Essential leg and knee stretches after long-distance walking

essential leg and knee stretches after long-distance walking

I never thought I would do a pilgrimage walk. I used to think walking holidays quite a curious way to spend the summer, mainly for older people. With age, of course, long walks have become an attractive challenge. Walking from A to B, in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims, turned out something meaningful, demanding but still achievable. Over 10 days, I walked one of the pilgrim routes in France, from Le Puy to Conques. It’s the route that eventually leads to Santiago de Compostella, so it brims with the pilgrimage history, and is also popular with modern-day walkers. We walked an average of 21km per day, up and down, through stunning countryside. Stretching my leg muscles twice a day became necessary to stave off leg and knee pain. Whether you are planning a walking holiday or regularly walk long distances, I would like to share the stretches that helped me most. Especially as we get older, practising these essential leg and knee stretches after long-distance walking will allow us to feel rejuvenated and ready to walk again!

When you move, your muscles contract and release. In a repetitive activity, the muscle fibres are required to contract and release so often that they may not be able to lengthen or relax properly any more. Despite needing some general stretching as well, it was obviously that my legs that were most in need of some relief after doing about 30,000 steps per day. I was very aware of the muscles tightening and worried about muscle injury and knee pain. I stretched my leg muscles after walking and sometimes during the walk. Tired muscles always felt better afterwards and the walking was lighter.

How and why to stretch

Stretching in a calm way with the breath not only releases muscles but also triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the rest-and-digest stage, opposite to the flight-or-fight mechanism in the body. It also increases the blood flow to the muscles, and the endorphins that are released give a feeling of wellbeing. For the muscles to retain the length, you have to stretch for about 60 seconds. It’s also important to find the right amount of stretch, to avoid injury. Stretching gently while breathing calmly will have better results than an intense and quick stretch while thinking about work.

Essential leg and knee stretches after long-distance walking

While walking, different muscles coordinate to stabilise the joints and move the legs. Not just the leg muscles are involved, because we also twist the torso, use our core muscles to stabilise the trunk, move our arms etc. Nevertheless, our upper leg muscles tire most, so here are some essential stretches to prevent leg and knee pain.

1. Hamstring stretch

Prone to becoming tight, this group of three muscles at the back of the legs helps to move the legs and stabilise the hip and knee. They work in opposing synergy with the quadriceps, the muscles at the front of the thigh.

The hamstrings can be stretched from different positions. When you get a short break during a walk, it suffices to take a step forward, flex the foot, and lean forward from the hip with a straight back. Breathe into the stretch and hold it for 5 to 6 breaths.

standing hamstring stretch

After a walk, if you have space to lie down, and a long belt, the following stretch is efficient and easier on the back:

Lie on your back with the legs bent.

Exhale and stretch one leg up with a long belt around the foot.

If the back of your leg is very tight, don’t hold it rigidly. Instead, stretch it to a comfortable level while you exhale and bend the knee again while you inhale.

If it feels fine to keep the leg straight, hold the stretch with nice, long exhalations.

Keep the back relaxed and the hips heavy on the floor.

Work up to staying in this position for about a minute and repeat with the other leg.

essential leg and knee stretches after long-distance walking

2. Hip flexors and quadriceps

The second essential leg and knee stretches after long-distance walking are for the hip flexors and quadriceps. The hip flexors consist of five different muscles that bend the knee up.  They are the primary muscles that bend the hip and swing the leg forward. One of the hips flexors is part of the quadriceps. The group of 4 quadriceps muscles work together with the hamstrings to lift and lower the legs while walking, and they extend and stabilise the knee.

It may be easiest to stretch these muscles in a standing position. If you can’t reach your ankle, hold on to something and place your foot on a chair behind you to reach the same kind of lengthening for the front of your leg.

If you can reach your foot behind you, hold your ankle and not your foot, which is safer for your knee.

Engage the lower abdominal muscles and tilt your hips to keep the lower back long.

Breathe 5 to 6 breaths on each side.

standing quads stretch

Inner thigh stretch

The next essential leg and knee stretches after long-distance walking are for the inner thigh muscles. They control the leg movement and length of each step.

Lying on your back with one leg bent, place the belt around the other foot and stretch it upward. The leg does not have to be straight if this is uncomfortable.

Without moving or tensing the back, bring your right leg a little out to the right. Don’t move the leg too far out because it’s crucial to keep the pelvis evenly on the mat.

Focus on the back remaining uninvolved and relaxed. Again, hold for about a minute.

inner thigh stretch

ITB band and outside leg muscles

Crucial for the knee is also to stretch the outside of your legs. This can be a difficult area to reach.

Holding the belt with one hand, cross the leg over without lifting the side of the sacrum. It’s a small movement. Hold for a minute, breathe and focus on keeping the back relaxed.

Repeat the whole sequence with the other leg.

ITB band and outside leg stretch

Gluteus muscles stretch

The gluteus muscles keep the pelvis aligned and contract to help the other leg move forward.

Place the right ankle (not the foot) just above the left knee and hook your hands around the left leg so you can bring this leg towards the chest.

Breathe into this stretch, sending the breath to the area that feels stretched. Imagine the muscles are relaxing a little more every time you exhale. Repeat with the other leg.

Hold for 60 to 90 seconds if comfortable and repeat with the other leg.

essential leg and knee stretches after long-distance walking

You can also keep the foot on the floor if this stretch is too much, or do the stretch on a chair. When on a chair, sit upright and perhaps lean forward a little from the hips and with a straight back.

seated glute stretch

I hope these essential leg and knee stretches after long-distance walking will help you, because walking is so indispensable and joyful. To stay your best self and age healthily, why not work with me and improve your flexibility, mobility and strength? To discuss how yoga therapy can help you, book your free consultation session here:

As I was enjoying the simplicity of just putting one foot in front of the other, I marvelled at this innate mode of transportation for human beings. Throughout much of human history, walking was the only way to move around for most people. It slows everything down, and one cannot avoid simply being in the present. The composer J. S. Bach is said to have walked for three days to listen to his favourite organist perform, and then to have walked back, three days. Now I understand there is a peacefulness in walking, in moving slowly through the landscape. It’s time to simply be, to reflect on the place left behind, and prepare for the place ahead, never knowing quite what will be on your way.


long-distance walking

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