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Post-Hiking Pain

Louise Roach -- Calves are burning, knees hurt, and legs feel like Jello. After a major hike, the body is asking, "why the torture?"

How to deal with post-hiking pain and recovery is something every hiker faces as they advance to more strenuous levels.

For day-hikers, backpackers, and trail runners, after-care for pain is a very real part of the sport. Injuries and lactic acid build-up can keep a hiker sidelined for days and make the simple act of going down stairs excruciating. Many precautions can be taken to ensure less stress to legs, knees, and feet during a hike, but as every seasoned hiker knows, it's not going uphill that's the problem, it's coming down!

Hiking down a steep descent places additional stress on knees and muscles that have not been conditioned for downhill activity. Joints and tendons become painfully inflamed. And pushing past one's level of ability and distance increases the production of lactic acid, resulting in a burning feeling in leg muscles.

Don't let pain be a discouraging factor in pursuing higher achievements on the trail. The sense of loftiness felt when reaching the pinnacle of a climb is worth conquering post-hiking pain.

Pre-hiking suggestions to minimize pain:

-- Get fitted with sturdy, stable boots or trail running shoes.

-- Buy shoes/boots that are at 1/2- to 1-full size larger than your regular shoe size. After several hours of hiking, feet will swell and need room to expand.

-- Wear socks made of Coolmax® for moisture control and to minimize blisters.

-- Pre-condition legs weeks before a strenuous hike by doing short hill hikes and strengthening exercises (squats, lunges, step-ups, and step-downs). You can also increase your lactic acid threshold and level of fatigue (thereby lowering the occurrence of sore muscles) by increasing your activity level and training at 85%-90% of your maximum heart rate for at least 20 minutes daily.

-- Use stretching exercises for problem areas such as hamstring, IT [ilial tibial] band, etc. to increase flexibility.

-- If needed, wear leg braces to stabilize knees and help reduce stress. Neoprene braces can be purchased over the counter at any drug store.

-- Stay hydrated and eat carbohydrates and protein during and after the hike. This can help minimize lactic acid build-up.

-- Use a hiking pole(s) to redistribute weight, help with balance, and reduce stress on the knees.

-- Learn the technique of heel-to-toe walking so as to make full contact with heel to the ground.

-- Try to control uphill and downhill progression so as not to bound, go too fast, or "pound" the trail. Slightly bend knees when descending. Make a conscious effort to keep weight centered with the knee tracking directly over the toe (no twisting in or out). An automatic response to descending a hill is to lean backwards, rather than stay centered. This can result in injury, such as IT Band Friction Syndrome.

Post-hiking suggestions for dealing with pain:

-- Ice painful or swollen joints and muscles immediately after a hike. If pain persists, continue at intervals for up to 48 hours. Icing will decrease inflammation, reduce swelling and numb pain.

-- Rest after the hike, but don't become immobile. Walking or light exercise will keep blood flowing and increase recovery.

-- Gentle stretches will help stiff, tight muscles.

-- Massage painful muscles with long, smooth movements.

-- If needed, use a nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen, to reduce pain and inflammation.

-- Some hikers benefit from alternating ice packs and heat therapy. This should only be done after 48 hours and inflammation has subsided. Applying heat immediately after a hike will increase swelling and prolong recovery time.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical treatment or consultation. Always consult with your physician in the event of a serious injury.

Louise Roach is the editor of on-line health and fitness newsletter, NewsFlash*SnowPack. She has been instrumental in the development of SnowPack, a patented cold therapy that exhibits the same qualities as ice. Her injury prevention and treatment articles have been published on health and fitness Web sites. Louise is also an avid hiker. For more information visit: For a free health newsletter, visit:

© 2004 Louise Roach

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