A few years back, I was mountain biking on a section of the Colorado Trail near Denver. For those of you that may not be familiar with the trail, it is a 486 mile continuous trail that stretches all the way from Denver to the historic city of Durango, in Southern Colorado. It’s a beautiful hike and one that attracts thousands to walk it in one outing, thru-hikers, they are called.
As I was mountain biking that day, I passed a handful of thru-hikers on an uphill section. They reminded me of my younger self when, partly due to economics and partly to inexperience, I would pack a very large and very heavy backpack for my overnight trip(s). And so here they were, taking very small steps, learning forward under the weight of their packs, and carefully placing one foot in front of the other. They had about 476 miles remaining.
It may seem like hiking 4-6 weeks during the summer would be a healthy thing (and it can be!), but how do you think these hikers’ bodies are going to be doing when they finish the entire trail? Is it possible that after hiking 400+ miles with a hunched over posture they will end up with more movement dysfunction than when they started? It sure is.
With May just around the corner and the snow melting in the Colorado mountains, many of our great hiking trails are beginning to open up. So it’s a perfect time for me to start writing more about how you can improve your hiking strength and movement.
So, let’s kick off the season with an actionable and straight forward post. Here are 3 ways you can be a stronger hiker this summer.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, everyone needs to be deadlifting. It doesn’t mean that you need to load up a barbell with 45s and make some noise, but you need the movement pattern included in your workout program somewhere. You can pick up a kettlebell, a sandbag, a bag of groceries, a small child – it doesn’t really matter so much what the weight is, just that you’re hip hinging and going through the movement.
Why so important for hiking?
If you have a strong back and posterior chain, then in general, you’re more likely to be hiking with an upright posture. And with an upright posture, you’ll be able to give your respiratory system the space it needs to keep pumping oxygen to your body, and you’ll be asking less of your back and putting more of the load through your hips.
But when you have enough weight pulling back on your shoulders, all of us are going to compensate with a weight shift and lean forward just a bit. I don’t think this is a good thing when you’re hiking for hours on end, but having a solid deadlift pattern, and thereby understanding what a straight back should look like, you’ll be in a better position than most to support the load.
Most importantly, when you know how to deadlift and you understand the concept of the hip hinge, then you know how to bend over – properly. In other words, you know how to keep a flat back. And that’s a very important thing when you have a pack on your back and you’re having to shift your weight and move in different directions as you climb over the terrain.
Because if you don’t keep a nice flat back, just like you would in the weight room, you’re going to be rounding your spine and putting your vertebrae in potentially compromising positions.
You’ll see me promoting all sorts of complex spine movements in my blogs and (upcoming) videos, and so you may think that I’m contradicting myself here writing about flat back this, flat back that. Here’s the difference: When you are supporting weight with your back, always keep it flat and strong. But when you’re stretching or moving in a supported way, I think it’s OK to introduce more movement.
You knew this one was coming, didn’t you!?
Have you ever been hiking and when you got back to the car your knees were screaming? I’m guessing the answer is yes. That’s the most common complaint I hear from people when it comes to hiking.
So, why is this? Well, it could be many things. Remember, if your knees hurt and cause you pain, then get your butt to a doctor. But sometimes our knees hurt because of weak muscles and/or hyper-tonic muscles. This sort of thing we can do something about. And squatting to build strength and strong knees is a smart fix if you’re healthy.
I’ve written a handful of articles on squatting and to include a discussion here about “How to squat” is well beyond the scope of this blog post. But just with the deadlift, everyone should be able to squat and squat well. It’s a fundamental human movement that has applicability to our everyday lives.
So, if you want to go hiking this summer and come down with a smile on your face, then make this the season you finally begin squatting.
3. Build better ankle movement
You’re going to gain something else by squatting: Ankle mobility. Or, to be more accurate, you’re going to discover if ankle mobility is limiting for you. It probably is.
Let’s take a step back and look at what happens when we go hiking. Odds are, you are going to endure more hip and ankle flexion ROM than you maybe have in the past year!
It’s no surprise people get sore.
Fortunately, we can train in the gym to build a better ROM and then down the road, to build strength across that ROM. The aim being that when you lift your leg up high to take a step, your hips are open enough to allow the movement and your muscles strong enough to keep your knee and hip stable. Also, your ankle will have enough flex to support your overall movement.
So, what can you do to improve ankle mobility?
A. Wall touches
Kneel next to a wall with your leading foot pointed at the wall and your toe about six inches away from it. Now, bend at the knee and slowly work to get your knee to touch the wall, while keeping your heel firmly planted on the ground. You may not be able to make it to the wall, and that’s OK. Go as far as you can, then back off, and repeat. Do a handful of reps on a regular basis and eventually you will see improvement.
It you don’t see progress, or you have pain, stop and see a doctor. In some instances, your talus bone may be misaligned and you have what we call a “blockage.” No amount of stretching is going to fix this, but a chiropractor may be able to help.
Regardless, listen to your body and keep a close eye on whether or not you’re making progress.
Mobile ankles just make life easier :).
B. Downward dog
Remember, if you have tight ankles and flexion is a problem, half the story may be mobility, and the other half, flexibility.
You don’t necessarily need to do downward dog if you don’t want to, but you will need to incorporate some type of hamstring stretch. I like downward dog because it’s bilateral and really lengthens your entire posterior chain in a natural way.
#4 (Bonus) – Keep your shoulders moving
When I’m hiking with a pack, be it a day trip, or multi-night backpacking outing, I tend to get sore shoulders and arms.
First, a little background: The idea behind wearing a backpack with a hip belt, is to put most of the load down through your hips via the belt, while the shoulder straps should ideally be there to keep the pack from falling backwards.
You have this force pulling you back, but then your arms aren’t doing anything.
My arms will actually begin to get a little numb after I’ve been hiking for a while. And so what I like to do is to put my hands up on my head for maybe 30 seconds at a time. I just hike like this for a little while.
Don’t forget to grab on to trees and put your hands down on rocks when you need support too. You should be taking full advantage of any and all opportunities to move. Your shoulders and arms will thank you.
There you have it, 4 practical and effective ways to get stronger this hiking season. Believe me, it’s entirely possible to be able to go hiking and feel great afterwards. But you have to start looking at it in terms of movement.
And one more thing
I’m undergoing an experiment on myself this summer when it comes to my own hiking. I’m shunning the clunky hiking shoes with full ankle support and opting instead, to hike in my 6 year old pair of Nike Frees. Just a couple weeks ago I was hiking the Grand Canyon and descended about 3500 feet and came right back up the Grandview Trail at the South Rim, using only my running shoes.
What I’m starting to realize, and bear in mind that this is my own opinion here, is that my ankles are plenty strong to hike over uneven terrain. I don’t need full support. But remember, I have relatively super-human mobility, so I don’t want you to run out and start hiking in minimalist shoes just because it’s what I am doing.
As I said, this is my experiment on my body this summer and I’ll keep you informed of my progress and what I learn. Expect a potentially incendiary blog post in September on the subject :).
By Ryan Wagner
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