When one of my local clients complained of knee pain while training for a European hiking trip, I said, “Let’s hit the trail!” As we hiked and she began to complain of pain, I knew just what the problem was.
Knee pain is one of the complaints I hear most often from hikers. Before we dive into knees, let’s get clear on some facts about pain. Pain doesn’t equal pathology. When you feel a twinge, it doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong with the joint or that what you’re doing is damaging it further. Intermittent pain or a new pain when doing an activity may indicate that something needs adjusting.
Knee pain when walking downhill may be a sign of muscle fatigue or weakness. Weak quadriceps, for instance, can place a strain on the patellofemoral ligament and joint. This pain typically strikes as you descend at the end of your hike when your muscles are tired. There are specific exercises you can do to help for this kind of knee pain, and my top favorites are in The Healthy Hiker’s Guide to Healthy Knees – available to you free!
Some hikers, however, experience knee pain on an incline. Going uphill was exactly where my client started to feel her pain. She was fresh and only about a mile into the hike, so it wasn’t due to muscle fatigue. It was because of her step length.
The knee experiences greater forces with larger steps. Researchers at Drexel University evaluated 10 healthy-weight and 10 obese subjects while walking with their preferred, longer, and shorter step length. They found that when subjects reduced their step length by 15%, they significantly decreased the forces at the tibiofemoral (knee) joint(1).
Longer step lengths usually mean a harder heel strike. When you shorten your step length, you tend to strike more softly and more forward on the heel. The resulting ground reaction force is closer to your center of mass which takes some of the load off the knee.
My client was petite, so whenever she hiked with others, she took bigger steps to keep up. Doing so strained her knee. When I instructed her to take smaller steps, the knee pain went away. However, this alone wasn’t a functional strategy for her as her trip involved hiking with some much taller people with longer legs.
The way to keep your pace the same but decrease step length is to increase cadence. I worked with her to increase her step speed while reducing her step length. Whenever she felt a twinge in her knee, she knew she had fallen back into an old habit and picked up the pace. She successfully completed her dream hike and came back with healthy knees. So, if you experience knee pain while hiking on level ground or uphill, shorten your stride and increase your cadence to relieve stress on the knee joint.
Need help setting your stride or want to hike with less knee pain, let’s talk!
1. Orthop Res.2018 Oct;36(10):2679-2686