Everyone knows that limber muscles help prevent strains and soreness. But if you stretch the traditional way–by elongating your muscle and holding the position for 30 seconds–you're not getting maximum benefit. "The muscles are actually at their weakest in this lengthened state," says David Stiles, a trainer at Studio 16-RFST Boston. "They can't contract to stabilize the joint or guard against strain."
Better option: resistance stretching–an increasingly popular method used by Olympic-caliber athletes, including gold-medal swimmer Dara Torres. It not only fends off new injuries, but it also helps heal old ones. With this new technique, you contract the muscle while you stretch it (i.e., you resist the stretch) instead of holding it in a relaxed, static position. "This strengthens the muscle, so it can contract through a longer range of motion," says Stiles. It also helps break down scar tissue on injured muscles, allowing the muscle to move more freely and efficiently.
Reap the benefits with these three exercises: Do them at least three times per week (and before and after your next hike) to see results and keep your legs limber, strong, and switchback-ready.
Don't stretch cold muscles. Instead, warm up with five minutes of jogging, hiking, or jumping jacks to get blood flowing.
Prevent injury: Stop the stretch at the point where your muscles can no longer comfortably contract.
Increase the benefit by stretching with a partner. Have your buddy gently move your leg through the stretch position while you resist the motion by pushing back.
For each of the three exercises on the next page, do three sets of six to 10 reps for each leg.
Get onto all fours with your hips over your knees. Raise your right lower leg and press the top of the foot into a wall (or tree trunk). Bring your torso and left leg up until you're in a lunge, then slightly slant your torso forward. Contract your right quad by pressing into the wall with your right foot. Simultaneously, move hips backward to stretch the quad while it resists the motion.
Hamstrings and Glutes
Lie on your back and bend your right leg, bringing your right knee to your chest. Hold the right foot with both hands and pull it up toward your head, straightening the leg. While your hands pull your leg up, contract the hamstrings and spinal muscles to resist the movement, as if you were trying to kick your heel to your butt.
Iliotibial (IT) Band
Lie on your back, pull your left knee halfway to your chest, and put your right ankle over your left knee. Grasp the back of your left thigh with both hands. As you pull your left knee toward your chest (thus stretching your right IT band), resist the movement with your right leg. This will contract the muscle.