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Fitness Tips for Agility Handlers

Robert Stewart shares exercises that helped him increase his fitness for agility.


One of the things that has consistently surprised me is the amount of handlers competing in agility with significant knee and lower extremity joint problems. I have seen numerous falls, slips, strains, sprains, and breaks in the 14 years I've been involved with this fun sport. With all the turning and movement required to get in those front or rear crosses and other moves, it is actually surprising that more injuries don't occur.

So, let's keep those ankle, knee, and hip joints in great shape for your training and competing fun! I'm listing and describing very brief exercises that you can do to maintain the ROM (range of motion) in your ankles and knees since these are the joints that receive the brunt of use during agility with all of the turns, crosses, and running patterns we use.  If you have had any type of injury to your knees ankles or other joints, please consult with your physician first. Do be extremely careful in performing each of these exercises and avoid overdoing any of these. [Editor's note: check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.]

1. Hip, hamstring, knees, and ankles

Sit on a soft surface on the floor with both knees/legs straight out in front of the body, hip width apart, and feet flexed, with knees toward the sky.  Cross one foot over the opposite thigh while pressing both knees toward the floor.  

Bring the hands behind the back, around the area of the butt, so your upper body is 90 degrees to the straight leg.  Maintain correct upper body posture: lift the chest up and pull the shoulder blades back while trying to straighten the arms. Hold for 10-30 seconds and repeat with the other foot.

Most people will find that one knee has a bit more flexibility than the other. This is normal. Never force this stretch as you could possibly injure your knee.

Variations of this stretch:

* Gently bring your foot of the straight leg toward the butt (so the knee bends toward the sky), keep your butt and foot on the floor.  Try to bring your chest toward your thigh while maintaining correct posture and straight arms.

* Sit at 90 degrees and just try to push the back of straight knees into the floor with the feet flexed.  Hold and release for 5 sets of 5 seconds.

2. Ankles, feet, and hips

a. Heel lifts: Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, flat on the ground.  Rise up on your toes and pause.  Bring your heels back to the floor and rise up on your toes again.  Maintain correct upper body posture and core (abdominal) control during the heel lifts.  Repeat for about 10 repetitions. If necessary, work near a wall for balance assistance.

b. Toe lifts: Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, flat on the ground.  Lift your toes and pause.  Return your toes to the floor and lift them up again.  Maintain correct posture during the toe lifts.  Repeat for about 10 repetitions.
 
Variations of the above 2 exercises:

* Hold one foot off the floor (in a heel or toe lift) and perform the heel and/or toe lifts with the other foot.
* With both feet on the floor, alternate the heel and toe lifts (rocking).
* Alternate one foot toe lift and one foot heel lift.
* Lift one toe at a time.
* Walk forward and backward 20 steps on toes.
* Walk forward and backward 20 steps on heels.

c. Walking side leg lifts: Stand with relaxed knees and flat feet, facing forward.  Maintain good posture awareness by placing hands on hips, or if necessary for balance, arms out to the side.  Lift the leg to the side (hip abduction), pause, and bring it back down about one foot length in front of the body. 

Allow only the leg and hip to move, keeping your torso still and shoulders relaxed.  Continue to move forward for about 20 steps, even if you feel a muscular "burn" in the hips.

Variations of the above exercise:

* Turn your toes inward at the pause position (like an upside down "V").
* Turn your toes outward at the pause position.
* Walk backwards doing all of the above.

3. Squats

Slowly lower into a squat as far as you can. Hinge at the hip, shifting weight slightly onto the heels, sticking the butt out, keeping the knees in the same line as the toes and over the ankles.  Come down as far as possible or about parallel to the floor.  Pause, and then come up completely. Weight should be equally distributed on each foot. Keep your feet forward, shoulder width apart. Use your arms for balance only. Maintain good posture: head and chest up, shoulders back, abs in, eyes focused forward.  Do about 10-15 repetitions.  (If you hear "crackling" in the knees while performing the squat, this is not necessarily a reason to stop). Until you are able to do this exercise without assistance, I recommend that you hold on to something sturdy. When I do this at home, I hold onto the foot board of my bed.

Variations of this squat:

* Hands behind the head.
* Arms extended at shoulder height (like a Zombie).
* Lengthen the pause up to 30 seconds for some of the repetitions.
* Widen the stance (while maintaining proper form).
* Increase the number of repetitions.

The simple addition of the above exercises will increase the flexibility and strength in the joints and muscles we use not only in every day activity, but especially in agility.  Happy trialing!

Robert Stewart has been an agility enthusiast and competitor for 14 years. Currently retired from the State of Texas, Robert devotes is time to playing and training sessions with Ellie (a mixed breed) and Rocket Man (a Shetland Sheepdog). Robert is a member of Travis Agility Group (www.austintag.org) and has been an agility trainer for three years with TAG.

Special thanks to Kimber Chase for her assistance with this article. All photos by Kimber Chase.

Kimber Chase, CFT, AFT has been certified fitness and aquatic trainer for 15 years.  She lives in South Florida and has been competing in agility for 11 years with two border collies. She can be reached at kimfit@bellsouth.net or through her website at http://www.completephysique.com/.

Do you have health or fitness related tips to share with the USDAA community? Contact bfender@usdaa.com for more info.

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