Most hiking-related injuries are the result of a fall. Anecdotally, many hikers report falling on the return route at the end of the hike and often less than a mile from the trailhead. The statistics seem to support this as a study of non-fatal hiking accidents in France showed that over 75% of falls happen on the descent(1). There are several reasons this happens.
Muscles are already fatigued from climbing.
Descending requires the quads to work eccentrically, and very few people train these muscles to meet this specific demand.
Advanced age - falls are more common in people over 50 years old (1,2)
Hiking downhill after ingesting libations at mountain top lodges or to celebrating the summit.
There are some other interesting things to note about falls. In a study of 405 Alpine hikers who suffered an injury after a fall(2):
Most happened on a dedicated trail or path - not off trail.
Many of the hikers who fell took frequent breaks while hiking.
Up to 83% were carrying a backpack when they fell(2).
Nearly half of the 405 fall victims were overweight with a BMI > 25(2).
One-third of the injured hikers performed less than the recommended 150 minutes of recommended activity per week(2).
Most fall victims are wearing appropriate footwear(2).
The statistics uncovered by the Austrian researchers point toward advanced age (and its associated visual impairments) and lack of physical fitness (with resulting weight gain) as significant risk factors for suffering a fall on the trail. Using correct footwear and staying on the trail did not seem to have a protective effect.
What can you do?
The best thing you can do to decrease your risk of falls is to:
Improve your physical fitness and endurance.
Strengthen your leg muscles in the way that you will use them - eccentrically and under fatigue.
Train your body's balance reactions in a dynamic fashion incorporating movement over a stable base.
Hike with vision-correcting lenses.
3 exercises to help decrease falls
These exercises strengthen the legs and challenge balance reactions. They eccentrically work the quads and require the pelvic girdle and core to work harder to stabilize the body. Try them after a cardio session (hiking, walking, jogging, or cycling) when your muscles are already tired to simulate hiking descent situations.
1. Curtsy Squat: This exercise combines several skills that will help your balance and stability on the trail. Firstly, the dynamic movement while standing on one leg challenges your balance. Secondly, the controlled lowering trains the quads eccentrically, which mimics hiking downhill, while rising up on one leg strengthens the glutes for climbing. Lastly, it incorporates hip adduction on the back leg - a movement that isn't common in most exercises and helps with stretching the IT band. Perform 3 sets of 10-12 reps. Add difficulty by adding heavier hand weights or a loaded pack.
2. Back to Side Lunge: Like the curtsy squat, this exercise adds movement while standing on one leg. Changing the direction and position of the leg moves the center of gravity. Try to do at least one complete cycle of the exercise without putting your foot down. Add a weight in the opposite hand and perform a bicep curl while performing the side lunge to make it a complex exercise that adds more strengthening and uses more calories. Perform 3 sets of 10-12 reps. To add difficulty, try with a loaded backpack.
3. Halos - This exercise requires your whole core to engage and focuses on balance. With a dumbbell or kettlebell, stand on one leg. Rotate the weight around your head 10 times in one direction and 10 times in the other, trying to keep one foot up. Switch sides and then repeat for a total of 3 sets.
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BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 2017;3:e000304. doi:10.1136/ bmjsem-2017-000304
Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Feb; 17(3): 1115.