How to train out the pain of airplane travel

You can train away pain from travel, but you can't train away the memory of falling out of a perfectly good plane.

You can train away pain from travel, but you can’t train away the memory of falling out of a perfectly good plane.

As many of you know, Upright Health is preparing to move to Menlo Park to help Silicon Valleyites improve their posture, get rid of old injuries, and train their bodies to be better than they ever thought possible. As a result, I’ve been making several trips up to the San Francisco Bay area to prepare for that move, which means I’ve been spending more time in airports and airplanes than usual. All this travel time has given me the opportunity to think about ways to prevent the aches and pains of traveling that I used to fear every time I got on a plane.

Here are some of the things that I used to experience traveling in no particular order. I’m also going to note what I’ve done to my personal training program to ensure that these issues don’t come back to bite me in the butt (literally). Hopefully you’ll find this list useful as well.

Numbness, tingling, and pain in my hamstrings, knees, calves, and feet.

This was a killer for me not just while traveling but also when sitting down to work on the computer, waking up in the morning, and walking around during the day. As I’ve talked about in this video, sitting is clearly not a healthy thing to do to your legs and butt. The more you compress your butt and hammies, the worse off you are. To develop what I call “compression resistance,” I make sure my workouts include a healthy dose of hamstring and glute work as well as stretches for the posterior hip. Heavy squats, single leg romanian deadlifts, and stretches like the pigeon pose and its modified versions of the pigeon pose (e.g. leg elevated on a table) are extremely helpful.

good stretch for hip capsule

Happy hips make a happy person.

Shoulder and neck soreness/tightness and a sense of looseness in my right shoulder.

I had a severe shoulder injury that nagged me on my right side for years. Sitting down for long periods would aggravate the issue. I’d feel like the thing was just falling out of place, like the muscles that were supposed to hold the bones together just weren’t strong enough.This took a long time to rehab and took a lot of experimentation to figure out, but the first thing that helped was making sure I could retract my shoulder blades. I spent quite a while with these Egoscue exercises, Rolfing and stretches for tight myofascia in the chest and anterior shoulders, and then eventually worked my way back to the gym to do some isometric work with my shoulders. I mentioned Romanian Deadlifts earlier, and these are actually one of my favorite shoulder exercises as they train in really good isometric scapular stability.

I’ve also come to love overhead presses as they help restore mobility and strength to shoulders in a very straightforward way.Think about how many times you raise your arms overhead in a day. Counting your melodramatic morning yawn and perhaps those few times in the day when you throw your arms up in exasperation, you may do it two to three times. Throwing overhead presses into your workouts reminds your body that your hands are supposed to be able to go up overhead even AND ESPECIALLY WITH weight in them! This restores joint motion and stability. A happy shoulder is a happy person.

Sore lower back.

Ah, yes, the cross so many travelers bear. The scourge of the high seas. The dreaded virus that infects with no regard to how productive you have to be when you land!I am happy to report my low back never gives me trouble when I travel, and this is due entirely to preventive measures.

First preventive measure: I do not let my butt and hamstrings fall asleep. If you have a weak butt and underutilized hamstrings, this is a tough thing to do simply because you lack the neuromuscular coordination and the muscle mass.If you can use your glutes well, you can contract and relax them at will, and you can feel a strong contraction when you do so. If you’re sitting in your chair, try contracting your butt muscles. Pretend you’re trying to squeeze a hundred dollar bill between your cheeks. If you notice obvious movement that’s pushing you up out of your chair, you’ve got okay glute engagement, and you have just practiced what I do throughout long bouts of travel. Squeezing your glutes reminds them to work!

If you cannot feel yourself being pushed up toward the ceiling, then your glutes ain’t working well, and some deep squatting, weighted glute bridges, and deadlifts should be in the cards for you.  To keep my hammies awake, I will also periodically do little leg curls with my heels dragging along the floor and little mini bridges in my chair with my heels on the floor. Just giving the hamstrings a little bit of work to do keeps blood flowing and help builds up that compression resistance I mentioned earlier. When you sit, you compress your butt and hamstrings, squeezing all the blood and life (literally) out of them.

In addition to the deadlift variations I’ve already mentioned that I currently do, people with hamstrings that need some gentler coaxing can try this hamstring rehab exercise. 






Second preventive measure: I do not let my butt and hamstrings fall asleep. Does that look like the first one? How funny. It is exactly the same as the first preventive measure. Before I get on a plane, I will be stretching my hips and doing deep squats to lubricate my hip joints. If I feel at all stiff, I will be doing the same deep squats and hip stretches when I get off the plane. I want my hips awake and happy because sleepy and/or malfunctioning butt and hamstring muscles force your spine and its musculature to compensate. And when they compensate, your back hurts or gets hurt.

Yes, people may stare from time to time, but let’s frame your real choices here clearly. Do you want people staring at you for stretching and squatting or do you want them staring at you for that groan you let out when your back seizes up hefting your bag off the carousel? I hope that made the choice easy for you.

In closing

You may have noticed that a lot of my focus was on the muscles that control your hips (how many times did I mention glutes and hamstrings?). This is because the hips are the primary stability and power center for your body. Stable, flexible, strong hips help you move and feel younger, and they go a long way towards preventing injuries all over your body. So work on keeping your hips healthy and enjoy your next trip!


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.