Dr. Jonathan Chang, a sports medicine specialist in South Pasadena, California, has seen his fair share of hiking injuries, from knee and ankle sprains to meniscal tears. A trail hound himself, Dr. Chang emphasizes that safe hiking requires an overall fitness plan to build both endurance and strength.
You may be thinking, "C'mon, train for hiking?" Hiking is essentially walking, and we know that walking is a great workout. But the uphill demand on your heart and the downhill demand on your muscles, connective tissues, and joints during hiking make it not only a great all–around workout but also a more intense one, says Darcy Norman, a performance therapist who works with high–level athletes at Athletes' Performance of Tempe, Arizona. Dr. Chang warns, "do too much before you're ready, and you risk injury."
Heart Healthy Hiking
Of course, it's best to stay in shape year round, but we know that not everyone manages to do so. Here is a simple three–step cardio plan that can help you catch up on fitness before heading out for a longer hike. Your heart will thank you.
1) Get in shape for hiking by… hiking. Have trouble sticking with a traditional workout? Julianne Abendroth–Smith, Ed.D., associate professor of biomechanics at Willamette University, recommends simply hitting the trail instead—no matter the season. If you enjoy it, hiking doesn't have to be reserved for vacations and camping trips. Find trails and nature walks in your area at /LocalHikes.com/. If that doesn't work for you, simply make walking around your neighborhood, or better yet, one with hills, part of your routine.
2) Take things one step at a time. Wherever you do it, the key is to get back into hiking gradually. "The most important thing in preventing injury is proper progression," says Dr Chang. If you're mostly sedentary now, he recommends starting with a 20– to 30–minute hike (a walk, jog or bike ride will work, too) one to three times a week and eventually progressing to a 45–minute workout, then an hour, then longer. You'll build what he calls tissue tolerance—strength in all your body's most vulnerable places (joints)—as well as cardiovascular fitness.
3) Take advantage of hidden workouts. "Never pass up an opportunity for exercise," Norman says. "Take the stairs every time you see an elevator or escalator." Walk your dog, clean your house, do yard work. Adding as many short spurts of activity throughout your day as you can will also help prep your heart for the cardiovascular challenge of tackling tougher trails.
Downhill From Here
We may feel like a hike is cake after we've reached the top of a trail, but most people actually get injured going downhill, not up. Norman explains by comparing the human body to a car. Your muscles are working like brakes all the way down to slow your momentum. By the bottom of a hill, car brakes sometimes start to smell like they're burning from all that hard work. In the body that can translate to injuries like knee pain o...