Walking might be one of the most underrated forms of exercise. In addition to benefits like heart health and weight loss, walking can also improve your mood and cognitive health. Even though walking for fitness might not be as intense as some other endurance sports, stiff muscles and joints at the beginning of your workout can still be common. To aid performance, prevent injury and help you feel better overall, stretching plays a key role.
To help clear up a few of the common questions walkers might have about stretching before a workout, we recently got together with Daniel Giordano, DPT, physical therapist and co-founder of Bespoke Treatments to discuss his advice for the right way to include stretching in your routine.
“While most might think of stretching as a way to improve flexibility, or the amount a muscle can stretch passively through a range of motion, the primary purpose of stretching isn’t to lengthen a particularly tight muscle,” says Giordano. Rather, “mobility — the ability to move the joint actively through a range of motion — should be the primary goal.”
READ MORE: What’s the Difference Between Mobility and Flexibility?
There are two types of stretching — static and dynamic. Holding a stretch for a long period of time in a static manner before working out “can actually be harmful, particularly if you’re stretching to pain or attempting to stretch an acute injury,” notes Giordano.
Dynamic stretching involves moving through a greater range of motion, with end-range pauses (for example, performing a squat and holding at the bottom or end-range for a few seconds). “Ideally you want to dynamically stretch in order to temporarily increase range of motion, improve blood flow and circulation and prep your body for activity, which will reduce your risk of injury,” he says.
“Prior to your workout, it’s important to warm up your muscles dynamically,” says Giordano. However, “dynamic stretching can also be incorporated into your routine post-workout to improve mobility.”
For those who are used to static stretching that involves long holds in a stationary position, Giordano advises against performing this type of stretching before you head out the door. “The only time I recommend static stretching is if someone wants to perform these movements at the end of their day or after a workout in order to downregulate the nervous system and allow the body to get into a recovery phase,” he says. “Static stretching prior to activity will not prep you for activity. Research shows it downregulates the nervous system and can negatively affect force output, which decreases performance.”
This study out of Utah State University seems to agree with this philosophy, stating that its results showed static stretching prior to activity had a negative effect on agility and acceleration, while dynamic stretching used as a warmup elicited gains in speed, power and agility among participants. While there may be a place for static stretching as part of a cooldown, dynamic stretching seems to be the way to go prior to walks that are long or performed at higher intensities.
READ MORE: Dynamic Stretching Warmup For Runners
“Walkers should concentrate on warming up their entire lower body prior to activity,” says Giordano. He recommends dynamic stretches such as hamstring scoops, quadricep pulls, high-knee pulls and glute pulls. You can also try these lower-body moves as well as activation exercises such as stepping side to side while wearing a resistance band, which helps activate your glutes and hips.
It’s important to activate these muscles prior to your workout (especially if you spend a lot of time sitting during the day). Doing so makes it easier to maintain proper form and increase your walking speed without risking injury. If you need help getting started or would like help with a personalized routine, it’s always a good idea to reach out to a physical therapist.
Make progress every day while you work on mini fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.