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Education is key when it comes to taking power over your own health and wellness. I look at the role movement can play in your health, wellness and recovery to full and optimal function. The articles are not meant to take the place of medical advice and should not be used as such.

Five Restorative Exercises to Support Hiking and Walking

May 13, 2024 |

Tips and Exercises that I found helpful for challenging hiking

I recently returned from a trip to Vancouver Island. I went to several locations to hike. On the West coast of the island I hiked a section of the Juan de Fuca trail just north of Sooke. On Quadra Island I hiked the Blind Man’s Bluff in Copper Bluffs, and on Salt Spring Island I hiked up (and down) Mt. Maxwell. I also did a fair bit of regular hikes along the shoreline, through forests, along trails that were more flat and less challenging, but still long and natural and included challenges such as walking on rocks and driftwood on the beach.

I’ve hiked in Washington State (Olympic Mountains), the Bruce Trail and Leslie Spit in Ontario, and I’ve walked the Cinque Terre in Italy. But the Vancouver Island hikes were the most challenging (plus I’m a fair bit older now). So I was pleased to find that my body was capable, and I got home feeling better than when I left, with only a few sore spots to remind me of my trip.

What I found, honestly, is that no hiking I’ve done in and around Toronto could adequately prepare me for the type of hiking I did in BC. I could walk a long time and up hills but there was no hiking that came close to the variety of natural terrain, the whole body aspect, and the length of climbs up and down to be found on a single hike there. So it was a trial by fire and I had to rely on the backup of the skills I practice regularly in class and as much walking as I could do at home.

During my first hike on the Juan de Fuca, I travelled a fair distance down a logging road to the trail and most of this hike was downhill on the way out. Because it was my first hike, I was eager and found I was not very confident on foot placement, and stumbled a lot, losing my balance. I was discouraged, thinking that I was not prepared and was less capable than I thought, but it turns out I just wasn’t expecting that much relentless difficulty. At home you might get one or two difficult spots, some roots, crossing a stream, a short climb, for example. But this was all difficult, with each foot placement carefully considered for the most part. At one point I placed a foot down to accommodate roots and rocks and ended up twisting my knee as I walked forward on this awkwardly placed foot. I could feel the head of my fibula complaining for the rest of the walk.

On the way back, it was all uphill and I was already tired from the walk out, so I was very glad to finally see the car where I left it on the side of the road. Almost right away, despite being tired and discouraged, I went on a second hike on the drive home. The walk from China Beach park to the beach was also all downhill going/all uphill back, but the trail was wide and prepared and there were less obstacles. The beach wasn’t a sand beach, but a rocky one (as many are there) so that was another challenge for those tired feet and knees!

I was glad I decided to do this hike, because after sitting in the car for a short time, my knee started to feel stiff and although I didn’t want to walk again so soon, I could feel the movement bathing my knee in fluid and the soreness subside. After a vigorous hike followed by a bout of sitting, I find a bit more movement or walking is the best antidote to getting stiff - better than a rest or a bath even. So although you might not want to, a short walk a few hours after a hard walk will go a long way to keep you from getting stiff and sore.

Tip: After a long challenging hike, particularly if you drive or sit right afterwards, take a shorter, easier walk later that day to keep the joints from stiffening and work out any muscle soreness.

The next hard hike was on Quadra Island, a more remote location and also accessed by an old logging road. The hike was shorter but still challenging in terms of footing and steepness. There was large rocks to climb and a stream to ford, but I found my footing on this trail and started walking with more confidence. I also walked several shorter hikes after this longer climb and was feeling good with each kilometre that passed.

Finally the best and hardest hike - climbing Mt. Maxwell on Salt Spring. This was almost all up on the way there (with a very few short flat spots ) and all downhill on the way back. Going up I found myself gasping for air and heart pumping at the beginning of the hike, but then getting a second wind and more energy the higher I climbed. Coming down was a killer though! About 1.5hrs of solid downhill, and steep downhill at that. My quads (muscles that run down the front of the thigh across the knee) were brakes all the way down, working eccentrically. My toes were pressing uncomfortably hard up against the front tip of my shoes the whole time. At one point I realised if I planted my feet up against rocks and roots that stuck out of the ground as I went, they could take over for that second as a passive way to slow down and give my quads a mini-break. Likewise, if my hands and arms could take some of the work they would give my legs a breather, so I grabbed onto trees and branches as much as I was able, not for balance but for a chance to rest the legs.

Tip: when going downhill for a long time, look for nature provided opportunities to help you out! Rocks and roots to push your foot against, and branches/trunks to grab with your hands/arms help slow your descent and give your leg muscles a much needed rest.

These were the skills I practice regularly that I was grateful for during this week of hiking:

Posterior Push Off

The skill of learning how to climb stairs is something I teach routinely, but who knew it would be so relevant to climbing a mountain! The idea is not to haul yourself up using the upward leg, but to propel yourself up with the downward leg, thus utilising the hip extensors (the big glute muscles in the back of your hips). Both of these - pulling yourself up using quads and pushing using glutes, are strategies for climbing, but most people only use the quads and not the glutes to climb UP, therefore, by the time you turn around and go downhill, your quads are already fatigued and there isn’t much option but to use them eccentrically to descend.

I found that during my ascent, using both strategies (switching deliberately to rest large muscle groups) gave me a bonus boost to get up the mountain. And then my quads were ready and able for the descent.

Listing (to Lower Myself)

I teach Hip List in order to learn how to stabilise the pelvis when walking on flat and level ground, but going downhill can incorporate an element of the List - lowering the pelvis on that side! I found that when my knees starting feeling tired, if I reminded myself to lower my hip first, I could spare a lot of work for the knees. Again, learning strategies like this gives you options and switching back and forth allows you choices to navigate challenging terrain through a variety of muscle groups.

Whole Body Walking

Most people think of walking as a lower body movement, perhaps with a bit of arm swing. But the whole body goes walking, and in the case of hiking a challenging trail, the upper body needs to get involved! At first my habit of walking on flat and level ground on a surface with no variability (such as a city sidewalk) meant I was not using my whole body as a first choice, I had to deliberately decide to try different methods for navigating the trail. Once I figured that out, I went to town, using my arms and hands, getting down close to the ground and using scooting, crab crawling, vaulting down, etc. Not only does the whole body get a workout, the work is spread throughout more body parts, sparing the legs from doing all the work (which could be dangerous if you are always trying to stay upright and do all the work as if you were walking on a regular surface). Exercises such as Twist for core mobility, Crawling and Quadruped for upper body strength are helpful.

Foot Mobility

Perhaps obvious - but I did all the hikes this week in minimal shoes (Wildlings) and was enjoying the ground feel - every rock, root and Garry Oak acorn! I am grateful for all the footwork I’ve done up till now, as my feet were not bruised or sore or tired and in fact were completely dependable, I could have kept going for another week. Partly this is because natural surfaces are more forgiving than hard surfaces like concrete and partly it is because my feet are used to moving a lot. Don’t forget to Transition to Minimal Shoes (course coming soon!) appropriately, and you won’t need tall, stiff hiking boots for all your hiking needs. Minimal shoes with flexible soles were handy to conform to the surfaces I was on and especially to help brake the descent by finding those rocky opportunities to wedge my feet into (see above) as my feet were able to mould to those shapes.

Calf Stretch

Of course this Restorative Exercise favourite had to make the list but I didn’t realise until now just how integral this movement is to climbing. In dorsiflexion, the foot stays on the slope, but the shin moves forward (called a positive shin angle). If the muscles down the back of the calf don’t lengthen, two things can happen: 1: your heel will lift and you’ll have to climb up (or down) on your toes, which is very tiring and inefficient. 2: you won’t be able to take your knee forward far enough to shift your centre of mass forward, and will then depend on a hip flexion or spine flexion to get your body weight up and over that foot. I’d say this is the biggest contributing factor to inefficient climbing.

The other thing that might happen is that the foot will toe out in order to utilise eversion instead of dorsiflexion, and this doesn’t allow you as many options for foot placement. If you have to toe out in order to climb, you are left with one foot position to climb up and down, regardless of the terrain. 

Final tip: Do your calf stretch!
Climbing Mt. Maxwell, a challenging hike