The Best Stretches to Try Before a Long Flight

The seats at airport gates are more useful than you'd think

A mother and daughter leaning against a window in the airport.
The seats at empty airport gates are surprisingly useful for a stretching routine.
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If you own a heavy credit card and can spend your pre-flight hours in a spacious lounge, good for you. We’ll guess you’re not too worried about leg room up in first class, either.

For the majority of travelers, though, flying is a scrunched (and increasingly shrinking) torment that makes it impossible to fall asleep, exacerbates persistent back pain, or generally leaves them feeling sore and sour. That’s too bad — especially if you’re en route to a vacation with lots of walking. Or, god forbid, if you’re an amateur athlete headed for a big event like a marathon or triathlon.

That’s why it’s worth preparing for a long flight as if it’s the big event. A dedicated airport stretching routine, strange as it may seem at first, can prime your muscles and mind for the cramped hours ahead.

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From trunk rotations to ankle flexes, these moves are quick, simple and free to try

How to Stretch at the Airport

For starters: do what you have to do to make your flight. Most of us are used to avoiding stretching at all costs — even when we have an entirely empty afternoon ahead of us. Amongst dedicated runners, it’s below the bagel sandwich on the post-run priority list.

All of that to say, there’s no way in hell you’re stretching the morning you wake up for your flight, or while waiting in any of the many lines at the airport. Wait until you’re at your gate, you feel comfortable with timing, you’ve gotten food or hit the bathroom, etc.

From there, go to that section of that gate over by the windows, which is always desolate for some reason. Or find a different gate that isn’t in service that day (or at that time). Even busy airports have empty gates. This is more for your modesty, and to avoid incurring the judgment of strangers whom you may have to sit next to for six hours or more.

A Quick Routine to Try

Once there, the airport chair is your best friend. It’s an excellent height and sturdy enough for a variety of leans, squats and stretches. We wouldn’t recommend approaching this like a “workout,” so don’t worry about reps or timed holds, necessarily. Just try out some of the moves listed below, and see what feels good.

  • Chair Hamstring Stretch: Sit on the edge of the chair with one leg extended straight in front of you, heel on the ground, and toes pointing up. Lean forward slightly from your hips until you feel a stretch along the back of your extended leg. Keep your back straight and chest lifted. Hold, then switch legs.
  • Seated Piriformis Stretch: While seated, cross your right ankle over your left knee, creating a figure-four shape. Gently press down on the right knee while leaning forward slightly from your hips. You should feel a stretch in your butt. Hold, then switch sides.
  • Chair Gorilla Squat: Stand facing the chair, a bit more than arm’s length away. Use the top of the chair back as a support. As you hold onto the chair back, push your hips back and squat down as if you’re trying to sit in a chair far behind you. Make sure your knees are in line with your toes. Return to standing. (You can also use the chair’s arms for support here, depending on the design.)
  • Hip Flexor Stretch: Stand facing the chair, then place one foot on the seat. The other foot remains on the ground, slightly behind you. Keeping your chest lifted, push your hips forward until you feel a stretch in the front of the hip of the back leg. Make sure your forward knee doesn’t move past your toes. Hold, then switch sides.
  • Seated Side Stretch: Sit squarely on the chair. While keeping your hips firmly on the seat, lift your right arm overhead and bend your torso to the left. Feel the stretch along the right side of your body. Hold, then repeat on the other side.
  • Chair Calf Stretch: Stand behind the chair and hold onto the top for support. Step one foot back, press the heel into the ground, and keep the leg straight. Lean into the chair slightly while keeping the back heel on the ground. You should feel a stretch in the calf of the extended leg. Hold, then switch legs. (You can also do this one against a wall or post.)

We’re trying to prevent aches and pains here, but you might mitigate a bad mood in the process. Traveling is stressful, and one of the best ways for us to take back a little control is to breathe. (It’s the only autonomic operation we can “hack” into.) Make sure to take deep, rich breaths while trying these stretches. Then get on that plane and watch three movies.

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