Saving your knees while hiking downhill
Knee problems are common because they are one of the most used and abused joints in the human body. If you frequently experience knee pain during descents or resulting soreness afterwards, chances are you need to improve your form or pack weight.
Excess weight adds more strain to the knees
Your knees and hips are vulnerable to injury because they bear the most weight of your body. A force of three to six times your body weight is exerted on your knee with each level step you take. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, a force of 450 – 900 pounds is applied to your knee each time your heel contacts the ground. If you increase your body weight (or carrying load) the force multiplies by this additional amount. For instance, if you are 20 pounds overweight or carrying 20 pounds in your backpack, the force exerted on the knee adds 60-120 pounds per step.
- Maintain a normal body weight and reduce pack weight for optimum knee health.
Downhill adds even more strain to the knees
The force applied to your knees is further amplified on non-level surfaces. According to a study published on pub-med.gov, the compressive forces endured by the knees during downhill walking were 3 to 4 times greater when compared to level walking. The compressive force is greater for women (who often have a shorter femur bone length) when compared to men. No doubt, sustained downhill trekking is a strenuous task for the knees – regardless of your weight or gender.
- Never hike knee-locked down a steep decline! Walk at a steady, slow pace and keep the knees flexed. The faster you hike, the longer your stride tends to be, which intensifies the weight and impact to your knee.
- Traverse zig-zag, sideways or s-shaped rather than going straight down hills whenever possible by making your own mini-switchbacks on wide trails.
- If possible, plan hikes where the downhill is at the end of the journey rather than the beginning. This way you have consumed most of your food weight, cooking fuel, etc.
- Dump unneeded water before heading downhill.
An engineering marvel
The design of the knee is like no other joint in the body. Unlike a ball and socket, where bone meets bone and rotates, such as the shoulder and hip joints, the knee joint acts more as a pivotal hinge fastened in place by ligaments. In reality, the knee is much more complex than a pivotal hinge. The bone surfaces roll and glide as the knee bends, rather than simply bend and straighten like a hinged door. When descending, the top portion of your body moves you forward and the second half of the body glides the femur (thigh bone) forward. The knee is under constant compression as it twists and slides to keep your body steady while descending.
The knee is one of the most mobile joints in the body, but a gain in mobility means a loss in stability. Your knees work hard to bear and balance your weight with each activity you undertake. Activities that involve repetitive pounding, such as running, or a great deal of twisting, such as surfing or soccer, are the most difficult for knees, and thereby injury. Lower impact activities such as cycling or swimming are more gentle on the knees.
The most important thing you can do to is to take care and protect your knees over your lifetime so they serve you an entire life time.
A few more tips that may improve your downhill hiking experience –
- Walk on soft soil or dirt versus concrete or hard surfaces. The pounding of your feet against pavement means your knees absorb the maximum rebound.
- Wear well-cushioned shoes, so when the heel strikes the ground the shoe will absorb most of your body weight, rather than the knee joint.
- Wear proper fitting shoes. If you are not careful about finding proper foot gear you will have as much or more damage to your feet than walking around barefoot. If shoes are too snug, you might lose toenails. Keep your toenails trimmed as short as possible to prevent them from banging into the front of the shoe. A last resort solution for toe relief is to cut off the top portion of your boots. Hope your experience doesn’t come to that!
- If your shoes are a little roomy and you don’t want to purchase a new pair, try adding gel toe inserts (the ones that are marketed for ballerinas). Gel toe inserts may be useful for sustained steep descents, such as hiking in a gorge.
- Your hiking shoes must be tied tightly so they fit snug around your feet. This will reduce the impact of your toes against the front of your shoes. Learn proper lacing techniques for various types of terrain.
- A knee brace will offer additional support when hiking. Get a knee brace that has an open patella (knee cap) to prevent joint compression. Ace bandages offer minimal support and can actually result in more damage by putting pressure on the wrong areas resulting in fluid buildup or swelling.
- Get a proper knee brace. There are braces designed for different needs. Some are for compression, stability, swelling, ligament support, tracking, etc. You may need to consult a physician to understand what type of brace you require.
- A hiking pole or walking stick will help take some off the load off the knees by redistributing weight to the arms and shoulders. They also help with stability, but is no guarantee of a pain-free hike.
- Add Omega-3 foods, such as walnuts or olive oil, to your meals. Olive oil is a versatile oil to pack on the trail because it serves so many functions. Not only is it rich in omega-3’s which help lubricate the joints so you will experience less friction, grinding and pain, but it is also excellent for shaving, moisturizing skin, soothe burns…the many uses of olive oil
- Add dried pineapple to your trail mix. Bromelain, an ingredient found in pineapple, is a natural anti-inflammatory that will help speed up recovery of knee and joint pain. See other anti-inflammatory foods and dried (high-calorie) fruits to take hiking.
- Advanced sufferers can take a supplement containing glucosamine and chondroitin, substances that reduce pain and repair and rebuild cartilage.
Strength & Flexibility
- Keep muscles engaged and stretched by practicing a lifetime of daily activity & stretching. Most injuries are caused by people who are inactive over long periods of time. A sudden urge to fulfill a “bucket list” or exercise deficit is a common cause of injury.
- Knee problems are less prevalent if you maintain strong leg muscles that support the knee. If these muscles are weak, your knees are too. Strengthen the muscles that support the knee by performing weight bearing exercises that work out your hamstrings, inner thighs, quadriceps and calves. Keeping these muscles strong and balanced will help keep them in the correct proportions and reduce the stress endured by your knees while hiking.
- Ankle weights will help strengthen your legs. Start off with a 5 lb. weight. To work the inner thighs: wear ankle weights, lie on your back with one leg bent and on the floor; slowly lift the other leg, keeping the knee slightly flexed; rotate your foot out and tighten your inner thigh; Repeat with the other leg. For the hamstrings: stand and lift one weighted foot behind you until the lower leg is at 90 degrees and hold 5-10 seconds; lower the foot slowly and repeat each exercise about 15 times.