How to Hike to Prevent Pain and Preserve Energy

This is a post for my fellow hikers, backpackers and mountaineers.

Best explained in the video, but here is a little bit of additional information:

Body mechanics through any sport are important, and hiking is no exception. Most of us don’t pay attention to our form or body mechanics while hiking because it’s not typically a “sport” where we’re competing or going for time or distance; most of the time we’re just out there to enjoy nature, summit a mountain or successfully complete a backpacking trip.

I started hiking the way I demonstrate in the video 4 years ago because of what I know about fascia, what causes my knee pain and because it just made sense to me anatomically as a way to prevent pain. I didn’t realize until a year or so later that I was doing something already in use with hikers and mountaineers, known as the “rest step.”

The rest step is used predominantly to help high altitude mountaineers maintain their energy and oxygen levels during sustained upward movement.

You can use the rest step for the above purpose, but I promote it mostly to prevent injury and muscle fatigue/soreness, whether you’re at high altitude or not.

When I make a conscious effort to hike this way I have little to no pain. I don’t even get SORE from a big mountain climb! And my energy levels are sustained throughout a trek.

Using the “rest step” for injury prevention:

The why and how:

This is a method of UPHILL HIKING. With each step uphill you allow your back leg to extend FULLY from your hip through your heel, while pausing for a moment, before continuing with the other leg stretching fully next time.

When you allow your back leg to extend fully and your body weight rests on that part of your skeleton for a moment, ALL the muscle fibers and fascia in your back leg – the Achilles, calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus), popliteal fascia (back of your knee) and hamstrings – get an active stretch while the front leg gets to rest.

Doing this in a continuous manner up a hill or mountain is a lot like a dynamic stretch routine (my favorite way to stretch), and though you’re certainly “working” your body, your fascia gets to lengthen while the muscles are allowed to rest.

At the same time, if you STAND TALL and USE YOUR GLUTES to power you uphill instead of your quads, you will be using the largest muscle in your body (the gluteus maximus), which will SAVE your quads and hip flexors from overuse. AND: you’ll sculpt a better booty, and who doesn’t want that?!

The science behind this method:

The science behind the rest step for preserving energy is pretty simple: by pausing to let your weight rest on the back leg skeleton for a moment or two with every step, you’re able to keep going at a sustainable pace that allows you to get enough oxygen.

Here is my “citizen science” behind using this method for injury prevention:

The first part of the rest step (allowing the back leg to extend fully through the hamstring, back of the knee and calf/Achillees) particularly helps to prevent knee pain, foot pain and ankle issues, but it also significantly reduces your chances of hip and back issues.

The #1 cause of knee pain is restricted balled up fascia in the upper lateral (outside) portion of the gastrocnemius, or calf muscle. Allowing it to stretch with every step helps to keep that area lengthened instead of balled up in a knot. This calf stretch also allows the soleus and Achilles to stretch, which will help prevent ankle and foot pain (it can even help prevent rolled ankles, which may be triggered by a misstep on a rock, but most people who roll their ankles are already primed for this because of knots of tight fascia in the lower calf and Achilles area). And most foot issues, like plantar fasciitis, stem from tight calves.

Using your glutes – especially gluteus maxiumus, which is the largest muscle in the human body – on the uphill is critical for injury prevention of things like low back and hip pain, hip flexor overuse issues, mid back and shoulder pain AND it will dramatically help your knees on the downhill. You NEED your quads to be your “breaks” and knee stabilizers on the downhill.

If you overuse your quads on the uphill you may end up with burning hip flexors, low back or hip pain, and your quads will feel very shaky and unstable on the downhill; and this makes you much more prone to knee pain on the downhill because the kneecap has lost its #1 stabilizing muscle to fatigue.

If you hike uphill bent at your waist (and the majority of hikers I see on mountains today are bent at the waist on the uphill), you’ll be putting almost all of your body weight into your quads and your spine will feel strained because it’s no longer stacked on top of your hips; this makes you far more prone to mid back and shoulder/neck pain, especially if you have a large backpack on.

A few words about using this method trail running:

I am not a running coach and this is certainly NOT meant to be advice about how to run for distance, speed or anything other than pain prevention. I love running, but my distances range from 4 to 17 miles. My personal preference is to simply get out, enjoy moving my body and move in such a way that I’ll be injury free not just for one run, but for life.

I absolutely use this technique while trail running uphill and if running injury free is your main priority, then give this a try!

If you’re running for speed, you will probably be bent over using those all powerful quads on the uphill. So just make sure to take care of those workhorses before and after your running! You can use my quad and hip flexor release. Click here for that.

So there you have it!

I’m a HUGE fan of being smart about body mechanics through a sport. Personally, I’m far more interested in longevity – being able to hike and climb mountains pain-free until the day I die – than I am in summitting mountains in record time or feeling like a bad-ass passing everyone on the trail.

This method of hiking doesn’t look ‘cool’ or badass; but the long-term benefits definitely are!

But for the record: I spent 30 days camping and hiking mountains in Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado two summers ago. I was by myself, and managed to hike about 200 miles in those 30 days, and another 100 the following month (after I got home). I had ZERO pain. Not even a twinge of knee pain! I NEVER got sore. My shoulders never even hurt from carrying a pack every day. And…though I was passed repeatedly on mountains by people bent over and hiking fast uphill using their quads, I eventually passed them all again while they were forced to rest for 5-10 minutes after burning out. So, while this may not feel like a “fast” hiking method, if you ARE climbing at altitude, like Colorado’s 14ers or anything higher – chances are you’ll be faster in the long run than those overusing their quads and lungs on the uphill.

What do you think? Are you a fan of the rest-step? Comment below!

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