of your leg from your knee to just below your bottom.
- Stand, hands on hips, both legs together, toes facing forward.
- Place one foot in front of the other to prepare for the stretch
- Keeping your rear foot flat on the ground, raise the toe of your front foot off the ground
- The stretch is achieved by raising your front foot off the ground and then slowly pushing your bottom back
- You should feel a general tightness along the back of your extended leg and may be particularly tight behind the knee
- Hold the stretch for approx 10 sec
- Extend the other foot forward and repeat
Another stretch for the hamstring. This one is slightly deeper than the previous stretch and focuses on the hamstring. The stretch is developed over 2 parts.
- Stand with your legs shoulder width apart
- Clasp your hands behind you
- Slowly lean forward extending your clasped hands above your back
- You will start to feel the tightness in both hamstrings at the back of your legs above the knee
- Hold this position for a slow count of five before extending into the second part of the stretch
- Maintaining the forward leaning posture unclasp your hands and stretch your arms down towards the ground
- Keeping your knees straight, gently push down towards your toes as far as you can go
- Do not worry if you cannot reach your toes (I can’t) you can still benefit from the stretch by extending as low as you can
- If you are able to easily reach your toes, you can extend the stretch further by touching the ground out in front of your toes
- Hold the lowest point of the stretch for a further count of 5 before slowly returning to a standing position
This is the final exercise I do for the legs and it covers the Quads. These are the large muscles at the front of your legs above the knee and they work especially hard supporting your hips and your knees during hill descents.
- Lower yourself onto one knee with one knee on the ground, leg extended behind you and one knee out in front with the knee bent and foot flat on the floor.
- Hands on hips
- Gently shift your weight forward onto the leg extended in front of you.
- You should feel the muscles at the top of the leg in front of you tighten.
- Hold the stretch for about 10 sec
- Switch legs and repeat
This exercise is especially good for opening up the joints at the base of the spine and releasing tension. Hence this exercise can help to relieve lower back pain.
- Lie face down on the floor with your hands close to your shoulders, hands flat on the floor
- Straighten your arms and lift the top half of your body up off the floor whilst leaving your legs flat on the floor
- Once your arms are straight and your upper body is arched, move fully into the stretch by clenching your buttocks and gently pushing your hips into the floor
- You should feel the stretch across your lower back
- Hold for approx 3 sec, lower upper body back down and repeat
- Repeat for 10 reps
The Sacroiliac (SI) Joint is where your hip bones (Ilium) join to the centre of your back below the spine (Sacrum). Inflammation in these joints can cause ongoing and debilitating pain in the lower back which can radiate down through the Sciatic Nerve to the buttocks and the top of your legs. The pain is called Sciatica and you can find out much more about it and the SI Joint here.
This exercise stretches the Piriformis Muscle which, when tight, can aggravate the SI Joint. I was introduced to this stretch when I visited my Physio with Sciatica and I have found it was great for relieving the pain. Note this stretch can also be done sitting.
- Lie on your back, hands by your side and legs flat on the floor
- Lift one foot and bend your knee to place that foot on the top of the opposite knee and relax
- The weight of your bent knee hanging down should initiate the stretch of the Piriformis Muscle on that side
- You can deepen the stretch by gently pushing down on the bent knee
- Hold the stretch for approx 10 sec
- Change over and repeat with the other leg
This is more of a very gentle stretching exercise to strengthen your core rather than a stretch.
- Lie on your back, hands by your side with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor
- Gently and slowly raise your bottom off the floor until you have created a straight line from your knees down to your shoulders
- Repeat for 10 reps
Deltoids are muscles behind your shoulders which get extensively used during lots of activities. They are extensively used in any swimming stroke, when carrying a pack or using walking poles on a trek and scrambling. Even holding your arms up during a long run requires use of the deltoids. This stretch keeps them supple.
- Stand facing front, hands by your sides.
- Raise one arm and extend it across the front of your body
- Bring the other arm up to touch the elbow of the extended arm
- Gently push the elbow of the extending arm in towards your body achieving the stretch
- You should feel tightness at the back of the shoulder of the extended arm
- Hold the stretch for approx 10 sec
- Change arms and repeat the stretch
Now we are getting into a little fun and flexibility to finish off. The idea of this and the next exercise is just to loosen off a bit and increase flexibility around the hips. You can use a Hoola Hoop to get the most out of this. I just do the hip movements.
- Stand hands on hips.
- Gently rotate your hips as if you were rotating a Hoola Hoop
- Do 3 rotations in one direction and then change direction
- Repeat until you have done five rotations in each direction
Another exercise to move the hips and shoulders.
- Stand facing front with your hands flat in front of your chin
- Extend one arm
- Keeping your legs facing forward, swivel round on your hips to bring the extended arm behind you
- Gently increase the stretch to bring the extended arm towards the other side of your body
- Relax until your extended arm is pointing straight back
- Repeat the extension for another 2 reps
- Bring your arm round to the front and repeat by extending the other arm
- Continue switching arms until you have extended 5 times on each side
Loosening Off and Warming Down
After any exercise session it is always good to just gently relax and shake off all of your muscles. This can be done by gently bouncing on your feet whilst shaking off your arms, rotating your head and anything which instinctively feels like you are relaxing and shaking off your muscles.
If it makes it any easier or fun, just picture yourself as a boxer dancing around the ring ahead of the fight.
Read about the muscles I’ve pulled during training and how I’ve managed to keep moving and recover from them in my next post here.
Learning to carry your weight can be just as amazing as managing to lose it. Learn how by reading this series, Worth Your Weight In Gold, from the start here.
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