Travel Tips

6 Simple Stretches To Help You Unwind and Sleep Well After a Day of Travel

Erica Sloan

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Since March 2020, many of us have been "grounded," so to speak—but now it's time to reap the well-being benefits of exploring new places and experiences once again. With Ungrounded, get expert-backed intel all month long to help you feel confident, safe, and energized as you venture outside your front door.

Any tweak to your usual nighttime routine can make dozing off a challenge—and travel tends to bring about a whole host of changes: The room you’re sleeping in, the bed you’re sleeping on, and even your time zone could all reflect a broad departure from your norm. Not to mention, your body itself may be harboring all sorts of travel-related tension (thanks to hours spent stationary in a car, plane, or train), which could make finding a satisfying sleep position that much trickier. To both relieve this physical stress and find a sense of calm before bed, consider practicing a few stretches after travel.

“Stretching naturally helps with relaxation, as it aids in the production of endorphins that can cause a reduction in pain and elevated mood,” says Jeff Brannigan, program director at Stretch*d, a stretching-focused recovery studio based in New York City. To that end, stretching at the end of any mentally or physically strenuous day—say, one spent hauling luggage through an airport or smushed into the backseat of a car—is a simple way to downshift before bed.

Regarding the best stretches for after travel, specifically, Brannigan suggests starting with the neck and shoulders, as these are regions where people commonly hold tension when they’re anxious or uncertain—perhaps while navigating new territory or managing inevitable travel mishaps. And in general, a cramped neck paired with an unfamiliar pillow is likely to send you down the rabbit hole that is tossing and turning, making stretching a great idea for securing quality shut-eye.

“Remaining in a seated position for long hours can cause the muscles in the upper legs, hips, and lower back to become tense and stale.” —Jeff Brannigan, program director at Stretch*d

Travel also typically entails sitting still for an extended period of time, which alone can put extra strain on the lower body. “Remaining in a seated position for long hours can cause the muscles in the upper legs, hips, and lower back to become tense and stale,” says Brannigan. “Actively stretching those regions can unwind that tension by lengthening the muscles, and will also reduce inflammation by pumping blood throughout the area.”

With these perks in mind, read on for Brannigan’s best stretches for good sleep after travel, wherever in the world you may find yourself.

Here are 6 stretches for after travel that’ll help you unwind and doze off easily:

1. “Yes” (neck extensors)

If you feel stiff along the back side of your neck—or perhaps you dozed off in a seated position with your neck tilted to the side or back—you may want to do a gentle extensor stretch to regain alignment.

How to do it: Sit with the spine straight, and drop the chin toward the chest, assisting by gently pulling with the hands behind the head. Hold for two to three seconds in that position, then float your head back to neutral, and repeat up to 10 times.

2. “Maybe” (scalenes)

Use the below stretch to un-kink and alleviate the scalenes, or muscles along the sides of the neck.

How to do it: Sit with a straight spine, and drop the head to one side, so the ear goes toward the shoulder. Assist by gently pulling with one hand over the top of the head, and hold for two to three seconds at your furthest flexion before bringing the head back to neutral. Repeat up to 10 times on each side.

Want more neck stretches? This eight-minute head, neck, and shoulder routine can help melt away tension from travel (or anything else).

3. “Trap Tapper” (trapezius)

If you’ve been in a hunched-over or slouched position while traveling, tap this trapezius stretch to release the upper-back and shoulders.

How to do it: Sit with the spine straight, and bend one arm so that hand is resting on the opposite shoulder. Grab the elbow of that arm with the other hand, and while keeping the shoulders as relaxed as possible, assist that arm backward so the hand resting on the shoulder begins to travel down the back, between your shoulder blades. Hold for two to three seconds at the end of your range before resetting the arm to the start position, and repeat up to 10 times on each side.

4. “Stretch*d Squad” (quadriceps)

This quad stretch basically flexes your hip in the opposite direction from that 90-degree right angle typical of a seated position. Doing so can relieve stiffness along the upper leg.

How to do it: Lie down on your side, and bend the bottom knee, lifting it up toward your chest. (Brannigan suggests stabilizing that leg by resting the bottom of your foot against something heavy, if you need.) With your top arm, reach down and grab your top leg at the ankle. Kick that leg back and gently pull to assist the stretch. Hold for two to three seconds at the end range, then swing the leg forward to the start position. Repeat up to 10 times before switching sides.

5. “Gloating Glutes” (gluteus maximus)

Traveling all day while in a seated position—especially with one leg crossed over the other—can lead to stiff butt muscles. This stretch can help to effectively release your seat.

How to do it: Lie on your back, and lift one leg up, bending it and using your hands to gently pull the shin and calf toward your chest. Then, turn the leg at the hip: If you're stretching the right leg, for example, the right knee should move toward the right shoulder, and the right ankle should go toward the left shoulder (and vice versa for the left). Hold for two to three seconds at the end of your range, then release the leg and bring it back to the start position, repeating up to 10 times on each leg.

6. Twist & Dipp*r (quadratus lumborum)

Your lower back is all but bound to have a few knots after a sedentary day, which you can work to gently unravel with this twisting stretch.

How to do it: Sit at the end of a chair with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width. Interlace your hands behind your head, and keep your elbows back. Twist in one direction as far as you can and then move your upper body toward the floor so that the elbow that's pointing forward goes outside the opposite knee. Hold for two to three seconds at the end of your range before sitting upright to reset, and then repeat up to 10 times on each side.

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