How to Prevent Knee Pain when Hiking
Living around the Seattle area affords us all so many great opportunities to explore some beautiful hikes. It can be an incredible way to boost your mood and enjoy the perfect weather after making it through the winter months.
Whether you’re hiking around the trails of Discovery Park or you’re training for an ascent up Mt. Rainier, hiking can be quite the stressor on your knees.
I want to be clear before we get into the rest of this post that pain doesn’t usually equal damage. It can be thought of as more of a signal from your brain asking for a change.
With that said, it’s much easier to enjoy the hike if you’re not dreading the descent because of achy knees. Even the most capable hikers may find themselves in this position if the demands are great enough.
How to prepare your knee before your hike
The decision has been made, and you’ve picked a trail to enjoy for the day. If you’re a little anxious about how your knees may feel, that’s ok. Remember that pain most likely doesn’t equal damage.
For most (not all), hiking downhill can have a higher chance of causing some irritation around your knee joint. Let’s go back to high school physics to think about why this MAY happen.
Think of your knee as a system, and that system has specific forces acting on it. If you’re hiking downhill, the front of your knee is reacting to the forces depending on what your foot does.
We would define this as torque, or the ability of a force to cause rotation around an axis or lever (in this case your knee). Blah blah blah, basically your knee joint is slowing down your body weight as you go downhill.
This means it takes some strong and tolerant quadriceps muscles (among other things) to control that force going downhill.
The point to all of this is that hopefully, you’ve been preparing your knee for these demands by way of some easier hikes, or an appropriate amount of resistance training.
If you haven’t, that’s ok!
Hiking is a workout, and like any workout, a warm-up may help to prepare for those demands.
Keep your warm-up simple and remember this acronym, R.A.M.P.
This stands for:
Raise: Raise your core body temperature. Going for a nice brisk 3-4 minute walk on flat ground should do the trick.
Activate: Engage the muscles that will be working in preparation of the activity. Doing a couple of sets of 10-15 bodyweight squats or lunges is a good start.
Mobilize: Focus on movements that will be in your activity. Just like in the above statement, walking around a bit and doing some walking lunges or bodyweight squats at your own level of tolerance should assist with this.
Potentiate: This fancy word just means gradually increasing the stress on your body to prepare for the activity. Start slow after you get to the trailhead with the above activities, and give your body a solid 5-10 minutes of the aforementioned exercises to get used to some activity and load through your knee.
The healthy way to walk downhill
Now you’re halfway into the hike, you’ve had some snacks and possibly an adult beverage at the top to celebrate the end of your ascent!
You’re packing up and getting ready to hike back down. Even after doing everything to prepare yourself, there’s always a chance your knees may get a little irritated on the descent.
That doesn’t mean you have to live with this for the rest of your hike. This is where different strategies come into play, one strategy not necessarily being better than the other.
I wouldn’t say that there is one perfect way to walk downhill, but the idea is to disperse stress to other areas, especially if the front of your knee isn’t tolerating walking downhill in a “normal” manner.
Actions you can take include, but are not limited to:
Love them or hate them; this is where trekking poles can be a great option. Use them to improve stability as you walk downhill, or even to just take a small percentage of stress off of your knees as you finish the descent.
If your knees become a little achy or painful, remember, that’s your brain asking for a change. So, to do this, it may help to descend your hike with different strategies other than just walking straight downhill. Try turning to the side on steeper declines to let yourself down. This will add a challenge to your hip musculature (glutes/hamstrings/groin), but take a little stress off of the front of the knee.
One of my favorites is to try a zig-zag or diagonal pattern as you go down. The same rules apply as above. You’re simply shifting your weight side to side as opposed to straight down.
Actions you should take after your hike to keep your knees happy
Once you’ve found a strategy that works for you and you make it to the end of your hike, here are a couple of tips and tricks that may help to decrease irritation for later in the day or for the rest of the week.
1) Your joints and tendons like consistency. That achy knee won’t like a sudden change in its environment. If you’ve experienced some knee/joint pain on the way down, immediately getting back into your car may be the last thing you want to do. Go back to the R.A.M.P protocol from above, and slowly cool down your activity level. This doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Simply take a few minutes to walk on flat ground and add some light stretching afterward (nothing specific) if that helps you cool down.
2) Once you make it back home, depending on how long your transportation may be, choose some low-level activity. Show your knees some love and go for a short walk. Foam rolling and stretching may not do much to FIX any problems, but they can serve as some low-level activity to possibly decrease soreness the next day. Oh yeah, and get something to eat!
3) The third, and by far the most important tip. After you finish your hike, reflect on what you think your preparedness level was. This is where we at Tangelo come in. We’re here to help you understand the demands of your activity levels and how you can make sure that you have the capacity to meet those demands on a consistent basis. No one has to feel like they need to try a different strategy just to make it down your hike every time.
Watch the video below for more tips for keeping your knees healthy while you hike.
Tangelo is here to help you on your journey.
We hope you found these tips and tricks helpful, but again, no one needs to feel like they have to struggle through the activities that they love. Everyone should have access to professional help to give them the autonomy to meet the demands of their daily lives (or weekend warrior lives).
The longer you live with knee pain, the murkier and sometimes more frustrating the process can seem to be able to get out of pain.
Tangelo is here today to help get you started on that journey!