by physical therapists Drs. Tim Flynn and Terry Gebhardt, Cloradoan, link to original post
The summer months are a great time to escape the heat and head up to the mountains for a scenic hike.
Regardless of whether you “bag a 14er” or simply enjoy a leisurely hike on a local trail, it is important that you protect your knees so you can enjoy hiking for years to come. Some of you may have even stopped hiking because of knee pain. This article will help those of you without knee pain maintain healthy joints and prevent knee pain.
We also want to provide encouragement to those who may have given up hiking because of knee pain. You don’t need to stop hiking or live with the pain, there are strategies to get you back on the trails.
While you can experience pain while climbing up a trail or descending down, it is more common to experience knee pain on the way down. This is due to the greater impact on your knees while hiking downhill.
So how can you reduce the impact on your knees and decrease your pain? A good place to start is to ensure you have good quadriceps strength. Your quadriceps, or your thigh muscles, help control the bending of your knees as you hike downhill. If your quadriceps are weak, you won’t be able to control your knee bending as much, and this can increase strain on the knees leading to pain.
Another important group of muscles are your hip abductors and external rotators. These muscles are on the outside of your hip and are responsible for keeping your knee from collapsing inward as you descend. When your foot hits the ground, your outside hip muscles need to quickly contract to prevent your knee from going inward. Lack of strength or control of these hip muscles is a common contributing factor to knee pain.
So how do you know if you have weakness or poor control of your quadriceps or hip muscles? Performing a single leg mini squat is a simple test that you can do to give you an idea of how much knee and hip control you have. See a video link of how to assess your single leg mini squat at http://www.colpts.com. Good knee and hip control is demonstrated by controlling a single leg partial squat for 10-15 repetitions while maintaining your hips in a level position and your knee moving directly over your foot without collapsing inward. If you do not have good control doing the single leg mini squat (a static exercise), you likely have less control with more dynamic exercises such as hiking downhill.
In addition to having good muscle strength, you can reduce the impact on your knees by landing more softly. Many hikers will let gravity overpower them and hit the ground with too much impact. Focusing on using your quad and hip muscles to control your descent while landing softly will reduce the stress on your knees. Finally, using trekking poles will allow your upper body to absorb some of the shock and support the lateral hip muscles thus further reduce the amount of knee strain.
So if you have knee pain with hiking, you don’t need to “just live with it.” A good strengthening program with minor technique modifications can significantly reduce your pain and allow you to enjoy the beauty of hiking trails.