Tips & tricks: Post-hiking Muscle Care

My friends at Flintridge Family Chiropractic have hosted some great local hikes on Sunday mornings this summer. The last hike was a great experience for me. We climbed Echo Mountain in Altadena. As often happens, the day of the hike and the next day I was not sore at all. The second day after the hike I was really feeling it: shin splints. This is a common term you may have heard before. It’s basically soreness in the tibialis anterior muscles. Here’s an easy trick to help decrease that soreness after a hike or another type of exertion that stresses these muscles.

Step 1: Fill some dixie cups with water half full and stick them in the freezer. I should have cropped this photo so you wouldn’t see the Snickers Ice Cream bars. My husband bought them, I swear.

I have dixie cups at the office if you want some next time you come in. I’m happy to share.

Step 2: Peel down the edges of the cup. You’ll rub the ice on the muscle. Having the paper surrounding the ice makes it easier to handle. Your leg muscle gets iced but your hand doesn’t.

One of my clients graciously agreed to model for me. Nothing like getting iced down before a massage, eh?

Step 3: Rub the ice along the muscle for a few minutes, until it’s numb or until you can’t stand it any more. The tibialis anterior muscle is the muscle on the side of the shin bone on the lower leg. This muscle gets a work-out on an uphill/downhill hike. Other activities that might strain this muscle include running, jumping and dancing to name a few. One of the reasons this muscle can get so sore is that it’s trapped between the 2 lower leg bones. When we work it hard and it produces metabolic waste products, the waste products have a harder time exiting the muscle post-work-out because of the limited space around the muscle. Icing the muscle down (even before you experience soreness) can help decrease any inflammation that has occurred in your work-out and speed your recovery. Try it after your next hike!

Step 4: You can include some self massage also. Try using the backs of your knuckles. Run them up and down the muscle, creating some heat/friction. You can also press your thumb into the muscle along the length of it. These simple strokes can help flush the metabolic wastes out of the muscle. By the way, the next hike is at Sturtevant Falls Sunday, September 9 at 8 am. Click on the link above to get all the details. I’m hoping to be there myself.

Tips, tricks and tools: work your quads to stretch your hamstrings

Learned this little trick and the underlying concept in massage school. You can get more out of your hamstring stretch if you first activate your quads. The concept is called reciprocal inhibition. When you have antagonistic muscle groups and you activate one set, the opposite set has to relax. Quads and hamstrings are antagonists, meaning they perform opposite actions. Activate your quads and your hamstrings have no choice but to relax. Then, follow up with your favorite hamstring stretch and you’ll get more bang for your buck. Who can’t use more bang for their hamstring stretch buck?

Step 1 Activate Quadriceps: a simple way is to “sit” with your back against the wall. (I’m having a flashback to high school basketball practice)

Step 2 Stretch Hamstrings: you’ve got lots of options.  Mia the cat seems to like this one. Here’s what you need – an open doorway and a couple of legs. The leg that remains on the floor increases the stretch on the leg that’s up the wall. Also, be mindful to keep your low back flat on the floor instead of arching your back.

You’ll feel the stretch change as you change the angle of your foot (bringing toes towards nose) or as you slightly rotate the leg. Holding a stretch for approximately 90 seconds allows the brain to reassign the muscle tension in the target muscle group. If you start with a more moderate stretch you’ll be  able to increase it over the time of the stretch. If you start at your maximum stretch, you can make yourself really sore and encourage your muscles to go into spasm. Your choice.

Enjoy those loose hamstrings everybody!

Tips, Tricks & Tools: The Doorway Stretch

My husband has a new office. It’s tiny, but a great addition to our household life (especially for him). You access his office through the kitchen. I often stand in the doorway to talk with him. There’s no better time to do a simple doorway stretch.

Benefits of the doorway stretch: aren’t many of us hunched over a computer for more hours than is healthy? The doorway stretch opens up the chest, stretching the connective tissue and musculature. This in turns helps us breathe more easily and achieve full range of motion in the neck and shoulders. It helps remind us that our shoulder blades are supposed to be on our backs, not creeping forward around our ribcage.

Stretch often! You can stretch often; no harm in that. Try a stretch for 90 seconds. That’s a great amount of time for the nervous system to relax into a new position. If you start out on the mild side of a stretch you’ll get more out of it over the 90 seconds. If you start too aggressively, you’ll either feel pain or not be able to hold it for long.

Enjoy it! While you stretch, rotate your head to either side, take a deep breath, or contract the muscles between your shoulder blades and the spine. The doorway stretch targets the pectoralis major muscles. These muscles have different fiber directions (shaped like a fan), so varying the position of the arms during the stretch will benefit the various fibers. Try a 90° angle with the arms, then higher or lower. Lastly, try engaging your smiling muscles, especially if you’re chatting with a family member – they need to see our smiles more often anyway!

Homemade Heat Pack

Today I sat down to make a homemade heat pack. I decided to snap a few pics along the way.

Heat can soothe sore muscles, loosen ligaments before exercise, and warm you up on a cold day. Of course, no one in the country seems to need that right now!?! Crazy heat, huh? I’m making heat packs which we might use when my friend goes into labor. Heat can help relax tight muscles and ease pain.

What you’ll need:

You can make a simple heatable pack with some fabric, thread, and rice. No need for fancy, organic, free-range rice. I got this 20-lb. bag for $10. I decided to use a pillowcase we no longer needed. This saved me a little time because I could take advantage of some seams that were already sewn. But word to the wise, make sure your fabric is strong enough to hold the rice. I used an OLD, TIRED pillowcase and it tore when I filled it.

Decide what size and shape you’d like your heatable pack to be and cut that shape out. Sew it up by hand or with a machine leaving a space to fill the inside with rice. Scoop the rice in. You want it fairly full but not completely packed. (Very scientific, huh?)You’ll finish sewing the opening by hand. Voilà!

To use it, you can heat it in the microwave for 1 minute, take it out and shift the contents, heat for another 1 minute. Smaller packs should be heated less. Learn how long your pack needs to get heated through so that you don’t burn it. If you burn it, you’ll probably want to replace the rice inside.

I can verify that threading a needle gets much more difficult as one gets older.

Sewing by hand took me about an hour whereas I know machine sewing this project would have taken about 5-10 minutes tops. But if you borrow someone’s sewing machine, never ask to borrow a Bernina! (Right, Bob?)

One little change – using a book stand

Is reading a physically taxing endeavor? Most people would say no. However, many of the graduate school students I know are inclined to say “yes” as the years of heavy reading inflict damage on their bodies. I dedicate this post to all my grad student readers. May you survive the volumes of reading with health & happiness!

One little change can make reading an easier task on your body: using a reading stand to prop the book at an angle that’s easier on the neck. I’ve taken some photos of me reading. When you look at the pictures, pay particular attention to the angle of the neck.

 

In photo 1, my head is comfortably balanced on top of my spine. My head tends to be forward of optimal posture (true confession!), but this is a pretty neutral position given that underlying issue. Another thing I like about photo 1 is that my hands and arms are free to be in any comfortable position since the book stand is holding the book for me. That’s one less task during the day where my hands & arms need to be forward of centerline, my shoulder blades can be back on the back where they should be and my rib cage can be balanced in the center plane. (P.S. I love my IKEA chair – very nice support!)

Let’s take a look at photo 2. My head is farther forward over my rib cage, shoulder blades creeping off the back toward the front (technically called protraction), hands & arms engaged in the task of holding the book, feet or legs more likely to be crossed to achieve overall balance (not shown). This posture seems benign until you do it for hours. You would usually feel the long-term effects of this posture as strain in the upper back and neck muscles.

And finally photo 3. I look comfy on the couch, don’t I? However, my neck is at a severe angle, flexed forward. Shoulders are all akimbo. My left arm is supporting a lot of weight. If we had X-ray vision, we would see my spine is contorted laterally. I wouldn’t last long in this position. Mind you, changing positions often can be good for gobs of reading, but another strategy is to find a posture-neutral or posture-supportive position and then take movement breaks where you truly engage your body in a range of motion for a body “snack break.” Perhaps pick up a hula hoop during your reading break or do the limbo to some groovy music.

A book stand can be as simple as a plastic cookbook stand (photo 1). There are also products for sale like this from Amazon. (By the way, if you think you might want to buy something like this from Amazon, or any other product from Amazon, consider clicking over to my community health blog and starting with a click on my Amazon carousel. If you make a purchase, I’ll get a little kick-back which helps offset the cost of running that blog. Thanks!)

I’ll end with a quote from Family Circle’s March 2009 issue which got me thinking about this topic years ago. “‘Slumping in a chair crowds your internal organs, resulting in sluggish digestion that can lead to weight gain,’ says celebrity Pilates instructor Brooke Siler. Make sure to keep your waist long by imagining there’s a vertical toothpick in the space between the bottom of your ribs and the top of your hips.” Toothpicks also available on Amazon!?!

Hot & cold

If you’ve been a client of mine for any length of time you’ve probably heard me share one of my favorite tricks for loosening up tight muscles. The use of heat and ice can do wonders for overworked muscles. Hot packs and ice packs are relatively cheap. The only other things you need are some time and common sense. Here’s how it works for the neck/shoulder muscles.

Find something you can heat like this crescent-shaped neck wrap. The kind I like best is sold here. You don’t have to be fancy, though. Filling a tube sock with rice can work great also. Place it around your neck and leave it there for about 12-15 minutes or until you feel it cool down. If you purchase a product, it will come with heating directions. If you’re using rice in a sock, heat in the microwave in 30 seconds increments until it’s hot. Be careful you don’t get your heat pack so hot it burns you (this is the common sense ingredient).

The heat dilates the blood vessels in the area, bringing fresh, oxygenated blood to the tired, overworked muscles. The fresh blood brings nutrients to the area and whisks away waste products. Next, you’ll switch to cold, which constricts the blood vessels. In the end you’ll want to alternate between hot and cold 3-5 times for maximum benefit. The dilating and constricting of the blood vessels manually pumps blood through the area, reviving it and restoring health to the tissue.

Ice packs come in all shapes and sizes. Here I’m modeling a long, flexible ice pack. Since it doesn’t wrap around the neck, I’m holding it, which is not ideal. I like to use smaller flexible ice packs and sit back in a comfortable chair or lie down so that the ice pack stays in place. Be careful to place something between your skin and the ice or ice pack so that you don’t get a burn. Again, fanciness is not required. Packs of frozen peas work really well too. Have the ice in place for 8-12 minutes.

In this post I’m showing neck/shoulder care, but the same strategy can work for any muscle group. You can also add some massage after the heat segments to loosen up the muscles more. You can do this yourself or have someone massage the targeted muscles. An additional benefit of the heat is that is softens the connective tissue surrounding the muscles and makes the area more pliable.

Write to me if you have any questions. Remember the common sense piece. And, lastly, I’m not a doctor; this is not medical advice; you may employ this self-care strategy at your own risk. Thanks for reading!