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As discussed last week, the ankle is the body’s foundation when it comes to hiking.  Assuming this foundational area is great, we can start looking at other regions if hiking is a challenge.  

Knee or hip pain can ruin your next trek up the mountain.  Both joints act as your shock absorbers and your engine.  It is important to understand how these joints work with hiking. Ascending a mountain challenges the knees and hips to produce force. When descending, the knees and hips are absorbing force.  If you tend to have more problems on the first or second half of the hike, you’ll want to approach these issues differently, which we’ll cover after we discuss a few exercises.  

  • Split squats – A split squat can be performed many ways, but the preferred option is the rear-foot elevated split squat (shown here), also known as the bulgarian split squat.  An easier version of this exercise is a static lunge (shown here).  The low back tends to arch on these, so keep your tailbone slightly tucked.  Your movement should also be purely vertical, so your body should not move forward or backward.  Hold onto a pole (broom, PVC pipe, etc.) and place it directly against your torso with the pole upright.  You should be able to lower yourself to the floor without moving the pole at all.  A tip for split squats in general – place your feet further apart than you think you should.  Most people use too small of a stance to be able to descend without having to put significant pressure on their front knee.  If you have pain on the front knee, you can try to the knee behind the toes.  
  • Step downs/heel taps – Heel taps (shown here) are a great exercise for hiking.  The height of the box matters.  If you’re doing harder hikes, you’ll want to use a higher surface (12-18 inches becomes very challenging!), but if you’re doing easier or less steep hikes, a standard step height works (6-8 inches).  Smaller steps might be necessary if you’re dealing with more pain or difficulty, however.  A point of emphasis here is that the exercise is called a heel tap.  The goal is to slightly touch the floor, not bear weight on the foot going to the floor.  Another point of emphasis is that you want to control your knee position.  The knee should remain over your foot as best as possible, ideally with your kneecap aiming toward your middle toes.  If your knee is wiggling side to side, you’ll need to control that motion.  

For both exercises, you’ll want to have something nearby for support unless you’re absolutely sure your balance is solid.  For dosage, both exercises work well at 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps 3-4 times a week.  

For split squats and heel taps, the position of your trunk throughout the motion should be constant, however, you can change the angle to challenge your quadriceps (thigh) or gluteals (buttocks) more.  With an upright trunk position, your quadriceps are more active whereas with a slight (think going from 12 o’clock to 1 o’clock) forward trunk lean your gluteals are more active.  Note that trunk lean means you’re hinging at your hips, not rounding your back.  You can use this to target your weaker areas or to minimize pain from the exercises themselves.  

If you have problems with ascent, you’ll want to focus on producing force quickly.  Taking the split squat as an example, your goal is to rise to standing with power (while maintaining good form, of course).  When you’re at the bottom of the squat, imagine you’re trying to push the earth away from you and jump (but don’t actually jump, because that’s a different exercise, silly).  

If you have problems with descent, you’ll want to focus on absorbing force. In the split squat, over-emphasize lowering your body slowly.  Imagine that you have a box of fragile stuff (fine China, framed family photos, whatever tickles your fancy) tied to your body and you want to gingerly place them on the ground without so much as a rattle. 

Hiking is a great way to get outside and get out of the house, but when knee or hip pain are slowing you down, it becomes a lot harder to enjoy.  Try these exercises out for a few weeks and you’ll be back on the mountains in no time.  

Got questions?  Feel limited in what you’re able to do?  The staff at Limitless Physical Therapy in Eugene, OR and Albany, OR can show you how to discover your future without limits.  

***The above information, including text, images, and all other materials, is provided for educational purposes only, and not as a replacement or supplement to professional medical advice.  Please contact a certified healthcare professional or your primary physician for any personal concerns.