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Backpacker Magazine – May 2007
Want legs that can tackle any climb, any heavy pack, any mileage? Well, don't work harder–work smarter. We grilled fitness experts and scoured the medical literature to uncover the latest, greatest strategies for building strength, endurance, speed, and flexibility.
Train for the Trail
Simple solutions to protect 3 trouble spots
Sore knees You know lunges are good for you, but they can do a number on bum knees. No need to give them up: Dwight Daub, an assistant coach with the Seattle SuperSonics, often has his players do lunges with their front foot on an elevated surface–an aerobic step or small box–which strengthens the muscles around the knee without overly stressing it.
Shin splints "The shin muscle's sole purpose is to raise your foot upward every time you take a stride," says Soika. If you suddenly increase mileage after a winter of watching reruns of That '70s Show, you're in danger of stressing your shins. Soika's easy fix? Walk on your heels with your toes pointed up as high as you can for 90 seconds or longer; do 3 sets a day.
Weak ankles According to Justin Price, ankle sprains are directly related to the health of your feet–namely, the arch and the plantar fascia, the band of tissue that runs along the sole. Once those are strong and supple, they'll help your foot adapt to unstable surfaces and prevent rolls. Start by resting one foot on a golf ball, wearing socks, and rolling your foot over the ball for 1 to 2 minutes. Over time, you can start doing this "massage" by standing on the ball (just be sure to transfer your weight gradually). Switch sides.
The fix Try these two dynamic warmups for a few minutes each before shouldering your pack.
Skips with self-hug Do a standard high skip, bringing knees up to 90 degrees with each skip. At the same time, extend your arms out to the side (parallel to the ground) and then bring them in to hug your chest. Repeat both motions simultaneously.
Frankenstein walk With back upright, arms out in front of you, and palms down, walk forward straightlegged and try to touch your shins with your hands by bringing your legs up, not by bending over.
Extra Credit: The roll-up
Your core–the band of muscles around your midsection, including your abs and obliques–is the foundation for a proper body position in any sport. "You should always keep a neutral, tall pelvis, almost like a dog tucking its tail," says Dieffenbach. Once your middle gets tired (after, say, 6 hours on the AT), your posture will fall apart, and your body actually moves into new positions and angles–stressing your legs in abnormal ways. Dieffenbach suggests borrowing a move from Pilates: Lie flat on your back with your legs straight, arms parallel to the floor above your head. Inhale as you contract your abs, then exhale as you slowly roll your torso up, reaching for your toes. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly roll back to the floor. Do 10 reps.
2) Stretch your hip flexors and eliminate leg pain.
The new rules Tightness at the hip can cause problems all the way down your legs, making flexibility in the rest of your body almost impossible. Even worse, backpacking, especially if it involves a heavy load, makes your hip flexors tighter than walking or dayhiking does. "When you walk with a pack, your torso tends to lean in, folding your body slightly and compressing your hips," says Justin Price, a corrective exercise expert and owner of The BioMechanics, a personal training and wellness facility in San Diego. "Your pelvis rotates forward and the muscles around it shorten up."
Fortunately, the solution is straightforward: You need to stretch your hip flexors, those bungee-like muscles that connect your torso to your upper legs. The American Journal of Sports Medicine highlighted the benefits in a December 2005 study, which reported that better hip flexibility actually reduces patellofemoral pain syndrome–that ache under your kneecap. Even better, stretching your hip flexors lets you lengthen your stride and get more power out of your glutes.
The fix Cyndi Lee, owner of OM yoga center in New York City and author of Yoga Body, Buddha Mind, says the Warrior II pose aligns your knees, opens up your hips, and increases both leg strength and flexibility.
Stand with your feet about 4 feet apart, then reach your arms out to either side, parallel to the ground with palms down. Turn your right foot in slightly and your left foot out to a 90-degree angle. Look over your left shoulder, exhale, and lunge until your left knee is over your left foot and your shin is perpendicular to the floor. Hold for at least 30 seconds.
Extra Credit: Lunge with rotation
You can stretch and realign your hip flexors–and strengthen the muscles that stabilize your hips and legs (glutes and adductors)–by exaggerating a normal walking motion. To start, hold a medicine ball in front of you with both hands. With your back straight, lunge forward with your right foot, simultaneously rotating your arms to the right and lowering your hips toward the ground until your front knee is bent at 90 degrees. Tilt your hips up and forward until you feel a pull in the hip flexor of your rear leg, then step back and return your arms forward. Alternate legs, doing 8 to 12 reps for each leg, 3 to 5 days a week.
Simple solutions to stretch 3 trouble spots
Calves The calf stretch is easy, right? Just stick a leg back until you feel a pull. Yet Price insists most people do it wrong. "You need to make sure your calf muscle doesn't twist while you stretch," he says. Stand upright and place your hands on a wall or tree. Extend your right leg back, keeping it straight and your front leg bent (this looks like the traditional calf stretch). The subtle difference is all about preventing pronation and poor alignment: Keep your heel on the floor, raise the arch of your back foot slightly, and tighten your right glute.
Hamstrings "The lower body gets used in a pretty one-dimensional way while you're backpacking, and this shows up as stiffness and soreness in muscles like the hamstrings," says Baron Baptiste, a yoga instructor and author of Journey Into Power. To keep your hams limber, try Baptiste's rag-doll pose: Standing with feet together, fold over at the waist and let your upper body hang to the floor, with arms loose and torso relaxed; hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Do the pose once before each day's hike.
IT band This oft-forgotten belt of connective tissue on the outside of the upper leg stabilizes the hip and the knee, especially each time your heel strikes the ground. "With extended use, a tight IT band can turn into a huge problem," says Brian Halpern, a sports-medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and author of The Knee Crisis Handbook. "And sometimes it takes a long time to heal." To prevent tightness and chronic inflammation, you need to keep the tissue supple. Standing upright, place your right foot behind your left. Leaving your left arm hanging loose, raise your right arm and bend to the left until you feel a pull at your right hip.