There’s nothing like setting off on a brisk morning hike with the wind in your hair and a sturdy pack on your back. Romping with a friend or loved one, you might watch for hawks or dolphins depending on where you happen to be. Hiking is one of the safest, yet most exciting forms of cardiovascular exercises around. The sheer unpredictability and diversity of terrain make it a popular American sport. In fact, according to the American Hiking Society, 73 million people (nearly one-third of the US population) hiked in the United States last year. Sales related to these energetic activities account for a whopping $18 billion, from equipment rentals and national park passes to shoe purchases.
Despite the sport’s popularity, statistics on hiking-related injuries are hard to come by. One thing that fitness experts do agree on, though; is that hiking forces the body into long periods of forward flexion (leaning slightly forward from the waistline and lower back). “This postural alignment stresses major muscles of the mid- to lower- back, and tightens muscles all along the back of the body, from the upper back to the hamstrings, glutes, and calves,” says Beth Shaw, avid backpacker, yoga instructor, and author of YogaFit-Second Edition. “Instead of simply stretching your legs at the end of an arduous hike, try performing this 8-minute series of yoga poses to counteract the gravitational forces of hiking and, especially, hiking with a heavy pack on your back.” You’ll avoid injury, reduce aches and muscle tension, and be ready to tackle another mountain tomorrow.
This series of poses counteracts the forward hinge as you hike, and also balances muscles of the body. Hold each stretch for 20 to 40 seconds and repeat as needed.
CHEST EXPANSION (opens the chest, pulls shoulders down and back, squeezes shoulder blades together and eases mid-back muscles)
Stand with your knees slightly bent and interlace your hands together behind your lower back, with palms as close to touching as possible. Lift your arms off your butt and relax the muscles of your face and neck as you arch back for 20 seconds. Then, engage the belly and slowly fall forward, folding the upper body in close to the shins. Keep your hands interlaced and press your knuckles up to the sky for another 30 seconds. Bend your knees deeply and roll up one vertebra at a time. Repeat two to three times.
COBRA (strengthens and stretches postural muscles along upper- to lower-back)
Lie belly down and stretch your legs long in back of you, toes touching the floor and thighs engaged. Place your hands adjacent to top of your ribcage, roll your shoulder blades down your back, look down the end of your nose and breathe deeply. Slowly begin to peel your chest off the mat, keeping bent elbows tucked into your ribcage, and hold up to 30 seconds before slowly working in reverse until forehead once again touches the mat. Repeat this several times, coming up higher each time yet keeping your hip bones glued to the floor.
PYRAMID POSE (eases the hamstrings, soothes the hips and lower back and stretches the spine)
Stand with your right leg about a foot in front of you and your left leg in back. Keep both feet straight and parallel, about hip width apart. Square your hips to the front, place your hands at your hips, and engage the belly. Slowly hinge forward from the hips and begin curling your torso over your front shin and hold for 20 seconds or so. Place as much body weight as you can into the rear foot, keep your front knee soft and slowly reach your hands to each side of the front foot (or to the calf, if hamstrings are tight). When you’re ready to come up, bend both knees and roll back up, then switch sides.
UPSIDE DOWN PIGEON (stretches the hips, glutes, legs and lower body)
Lie face up on the floor with your knees bent and over the belly. Cross your right ankle over your left knee and reach through to grasp left hamstring with both hands. Flex your right foot and point your right toes and keep your tailbone on the mat at all times. To deepen the stretch, you might pull your left knee in toward the body and hold for 30 seconds before you switch sides. Repeat twice.
Photo Credits: iStockphoto.com, YogaFit