Have you ever tried to go for a run after getting off a plane? Your feet probably hit the ground twice as hard as usual, your legs felt heavy and stiff and your lower back got sore.
Even the following day running can still feel lousy, especially if your flight was long.
This is a bummer under any circumstances but if you’re flying to a race—say a marathon you’ve spent months training for and a fair amount of money to travel to—it can turn into a nightmare scenario. Never mind bonking in the final miles, you could end up feeling lousy from your first step, falling far short of your goal time, and possibly getting injured.
Some of the physical stresses of air travel are unavoidable—the lousy air in the cabin, the questionable quality of the food and water, the compressive forces of takeoff and landing, the security screening experience and hauling your luggage around…heck, even the hefty dose of radiation from the security screening and the cosmic radiation in flight.
But the biggest factor that messes up your running is the airplane seat, and that’s the thing you can actually do the most about.
Even though that seat is usually about the right size for a Barbie doll, you can step off the plane feeling good if you warm up properly so that you don’t have to fight yourself to get into the seat and stay in it.
Yes, you read that right. I’m suggesting you warm up for your flight.
This will help you feel like you can actually relax into your seat, and that will make you much less stiff when you arrive at your final destination.
You can do this at the gate before you get on board as long as you’re okay with people giving you sidelong glances. Personally, I’m impervious to embarassment in such situations—all I care about is feeling good. But if you’re a bit more self conscious, you can do the exercises before you leave for the airport.
The ideal scenario is actually to do a light workout—a light jog or other cardio—before you leave for the airport, along with this routine either right afterwards or at the gate. I pretty much never manage the cardio, but if you can pull it off, awesome.
This routine is composed of static stretches. I normally advise against those but this is a static situation you’re going into, and static stretches seem to help maintain a feeling of relaxation through the whole flight.
Go to the point of feeling a gentle stretch with each of these, then hold for about 20 seconds and breathe. You can do a second set if you want.
No deep stretching! Only gentle stretches. Deeper is not better, and sometimes it makes the stretches backfire and tighten you up.
These three key stretches make airplane seats more comfortable:
Glute Stretch: You can actually do this just sitting on the front edge of a seat at your gate while you wait to board. This is a classic stretch, with your ankle across your other knee, leaning forward till you feel a gentle stretch. Then stay there and breathe into it for 20 sec or so.
Hamstring Stretch: This can also be done on the front edge of your seat at the gate. Just stretch your legs out in front of you with your heels on the floor and your feet flexed. Sit up tall and lean forward till you feel a gentle stretch, and breathe into it for 20 seconds or so.
Back Stretch: There are a few ways to do this, which I’ve listed below. Move into them gently and don’t push, and if your back feels at all iffy then stop right away.
⁃ stay seated on the front edge of your seat with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Put your hands on your thighs so that your fingers are crosswise to your thigh bones and slide them down your thighs, over your knees, and as far as is comfortable towards your ankles and feet. This will cause you to round your back and bend forwards at your hip joints, creating a gentle stretch.
⁃ if you’re already familiar and comfortable with this type of stretch and would like a deeper stretch, stand with your back to a wall and your feet about 1 foot from the wall (experiment to find the right distance for you). Then lean back so your butt is on the wall and bend your knees slightly. As in the version above, slide your hands down the top of your thighs, over your knees, and down towards your feet. Stay where you feel a pleasant stretch and breathe.
⁃ if you’ve done a lot of “hanging over” in your life—if you recognize that term, then I’m talking to you—then go ahead and just do that.
These next two stretches counterbalance the ones above. If you have plenty of time at the gate, do them after the three key stretches, and then do a second set of the key stretches. If you don’t have time to do them before your flight, do the whole sequence afterwards:
Quad Stretch: This is the classic standing hold-your-ankle, bring-your-heel-to-your-butt stretch. Make sure as you’re doing it that you also think of moving your knee backwards so it’s in line with your other knee or behind it if possible. But don’t strain.
Hip Flexor and Oblique Stretch: This is a bit more complicated but very much worth it. Stand up in a split stance, with one foot forward and one back. Both feet should point forwards. Bend the front knee a little and put your hand on your hip on that side. Contract your buttock on the other side so you push your hip forward and create a stretch in the hip flexors. Lift your arm on that side overhead and slowly bend sideways away from that leg, towards the side of your body that has the leg in front. You should feel a stretch in the side of your waist as well as the front of your hip. But remember, no deep stretching! Just go to where you feel a nice, gentle stretch and breathe. Then come back and do the other side.
Post-flight you definitely need movement to loosen and rehydrate your tissues. Variety is your friend here. This is a great time for a low-key dance workout video, an easy swim in the hotel pool doing all the different strokes you know, or even just a moderate to brisk walk without carrying anything—no purse or backpack. Don’t push against stiffness, just move and let yourself loosen up.
The day after your flight, still give yourself a little extra warmup time. If your hip flexors still feel a bit tight, I recommend you get my free Hip Flexor Balance Kit:
This routine helped me stay comfortable on long transatlantic flights for the eight years I lived in Europe and flew to the US regularly to visit family. I still depend on it now even for much shorter flights. Give it a try and let me know how it goes for you!
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.