Story by Lee Welton, illustrations by Whitney Dygert
As the days get longer and spring fever sets in, many hikers are eager to transition into warm weather hiking. But if you want to ensure you can really make the most of your time on trail, you’ll also want to avoid injury. As you ramp up your hiking, it’s important to be aware of common aches and pains that could lead to bigger problems. Stay healthy on the trail this year with these simple techniques.
Some symptoms shouldn’t be treated on your own. Signs that you should see a doctor include sharp pain, pain that lingers, numbness, tingling or swelling that you cannot explain. These may be signs of a larger problem. If in doubt, check with a qualified medical professional.
*Unless noted, for all exercises perform 3 sets of 12-15 repetitions. Add weight to increase difficulty as needed.*
Common Foot Problems
Foot issues are one of the most common physical problems that hikers face. One of the biggest contributors to foot pain is overpronation — this occurs when the arch of the foot over-flattens when you put weight on your foot.
Overpronation can lead to issues like foot pain, shin splints, Achille tendonitis and irritation of the iliotibial band, which is a large ligament that runs along the outside of the leg. Here are exercises that can help combat foot pain.
Short Foot Exercise
This exercise strengthens key muscles that maintain your foot arch.
- Sit in a chair with your bare foot on the floor. Keep your toes relaxed as you contract your foot muscles to raise your arch. This exercise is subtle and may take some practice at first.
- Aim to keep the toes flat and avoid curling them as you raise your arch.
- Hold each contraction for 5 seconds. For added difficulty, try it while standing.
Heel Raise for Plantar Fasciitis
This version uses a towel rolled up under the toes, which shortens the plantar fascia further, allowing for a more effective exercise.
- Stand on a step, heel off the back, to maximize the range of motion.
- This is best done standing on one foot at a time; however, if you are unable to perform the full motion, you can use your opposite foot to help raise up and lower down.
- Take 3 seconds to rise up, hold at the top for 2 seconds, and then take 3 seconds returning to the start position.
One easy method for hikers to address this is by massaging the calf with a trekking pole — and it is extremely easy to do on the trail. It’s most easily done seated, so you have good access to the calf muscle.
- Spend 5 minutes per leg working all angles; move your foot up and down to enhance this technique.
Another effective method for massaging the calf is by using your opposite shin to press into the calf muscle. This can be really uncomfortable, so go easy!
- Adjust the weight into the calf muscle as needed, and work up, down and across the calf. Spend 5 minutes per calf.
Spraining your ankle stresses a key ligament on the outside of the ankle that typically leads to a loss of ankle stability and balance. If your ankle injury is severe enough, the balance receptors (which provide feedback to the brain to keep you from losing your balance) can be put on “mute.” If you never retrain your balance and “unmute” those receptors, your balance will probably remain affected. You’ll need that balance for rock hopping and log crossings!
For strong ankles, try the figure 8 hop exercise.
- Make a simple grid on the floor using tape.
- Standing in one corner, hop diagonally forward to the opposite corner.
- Hop sideways. Hop diagonally backward and then sideways to the start position.
- Repeat 6 times per leg, alternating directions after 3 rounds.
Practice standing on one foot in a doorway or near a countertop (for safety), barefoot, for as long as possible. Try to build the arch, like the short foot exercise, and don’t let your knee move inward. Be strong and stable.
Aim for a 30-second hold and perform throughout the day. You can work balance into your day while doing daily activities!
Did you know that while hiking downhill, your knees absorb nearly eight times your body weight? Hiking downhill, your outstretched leg relies on the knee to handle the pressure as you place weight on the outstretched foot. Over time, this pressure can lead to knee pain.
BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT
To perform, place one leg on a chair or bench.
- Keep the weight through the front foot as you lower and rise.
- Work to keep your torso upright and strong throughout the movement.
Knee pain may be felt behind the kneecap, which can be caused by tight quad muscles. Stretching might help, but often a deep tissue massage is needed to decrease the tension. Try using the shaft of your trekking pole to really press down deep into the quads. With the pressure applied, straighten and bend at the knee to increase effectiveness.
Muscle imbalances in the hips and legs can also contribute to knee pain. To iron out painful knee issues, focus on single-leg strength with exercises.
By working on good form and with little, if any, resistance during these exercises, you can get stronger and decrease or even eliminate knee pain. Hang onto some weights or toss your pack on once these exercises get easier.
This exercise targets both balance and strength.
- Keep your midsection strong as you tip forward, reaching for the floor.
- Make sure you keep your hips level and back flat as you lower.
- Pull yourself back upright using the muscles on the back of your legs and your glutes.
Lee Welton is a physical therapist assistant and personal trainer in the north Seattle area. He most recently thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018 and can typically be found hiking and exploring the trails in Western Washington. For more information, videos and resources, visit trailsidefitness.com.