Hiking! Keep it fun and injury free!

Hiking has become one of the common social activities. What else is there to do while maintaining social distancing and trying to dodge the virus? Be it singles, couples or families with kids and grandparents, everyone is set out to explore the less traveled but beautiful hikes scattered around almost every neighborhood.

I have been treating more people with knee and ankle/foot injuries recently. Most of them are regular walkers turned into hiking enthusiasts with family. Hiking is a great mind and body workout. But quite different from walking on smooth leveled paths. To the unconditioned bodies, it is strenuous and can lead to injuries.

Compared to walking on flat surfaces, walking on uneven terrains is more energetically costly. We expend 28% more energy while walking on uneven, uphill, downhill terrain than walking on flat ground. Benefits of hiking goes beyond just the extra calorie burn. You are firing and strengthening a lot of hip, knee and ankle muscles that you do not normally use in leveled walking.

Walking on uneven terrain involves various bio-mechanical changes in the joints, especially hips and knees. There can be upto 62% increase in hip joint work and upto 28% increase in Knee Joint work while hiking, depending on what type of terrain you choose.

Follow these simple tips listed below to enjoy hiking and stay injury free.

Safe hiking tips-

  1. Hiking Poles for elevated trails. Poles decrease the stresses on lower body especially walking downhill. For maximum benefit, hold the hiking poles as close to a 90-degree angle to your elbow as possible. You may have to adjust as the terrain changes. Usually, you will have to shorten the poles for uphill and lengthen them when going downhill. Hold the handles with a light grip.
  2. Hydration– Keep your water handy. A good general rule is about half liter of water per hour of moderate activity in moderate temperatures. On long strenuous hikes hydration reservoir is an excellent choice. If you want to stick to bottles, stash it in the mesh pockets that most backpacks have.
  3. Shoes– I cannot stress enough on use of proper sturdy shoes while hiking. Be it more vigorous long hike or a short fun hike with young kids. A durable torsional resilient sole can make all the difference. It not only prevents ankle injuries, but affects the forces transferred to your knees as well.
  4. Backpack– Choose the right backpack. For a very short hike, you might get away with carrying only water. But if you have kids with you or a longer day hike, choose an appropriate size backpack. The pack’s waist belt should sit on your hip bones and tighten it comfortably snug. Buckle the chest strap and tighten it so the shoulder straps do not slide off. Tighten the shoulder straps or the load lifting straps to avoid the pack from flopping around. Keep the pack close to your body to avoid stresses on your spine. If needed, especially with a heavier pack, loosen shoulder straps slightly when going up steep hills, and tighten them going down.
  5. Take your time– The last thing to do is to bound quickly downhill to get the descent over with. Adding speed to the downhill will only increase the stresses on the knees. Take your time and navigate carefully, side stepping or backing up when needed.
  6. Power Up– Hiking is in itself a good form of exercise. Agreed. But it can also cause injuries if you do not condition your body and train your muscles for the ups and downs you plan to go through! Most trails are uneven and have at least some elevation gain, so even the easiest hike requires balance and strength to avoid injuries and prevent excessive post activity soreness.

Most common injury is knee pain, also known as hiker’s knee. Knee pain can interfere the fun and stress free time of your hike, especially going downhill. Hiking injuries are not limited to knees. Ankle, foot, Low back pain are not uncommon.

How to avoid these injuries?

Strengthening your Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Glutes, Calves and Core muscles 3 times/week. Stretching those muscles at least 5-6 times/week. Don’t forget to perform gentle dynamic warm up exercises before starting and static stretching exercises after the hike. Foam rolling post hiking is great for recovery too.

Find your dynamic and static stretching in this post.

Foam rolling fun can be found here. I got you covered!!

Here’s some great lower body and Core workout to follow at home if you plan to hit the outdoors regularly. Pay special attention to the Eccentric exercises. In simple terms, eccentric phase is the release phase or the lowering phase of the motion. Eccentric strengthening is important to increase the loading tolerance of the tendons. Single leg exercises target your balance training as well.

  1. DEEP REVERSE LUNGE TO HIGH KNEE: Stand with your feet together, engage the core. Step backward on the toes with one leg. Lower down into a lunge so that each knee is at a 90-degree angle. Keep feet hip-width apart. Avoid touching the back knee on the floor. Squeeze the glutes to rise back to standing. Lift the back leg and pass it forward until your hip and knee reach a 90-degree angle. In a slow and controlled manner, swing the same leg backward into the lunge. 3 sets of 12-15 reps on each leg
Reverse Lunge to High Knee

2. SINGLE LEG DEADLIFTS: Stand on your right foot. Keep a straight line from your head to left foot, and slowly hinge forward at your right hip. Keep your back flat and a soft knee bend on right leg. For more challenge- try holding a weight in both hands, with arms hanging straight to the floor. For deadlift beginners, master the double leg deadlifts first. 2 sets of 10-12 reps.

Single Leg Deadlift
Double Leg Deadlift

3. STEP DOWNS: Stand with one foot fully on the edge of a step. Slowly lower down to tap the opposite heel down in front of the step, without stepping onto it and return. 3 sets of 10-12 reps.

Step Downs

4. ECCENTRIC CALF STRENGTHENING: Position the balls of your feet on the edge of a step, heels off the edge and hold a wall/handrail for balance. Use both feet to raise on your tip toes. Then, shift your weight on one foot and slowly lower down allowing your heel to drop past the edge of the step. 2 sets of 12 reps on each leg.

Eccentric Calf Strengthening

5. SQUATS– Regular traditional squats never fail. Stand with feet hips width apart or slightly wider. Drive your hips back , bending at knees and ankles. Lower your hips as much as you can while keeping back straight, heels and toes flat on the ground. Do not let your knees past your toes. 3 sets of 12 reps.


6. PLANK WITH KNEE TAPS: Start with a regular plank position. Engage your core and gently lower one knee to tap it on the floor and lift up. Then switch sides. Alternate the knee taps while making sure you maintain back straight and pelvic leveled. You can also tap both knees together while maintaining a good plank position. If you like, start with holding the plank for few days and then add knee taps as you get comfortable. Start with 30 seconds hold.

Plank with Knee Taps

7. SIDE PLANK WITH ROTATIONS: Start with a side plank position with right shoulder over your elbow, body in straight line and left hand reaching up toward the ceiling. Twist your torso forward and slowly reach your left hand under your body. Repeat and then switch sides. 10-12 reps or 30 seconds.

Side plank rotations

Start with no weight if you choose to master the form first. Gradually add weights to your routine. Holding a pair of dumbells/ bottles of water/ DIY weights from household items work great for Eccentric exercises.

Make your training continuous and consistent. Strength gains are not seen in a week. These exercises should be pain free. If you already suffer from any joint or muscular pain, do not start this program before consulting a Physical Therapist.

Make sure your body is up for the challenge to enjoy the great outdoors!!

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