I am sure every one has heard other hikers moaning about their aches and pains, (perhaps it was you?) when they stop for the night or finally get home and try to get out of the car.
But it doesn’t have to be that way!
Stretching your muscles is second only to good hydration when it comes to, maintaining flexibility, function, endurance, injury prevention and a rapid and pain free recovery after a days walking/ getting back to civilisation.
Muscles are the most happy when they have;
- Movement: Try holding a muscles in one position(static) for too long, and you will start feeling the burn!
- Variety: Muscles hate doing the same action over and over, (same as being static) they become tired and contracted.
- Warmth: Muscles are most flexible when they are warm as there is better nerve function and blood supply.
- Water: Water is required in energy production, lubrication and waste removal.
How muscles Work
- The Muscles we use to produce movement are the Skeletal Muscles, so named by their attachment to, and movement of our Skeleton.
- Each bundle of individual muscle is attached to the skeleton at opposite ends by strong “ropes” called Tendons.
- Bundles of individual muscles are grouped together with other muscles that do the same or similar functions. (Ie: There are 4 individual muscles that form the Quadriceps group)
- Muscles are designed to pull in one direction, so one end of a muscle is always anchored,(the Origin) while the other end(the Insertion)is pulled in towards the origin.
- To achieve movement, muscle groups work in opposing (antagonistic) pairs,(see picture above) while the Bicep’s pulls the forearm up, the antagonistic pair the Tricep’s relax and are lengthened by the move. Lowering the forearm is the same process, this time lead by the Tricep’s while the Bicep’s relax and lengthen.
When Muscles get tired
When a muscle group becomes over tired(ie: the Quadriceps descending a long hill) they lose their flexibility and ability to relax fully, which results in;
- Tension and contraction in the muscle body, which is transferred through to the tendons to origin and insertion points.
- Restricting the range of movement for the antagonistic muscles, tiring them also.
- Loss of muscle flexibility, which increases the risk of tendon and muscle injury.
- General overall drop in endurance.
There are three primary types of muscle pain we experience when hiking;
- Presentation: Usually associated with a sudden movement like a slip, fall, trip.
- Cause: Often an over stretch or tear to the muscle or tendon.(Strain)
- Signal: The muscle in general will tend to ache, and movement will increase the pain and greatly discourage movement.
- Repair: With a minor strain and the support of boots, you maybe able to “walk it off”/ cool it in water.(*1) A more severe strain will likely be to painful to walk on and require outside help.(this injury is often hard to tell from a fracture)
Over Use pain;
- Presentation: Most common when doing a repetitive series of movements, ie: descending or climbing a steep hill.
- Cause: Typically the muscle group will become tight, and restrict movement of its self and or its antagonist muscle pair.
- Signal: Pain, most commonly at the point of tendon origin or insertion, (a great clue to the muscle involved) which most often has it mistaken for a joint injury.(painful knees descending a hill are a classic)
- Repair: Easy to resolve by resting and stretching the antagonistic muscles groups involved. (*2)
Stiff and Aching;
- Presentation: Typically, at the end of a long days hiking, after sitting down and resting, or after driving home in the car (static)/ the morning after.
- Cause: The cause is primarily a combination of muscle dehydration and unmoved wastes that occurs when people stop drinking water after the hike and don’t stretch before and after.
- Signal: The whole leg / body aching, you feel stiff when you walk, but you can still move around.
- Repair: Prevention is best – drinking plenty of water during your hike , and for several hours afterwards, stretching before during and after your hike. ( both of these things – particularly the stretching will also help when you are feeling the signal.)
Most people will eventually develop their own routine to suit their needs, there are plenty of online demonstrations that you can build your stretchers around.(*3)
My Warm up Routine;
I usually start with a gentle walk around before a hike, which helps to wake every thing up.
Then stop and stretch;
During the Hike
When I start to the feel the gradual onset of the signs of tiring muscles either in my legs or arms while hiking (pain, stiffness, aching) my first thought is to stop and stretch the related muscle groups.
For those that don’t know which muscles are to target, it is still possible to do figure it out using this Rule of Thumb;
Suspect the pain is not from the area you can feel, rather the tendons or tendon insertions of the muscle crossing over the joint above where you can feel the pain.
When you have a suspect muscle group, the easy way to define a stretch is simply identify which movement brings the pain (ie: flexing the knee) and then find a way to gently do the opposite movement(gently to end range until you feel a stretch) ie;
- The pain is in the knee area, or upper calve – suspect the muscles of the Thigh.
- Observe which movement of the leg makes the pain feel worse, and then apply the opposite movement until you can feel the stretch, rest, re apply, rest, re apply.
- It is then good to then balance this by applying the opposite stretch to the first one – which will be the same same movement that was causing the pain.(ie: If extending the knee hurts, then the stretch is to flex it as far as it will go gently)
In the rare event that after stretching the pain has not gone, then the next step I would take is to;
- Reassess that I am drinking enough water. (Urine output and frequency)
- Consult with my friendly Arnica cream in my first aid kit.(miracle natural anti inflammatory cream.)
Warm Down – after the hike
- I like to use the last 2-500m of the hike to gradually slow down from my walking speed, giving the muscles a chance to cool down, while drinking plenty.
- Then repeat all the stretches from the Warm up at the start.
- Keep drinking water for several hours after you finish your hike to ensure all the waste products get cleared from the muscles.
(*1) Minor strains in your ankles are best kept in your boots, if there is a nice cool river near by submerging can help with swelling, but my all time favourite is to rub on some Arnica Cream for a Miracle cure (always in my first aid kit for any soft tissue injury minor or other wise.)
(*2)If I had a dollar for every time I have heard hikers complaining of or limping with a “stuffed knee” on down hills, who are resistant to the idea a stretch will fix it – but are amazed how easy it is….
(*3) Or visit your local Physiotherapist, Massage therapist or Personal trainer to learn warms that suit your hiking needs.
- Muscles, testing and function with Posture and Pain, Kendall, McCreary, Provance Et al.
- Bicep’s /Tricep’s: Pearson Education inc, 2011.
- Berkhamsted, 2014, Hip Abductor and Adductor stretches
- James Dunne, Muscle stretch demonstrations
- Alter, 1998, Sports Stretches.