Knee pain hiking is relatively common with hikers, especially as you get older. However, a good regime of strengthening and stretching can minimize this
Hiking knee pain usually noticed in the area behind the kneecap, called patellar tendonitis, and can intensify when walking downhill.
Hiking conditioning exercises can help to minimize discomfort and pain and sometimes even reverse it!
I find the best exercises are those that work large areas of the body together rather than one specific muscle or group. This minimizes the risk of imbalances and hence injury.
These exercises include variations on old classics like the squat, deadlift and calf raises
Stretching exercises can also help with the focus invested in the iliotibial band, calves, and hamstring.
Here are six of the exercises that can help to prepare the knees for hiking:
Squats are something all hikers should do. Adding this strength makes your balance better and reduces your risk of injury.
Wall squats help to promote better muscle endurance and certain to benefit the knees on a day-long hiking expedition.
This exercise is useful for its ability to work the quads with an isometric contraction. Build up the ability to hold the squat position over time with a preferred range in the region of 3-5 minutes.
Free squats can help the patellar tendons align and also get the muscle fibers at the extremes of your motion range to fire too. This has a lot of benefits to your knee health.
When you first start to squat, keep a slight curve in your back by looking at the horizon. You can put your hands in the small of your back and make sure you keep this curve or put your fingers to your temples.
There is a good chance your knees will be a bit creaky to start with, so go as deep as you can and gradually work up to full range squats.
Drop down with control until your knees are as close to 90 degrees as possible. If you have good knees, you can drop into a deep squat, but do not push it – as soon as you feel your lower back/pelvis curve under, that is as far as your body will let you go.
Keep your form and push up through your heels to return to your starting position. This should all be done at a slow count of 4 down and 3 coming up.
Raised Arm Squats
Once you have done that and feel comfortable, start to raise your arms as you descend into the squat. Make sure you keep your form and do not go lower than you can do with good form (this will be less due to the overhead arms)
This helps with flexibility in your torso and lower back, which can be a cause of knee pain.
To add an additional mobility exercise, once you feel OK with raised arms, take a towel, roll it up and pull it taught between your hands. Now hold this overhead as you do your squats. Make sure you keep looking to the horizon and squat as deeply as you can. You will find this is nowhere near as deep as you did previously.
For the really advanced among you, you can do this with a barbell as though you are an Olympic weightlifter…but this is darn hard!
Use the preferred exercise option and complete 5 repetitions of 6 Reps. Allow yourself 60-120 seconds between sets, but allow more if required
Form is the most important thing here, not repetitions. So if you are struggling to maintain your form, either go to an easier version of the exercise or stop.
Cycling (on the streets or a stationary bike) gives a perfect opportunity to strengthen and condition the muscles around the knees. A regular cycling session helps to build the hamstrings and quadriceps to provide both long-term endurance and strength.
A planned exercise program should ideally start at least 2-3 months before starting to hike in the wilderness. A cycling program should include 3-5 sessions per week with each session lasting 20-25 minutes per day.
I also like to add in a Tabata into my cycling routine. Once you are warmed up, this only takes 5 minutes to do, but it is so good for you….even if it is hateful at the time!
A Tabata has been shown to do wonders for what is called your VO2 Max (or how good your body is at processing oxygen) which gives all manner of good health and fitness benefits.
A Tabata is simply 20 seconds flat out, followed by 10 seconds coasting repeated 8 times, then a minute gently cycling as you get your breath back…well, some of it!
As a tip, start off with an easier resistance than think you will be able to do. The Tabata works best if you can be absolutely flat out during each of those 20 second stints.
By the end of them, you will be gasping for breath and hating lactic acid…if not, push harder or wind the resistance up a touch more.
Deadlifts and Hamstring Stretches
Improving the flexibility of the hamstring is certain to minimize issues with knee pain from hiking and all-around knee health.
The hamstring works in combination with the quadriceps muscles to help with supporting the knee. Perform a hamstring stretch using a scissor or standing stretches.
In addition, get the rest of what are called your rear-chain muscles working with deadlifts. This will both increase the mobility and strengthen your hamstrings, with a very nice side effect of working your core muscles too.
This not only helps with knee issues, but also helps with your balance, especially useful when on uneven ground with a pack!
It is quite hard to describe a deadlift, so the best bet is to watch this video
You can start off with a very light weight like a few books in a pack. As you get the technique, work up to bigger weights.
Once again, worry more about your form that the number of repetitions, but the 5 sets of 6 is a good place to aim for. Once you can do this with your current weight, add a bit more weight rather than adding reps.
Calf Stretches and Raises
Calf muscles can benefit from a daily stretch to avoid issues with tightness which can have the negative impact of knee pain.
You should also look to exercise them to maintain their strength and balance as we tend to have a dominant side and it can really show up in your calves (my left is way weaker than my right for example!)
The easiest way to stretch them is to find a wall, keep one leg straight, with the heel on the ground and step the other foot forward, then push into the wall, making sure you keep that heel on the ground. Hold this for ten seconds, then try to move your leg back a little and do it again.
To strengthen your calves, the raise is almost the only exercise you can do! If you are new to this, stand on a level floor, keep your legs straight and simply raise yourself up onto tiptoe. Do not use your hands to balance as you need to work both your legs.
Make sure you raise slowly to your maximum extension to the count of 2 or 3 and descend slowly at the same rate.
As you get comfortable doing this, stand on a stair with your heels hanging over the edge. You can now drop deeper, giving your calves an additional stretch.
Once you get to grips with this, try it one-legged – make sure you work your weaker side first and only do the same number of repetitions as you could manage with your weak leg on your stronger side. You can do this on a level floor or on a step as you get stronger.
Finally, add some weight – do this with a pack on your back or go to the gym where they have machines for this exercise.
A positive impact of strengthening the calves is the ability to tone the muscles around the knee. Plus, the strong calf muscles are much more efficient at giving shock-absorbing protection while hiking.
Iliotibial Band Stretch
The tendon known as the iliotibial band is found on the outside of the leg and stretches from the knee to hip. If this muscle is left to get too tight it can start to cause issues with knee pain.
A regular session of an iliotibial band stretch is certain to help avoid this type of problem.
Matt Green, is an avid hiker and lover of the great outdoors. He is always planning his next big trip or hitting the trails for a solo hike.
He’s traveled extensively to many remote regions and has plenty of experience exploring various terrains, and stories to tell.