Many of you have been increasing the length of your walks recently leading up to the Bath Beat. We are also heading into the Spring and Summer, a popular time for walking holidays. But how much thought have you given to stretching?
Flexibility and stretching are a crucial part of fitness. Stretching keeps your muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, and you need that flexibility to maintain the range of motion in your joints. Without it, the muscles shorten and become tight. That puts you at risk for joint pain, strains, and muscle damage.
Whilst we stretch the main Nordic walking muscle groups at the end of each class, there are likely to be times when you need more. This is especially true if you are walking for three hours or more. Here are three effective stretches for your lower body which make a big difference if you are tight in these areas.
1. The hip flexor stretch
The hip flexors are a group of deep muscles that help connect your legs to your pelvis. When you bend your knee or hinge at the waist you use your hip flexors.
When we sit (and a study published in 2015 concluded that the average Brit sits for a staggering 8.9 hours per day) our hip flexors tighten and shorten. This can cause a whole lot of trouble – lower back pain, knee joint discomfort; imbalance of muscle strength and posture problems. It is why us instructors talk a great deal about opening the hip when Nordic walking. By adhering to the heel/toe roll and pushing off with your toes (as opposed to the ball of your foot) you can not only walk faster but you can also open - and stretch - your hip flexors.
However, if Nordic walking and the general post walk stretches aren't enough, here is a great additional stretch. Do it at home and make sure you come out of it slowly as it’s one you can go quite deeply into.
- Kneel down in a split stance as shown in the picture below and then gently push your hips forwards. You are trying to open the angle of your back leg where the leg meets your hip. Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds or until you feel the muscle relax. Don't forget to do both sides.
2. Shin stretch
As mentioned above, a key part of the Nordic walking technique is the heel toe roll. Striking with your heel requires you to lift your toes up, which in turn works and strengthens the shin muscles. I mentioned in a previous blog that it is quite normal for shins to be a little sore at the start of the walk. This should ease after a while but, if you are prone to sore shins, the following stretch is a beauty! Do it barefoot or in socks as you can't get a proper stretch wearing shoes.
- Stand with one leg crossed in front of the other. Make sure you rest on the top of your toes. Gently bend the back knee so that it pushes into the fleshy part of your calf. You will feel the stretch all the way up the top of your foot and along your shin. Hold for as long as is comfortable. Smile.
3. Calf stretch
Although we stretch the calf out at the end of our fitness sessions, many of you have been asking how you can stretch this muscle group further. It shows how well you must be working your legs on the flat and uphill, pushing off your toes with real force. So this one's for you. It can be used to stretch both the calf muscles and the achilles.
- Find a pavement curb or step. Place the ball of your foot on or near the edge so that your heel is hanging over unsupported. Slowly drop your heal down while keeping the ball of your foot on the step (see image below). You may need to hold onto something for balance - or use your Nordic walking poles. Make sure you don't force your heel down further than it wants to go. To take the stretch into the achilles, just bend your back knee as shown in the second picture. Hold these stretches for as long as feels comfortable or until you feel the muscles relax.
You can find our favourite Nordic walking poles here and if you're looking for our advice on other walking kit here's our recommendations on the best:
walking socks (socks are an important but forgotten factor)