Updated: Jun 22
Back to the basics of muscle contractions
Hiking works muscles in different ways depending on the direction, grade, and type of hiking. So let’s take a minute to review the basics of muscle function and identify which types of contractions are needed when hiking.
Muscles are formed of long fibers (usually) in parallel with one another. These fibers form bundles which together comprise the whole muscle. Within the fibers are smaller contractile units called sarcomeres. Inside the sarcomeres are even smaller units of substances called actin and myosin, which ratchet together to contract a muscle. Muscles function to move joints by pulling on the attachment of their tendon to the bone.
There are three types of muscle contractions, isometric, concentric, and eccentric. Isometric contractions are when you squeeze the muscle, but there’s no joint movement. Consider a waiter walking through a restaurant holding a tray of drinks with their elbow bent at 90 degrees. An isometric contraction in the biceps muscle holds the tray steady without it moving up or down.
A concentric contraction shortens the muscle and bends or extends a joint. For instance, when you drink from a cup, you perform a concentric contraction of the biceps muscle. The muscle shortens to bend the elbow to move your hand to your mouth.
An eccentric contraction elongates the muscle under tension. An example of an eccentric contraction is laying down a sleeping baby who is cradled in your arms. You slowly lengthen the biceps muscle to extend your elbow, but the muscle still has tension and strength enough not to drop the baby.
Why are these important?
In the examples above, the actions look similar but the same muscle functions differently under the different conditions. Similarly in hiking, the same muscles contract differently depending on the task at hand. When ascending, leg muscles contract concentrically to propel you up the incline. Concentric contractions feel like work. You can feel your muscles squeezing and burning. When hiking downhill, your muscles contract eccentrically to lower your body down the incline with control. Eccentric contractions don’t feel like a lot of effort when they happen. Since you’re going downhill, it may even feel easier. However, eccentric contractions require more muscle tension and are primarily responsible for the muscle soreness you feel for a day or two after a long hike. Isometric contractions help when balancing, especially on one leg.
Knowing that hiking requires both kinds of contractions means that your training should reflect that as well. You can focus on the specifics for the hike while doing the same exercise by changing the exercise’s tempo. For instance, the squat is a great lower body exercise. Paying attention to the temp can make it do double duty. When squatting, stand from the squat position on a count of one, squeeze at the top for a count of one, then slowly lower for a count of four. The muscles work concentrically to stand up, isometrically at the hold at the top, then eccentrically on the way down.
Make your workout efficient and effective by targeting the tempo to get your desired training outcomes.
Want a hiking workout tailored to your goals that fits your schedule? Can’t get to the gym but want to keep up on your summer adventures? Learn how The Healthy Hiker Program can improve your hiking – even if you have old injuries! Schedule a call today!