Hiking is a popular way to stay active during the summer months. But it can also wreak havoc on your knees. I personally love hiking. My pup (Bodie) and I are about to conquer the 48 4K toes of the White Mountains – and the last thing I want is for knee pain to get in the way of that trip.
The good news is that there are things you can do to prevent knee pain while hiking.
When one of my readers asked this week, “How do I prevent knee pain while hiking?” – I couldn’t wait to answer.
Here are four of my top tips to help you prevent knee pain while hiking.
Strengthen your hips and core
Your hips and core provide much-needed support for your knee joint to keep it functioning properly. The large bone in your thigh called the femur forms your knee joint at the bottom and your hip joint at the top. Your hip joint connects to your pelvis, which houses important core muscle groups like your glutes.
Let’s say your glutes (part of your core) and hip muscles aren’t as strong as they could be. For example, when attempting to climb a large rock or steep path, your glutes and hip muscles are designed to stabilize your pelvis so your femur can slightly extend your hip.
If it’s not strong enough, your pelvis will tilt to compensate – affecting the alignment of your femur – and ultimately the alignment of your knee. When I walk a 4k footer I get in about 27,000 steps. If your knee compensates for each of these steps, it will eventually hurt. If you enjoy hiking, it’s important to strengthen your hips and core.
Keep your knees flexible
One of the biggest mistakes I see when it comes to knee issues is a lack of full range of motion. Your knee shouldn’t just straighten, it should be able to hyperextend a little. If you bend your knee, you should be able to do a full deep squat without pain. These full-end range movements are pretty important when hiking.
Your knee needs to be able to squat, rotate and endure loads on these uneven paths. Not having full range of motion will affect your knee’s ability to tolerate these micro-strains, and over time your knees will become sore.
If you experience pain or stiffness in your knee in either direction of movement, it’s important that you try to push that movement and work through it, rather than avoiding it — even if your knee seems to hurt at first. The more you move your knee joint, the better it will feel. If that doesn’t happen, then you know it’s time to talk to an expert and get a closer look at your knee.
Work on your balance
Hiking can involve anything from rough terrain, water crossings and rock hopping. Good balance is essential for these activities, and without it your knees will suffer. So how do you work on your balance? Besides the obvious (doing balance exercises), it’s also important to pay attention to a few other things, namely the mobility of your toes, foot and ankle joints, and the strength of your arch (plantar fascia). These structures all play a role in how well you will be able to balance.
You can do all the balance exercises in the world, but if you have, for example, limited ankle mobility or a flat, weak arch, you will always have a very difficult time balancing. Stretch your ankle and calf muscles regularly. Be sure to flex those toes – can you lift your big toe up on its own while standing? And use a small ball to regularly massage the arch of the foot to keep it flexible.
These small activities can go a long way in making it easier for you to balance—especially on the exams.
Use trekking poles
Even if you implement all of the tips above, depending on your overall fitness and the condition of your knees before you decided to start hiking, you may still experience knee pain despite doing “everything right”. Trekking poles can be a real life saver – or should I say knee pads. They relieve your knees and lower legs – especially on really long hikes and technically demanding trails. Additionally, when you’re carrying a backpack, trekking poles help distribute the extra weight from your knees to your arms. And added bonus – hiking with poles gives your arms a little extra workout at the same time and keeps your hands and fingers from getting swollen on those particularly hot and muggy days.
If you love hiking like Bodie and I do, then I know knee pain won’t stop you from hiking. I hope these tips will help you alleviate any knee pain you may be experiencing now and prevent future knee pain on the trails.
dr Carrie Jose, Physical Therapist and Pilates Expert, owns CJ Physical Therapy & Pilates in Portsmouth and writes for the Seacoast Media Group. To get in touch or request a free copy of any of her knee pain guides, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 603-605-0402.