Snow soaked ground, warm sunshine, and a high mountain breeze weaving the Ponderosa and Douglas Fir, carry me along a trail that glistens like a river. I am moving, breathing, and alive.
Going by foot allows us to slow down, to be present, to connect with our world and ourselves. Whether your thoughts are quiet or active, one thing is constant… the quality of your stride creates a ripple throughout your entire body. Most people take about 2,000 steps for every mile they hike. The average hiker steps about 8,000 times per hour. The quality of your gait influences the wear and tear on your joints.
A good gait minimizes energy expenditure, reduces impact on your back and knees, and ensures a more comfortable outing. An optimal stride makes contact through the heel, rolls onto the ball of the foot, and presses off to propel you forward. In addition, standing up tall improves joint range of motion, takes pressure off your back, and improves your breathing. A strong core helps you to stay light and lifted over your feet. Boosting core strength also improves your balance and agility so the next time you cross a river, hop a boulder field, or traverse a snowy slope, you’ll have more confidence. Pilates can help you improve your gait by improving your posture, muscle balance, and core strength.
Here are three Pilates exercises that are sure to help you reduce your risk of injury as you hike terrain that slopes and changes with every step. You’ll spend more days light on your feet, and in your heart. For best results, practice these exercises 3-5 times per week.
1. One Leg Circles (Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete, page 136)
Purpose: Balances the muscles of the legs and hips, improves core strength and alignment.
Begin by lying on your back. Extend one leg along the floor and flex your foot as if pressing it against a wall. Press the back of your leg into the floor. Extend the other leg up toward the sky and point your toes. Engage your core by pulling your navel to your spine. INHALE, sweep your raised leg horizontally across the midline of your body, down an EXHALE up to the starting point. Keep your circle size within the borders of your mat. Although the exercise is called leg circles, imagine you are drawing ovals on the sky. 5 clockwise, 5 counterclockwise on each leg.
2. Shoulder Bridge with Kicks (Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete, page 152).
Purpose: Strengthens and stretches legs and back, and improves posture.
Lie on your back. Press your arms gently into the mat by your sides so that your chest is open and the front of your ribs recede into the mat. Bend your knees and bring your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing forward. Peel up your spine one vertebra at a time off the mat, beginning with your tailbone until you are resting on your shoulders with an open chest and an engaged core. Straighten and extend one leg and point your toes so your knees are touching. INHALE, kicking up to the sky. Avoid arching your back or letting your hips tilt or lower and lift. EXHALE, flex your foot, and extend the leg down, keeping it straight. Pretend your leg is a paintbrush and you are painting a straight line of your favorite color on the sky. After 5 -10 kicks, repeat with the opposite leg.
3. Leg Stretch with Band (Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete, page 214).
Purpose: This is a great after hike stretch for the Iliotibial-band, legs, and hips.
Begin lying on your back with your legs out straight. Bring one leg toward your chest and place a stretch band beneath the sole of your foot. Gently lengthen the leg upward, pressing through the heel. Keep your shoulders down and the back of your neck lengthened. From this position, gently pull your leg across the midline of your body until you feel a stretch along the outside of your leg and into the back of your hip. Hold the stretch band with the opposite hand. Switch legs.