Man sitting up on a massage table showing leg stretch with yoga band
Butch Phelps specializes in chronic pain and runs the Muscle Repair Shop in Sarasota (Photo: Liz Sandburg)

How to Get Rid of Travel Aches & Pains

Try these tips and exercises before, during, and after a long travel day to fight off muscle soreness and guarantee total vacation relaxation

The pros of a vacation are numerous and clear – seeing new cultures, visiting new places, reuniting with friends and family, taking a break from work and responsibilities - I could go on and on.

The cons are there too, and a top one (especially as we age!) is how you feel after getting out of that plane or car. Your back aches, your legs are stiff, your neck won’t move correctly, and you’re just so, so tired. Good news, there are ways to avoid a sore, achy body when you exit that airplane.

59-year-old Butch Phelps used his own chronic back pain to create the “Stretch and Release Technique,” the cornerstone his Muscle Repair Shop in Sarasota. 14 years later, he helps patients ages 5 through 95 fix their chronic pain. Here are the exercises he recommends to avoid future travel tenderness.

Why are we so sore?

Phelps likes to start with the root of the problem as understanding can lead help determine solutions. Here are some common causes in chronological order that can lead to passenger pain:

Stress

Surprisingly, the stress of traveling and continuous anxiety of the flight can lead to tightness. Nerves and stress can foster contracted muscles, which can turn to pain after a trip from LAX to SRQ.

Luggage

Another element is the luggage we have draped over our shoulders as we stand in line, stressed about myriad elements of the trip. We walk, pulling them behind our bodies, modifying our normal pace and posture to accommodate the rolling contraptions, which we then hoist overhead in confined locations.

Prolonged Sitting

Our bodies get so stiff from these elements tightening and stiffening the muscles and then what do we do? We sit in a seat where we can’t really move. The head rest shoves our necks forward as we stare down at a book, magazine or device. The abdominal and quadricep muscles shorten and the body cools down and hardens – a recipe for soreness.

No Warm Up

We land and grab that heavy luggage again, but it’s too late. Your body is mad and it’s easy to see why. But it’s time for a trip! Lots to do, things to see, people to visit! Let’s rewind and stop the plane soreness so you can get off that Boeing, ready to rock that trip.

Before the trip

There are a number of stretches you can do between booking your seats and scanning your boarding pass. Phelps recommends you implement this list at least 30 days before your trip to maximize your body’s preparedness.

Quadricep

Focus on stretching your upper quadricep to avoid shortening these muscles on the airplane; short quads lead to overcompensating sore lower backs.

Neck

Relax your neck by sitting with your chin in your hands held like a Y, forearms together. Rest your neck muscles and use your hands to gently lift your head while you look at the ceiling. Tense necks lead to sore shoulders.

Calf muscles

man demonstrating calf stretch in a doctors office
Phelps stretching his calf with the "traveler's best companion" – a yoga strap (Photo: Liz Sandburg)

Phelps calls his yoga strap the “traveler’s best companion” and takes one along with him on every trip. You can use one to gently stretch out the five muscles in your calf muscles so you’re ready for those long walks on the beach or sightseeing at museums.

Check Bags

If possible, check your heavy luggage. This is tough as many airlines charge fees for checking bags, plus there is the risk of lost luggage and the time spent waiting in line is a waste, but your body will thank you.

Arrive On Time!

Be early to the airport. I’m guilty of this one. I wait until the last minute but then arrive stressed that I will miss the flight or forgot something, and have multiple things to grab before boarding. By the time we get on the plane, my shoulders are up to my ears and my body is not thanking me (neither are my kids).

On the plane

You have a few hours to spend in the sky, but you can still show your body a little love at 30,000 feet.

Hydrate

Drinking water rather than caffeinated beverages will keep your tissues hydrated and prevent acid build up, which makes it even harder to get that carryon from the overhead compartment. Personally, I also find that it makes me less cranky and tense – bonus!

Self-Massage

Further prevent any lactic acid build up with a simple pressure exercise: put one ankle on the opposite knee and use the pads of your thumb to gently feel for tension in your inner thigh and press lightly on that spot. Believe it or not, it will help your lower back.

Neck (Again)

That same neck stretch you did before departing? Do it on the plane. It doesn’t take up more room than you’re allotted and will help your shoulder hunch.

Stand Up

When that fasten seatbelt light turns off, take advantage! Seat neighbors be damned, you need to make sure your body is ready for beach days. The simple movement of standing and walking will allow circulation that prevents swelling in the ankles.

When you arrive

Need to wait for your bags? Or walk to a car? All opportunities to fight off aching muscles!

Door Stretch

man demonstrating stretch in doorway
Phelps demonstrating the doorway stretch (Photo: Liz Sandburg)

It might look funny, but stretch your shoulders in a door frame. Make a 90-degree angle with your arm, hand facing upward, and use a wall or door to gently press it back. It will help with hunching in your back.

Tennis Ball Massage

sock with a tennis ball in the toe
Phelps says this simple sock/tennis ball combo can be an invaluable tool (Photo: Liz Sandburg)

Phelps never travels without a tennis ball in a sock. While waiting for bags, rentals or your spouse to freshen up in the restroom, lean up against a wall with the tennis ball behind you and feel around for soreness. When you find a tender spot, stand still and breathe. Don’t worry about looking weird – it’s an airport. You don’t know anyone, and everyone is in too much of a rush to pay attention.

Chest Massage

Use your hand, fingers or fist to gently knead the muscles in front of your armpits soften your chest. You can do this absolutely anywhere, from the line for Starbucks to baggage claim.

Stand up straight

Your twelve pounds of head aren’t helping your cause. Visualize the alignment of your body and, despite how much you want to rush, don’t let your head move in front of you as you walk.

What not to do

What to avoid can be just as important as what you implement. As Phelps ran through them, my own brain marked them off – guilty, guilty, guilty. It’s tough, but if it makes for a better vacation, I’ll do it all!

Do Not:

  • Carry luggage that’s weighing you down.
  • Wear uncomfortable shoes. Pack them if you must and put them on when you arrive.
  • Carry a one-shoulder bag.
  • Look down for hours (reading, posting, working, etc.).
  • Overindulge in caffeine.
  • Lose sleep the night before the trip; you will start your vacation irritable and anxious.
  • Be late. This is Butch’s top habit to avoid; you’ll set off a domino effect of rushing and the stress and poor gait will lead to a sore body before you even hit the tarmac.

And do try to relax. You’re going on vacation, after all! Meditating or praying while at the airport or on the plane may help be in the moment. When your mind relaxes, your body will follow and, without that stress in your mind and muscles, the stiffness and soreness that normally follows will be the only thing you forgot to pack.

You invested the money, now invest some time into ensuring true R & R on your vacation!

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