Hiking soreness and pain: the price you pay, right?
Hey! You don't have to be fatalistic about how much pain and stiffness you have to endure the day after a hike.
And you shouldn't be fearful about whether or not you can get through a multi-day trip in one piece.
There are many ways to stack the deck in your favor, and against muscle soreness.
How can you minimize the odds of muscle soreness on your next hike?
By paying attention to every factor you can manipulate to avoid that hiking soreness:
I forgot two even more important factors:
Still with me?
You didn't expect an easy (mask-the-problem) fix like "pop an aspirin", did you?
Let's get started on a close look at this touchy subject of muscle soreness. Prevention seems a prudent place to begin.
Tips for dealing with muscle soreness are at the bottom of this page.
First, the prevention of hiking soreness! (We'll deal with the reality later.)
Consider this: Are you asking your back and legs to lug around a poorly fitted, badly packed, top heavy backpack?
If your pack doesn't fit, don't wear it!
If it's old, or a hand-me-down or second hand store purchase - not of high enough quality to transfer weight properly -
DON'T WEAR IT!!!
Maybe hiking soreness prevention is as simple as adjusting the straps on your favorite pack.
(Nobody is keeping score except your sore, sore muscles.)
A pack can't do its important job of transferring weight to your spine and pelvis if the straps aren't adjusted properly for your body.
Chronic hiking soreness in the same places indicates potential pack problems (or posture problems - a separate topic).
Sore knees could be any number of things!
So before throwing away your favorite pack, play around with its straps and belts and buckles, to customize it for your body.
Also try packing it differently.
If that doesn't work, pass it along to some other hiker and really pay attention to your next pack purchase.
Another thing to consider: have you stretched before charging up the trail?
How about specific back stretches?
I know, I know, it's a pain (pun intended). Who wants to burn daylight standing around stretching?
And the danger of being mistaken for a yoga instructor is very real.
I firmly believe in stretching. Here's why:
My muscles need a clue that I'm about to use them to get to the top of that pile of rocks.
It's simple courtesy:
Nice deal for a minimum time investment in stretching, don't you agree?
Stretching weak muscles probably doesn't do much good, in terms of preventing muscle soreness.
I'm assuming you're kind enough to take your large skeletal muscle groups on daily short romps:
Just a note: Not everyone recommends stretching before a hike.
If you're a limber twenty something who is into yoga, you can probably get away with skipping it. For a few years.
Older or less limber hikers would do well to pay attention to warming up before tackling the trail. It's a simple way to avoid, and relieve, back pain.
How about this new daily habit?
It's a biological fact that strong muscles recover more quickly from exercise, burn fuel more efficiently during a hike, and make you feel more balanced and thus safer on tricky footing.
Try these strengthening ideas:
...all ways to prevent hiking soreness.
Are you a social creature? You can:
Start somewhere, and (OK, you knew this was coming)...
Just Do It!
I follow this policy like an ant on a sugar trail, because I know it pays off year after year on the trail.
Here's my routine, as an example:
So my plea to you is this:
Put together your own personal program. Start small, or the muscle soreness of your plan will defeat you!
You'll know you're making progress when you push yourself a bit on the trail and you feel fine the next day.
Water is a requirement for your cellular biochemistry.
It's tagged the universal solvent because it
I don't think I'm overstating it when I call water a miracle substance, so give your body plenty of it.
Doesn't it make sense when your thirst drive kicks into high gear on a hiking trail?
There's a good deal of debate about how much water is the RIGHT amount.
I've heard people spout "facts" advocating liters of water a day.
Instead, be realistic.
Sip water, just plain water, at every opportunity.
Or jazz it up with lemon and lime slices, or fresh herbs (I love lemon balm and mint, personally).
After awhile, you won't want anything else in your hydration plan (perhaps a cup of herbal tea once in awhile).
Your kidneys will breathe a sigh of relief.
Your heart will zing with joy.
Your skeletal muscles will perform with less soreness.
Electrolytes are important charged particles your body uses to get its work done.
When you sweat, you lose salt (lick your sweaty forearm for proof).
So if you're tackling a tough trail, you might want to add some electrolytes to your water bottle.
A quick, easy experiment: Enhance your hiking water and see how you feel the next day.
Here's the brand of powdered electrolytes I prefer:
I'm partial to the lemon flavor, but they're all tasty.
I carry small packets in my lunch sack as a precaution on really hot or vigorous hikes.
But I use this less expensive bulk jar to load up my water bottles prior to each hike.
Muscles need building blocks to continue to perform their contractions and relaxations.
If you've been skimping on protein, your muscles can't perform optimally.
So you have to go beyond staying hydrated, and look at your nutrient intake prior to, and during, each hike if you really want to avoid hiking soreness.
Carbohydrates (carbs) will give you fast fuel. "Eat whole grains before your hike, and again at lunchtime." is a wise hiking mantra.
Carbs are the key to sustained energy on the hiking trail!
But you'll need protein, protein, protein after a hike.
Why? To rebuild your muscles (they undergo micro-tears as you hike).
Which type of protein, and how much, depends upon you as an individual.
If you really want to get into the nitty gritty calculations, I've written some Fast Fact booklets based on the type of hiking you do.
Knowing your body's limitations and honoring them will keep you out of trouble.
I know that if I jump into full blown hikes after the usual winter break during our long, wet winters here in the Pacific Northwest, I'm gonna be sore.
However, I also know that brutally steep down hill trail work is NOT good for my knees any time of year, and I consult topographical maps before I take on a new hike.
Armed with the facts, I avoid the terrain which I know is bad for my aging, but oh-so-important knees.
But I go one better to protect my knee cartilage: I use hiking/trekking poles on every hike.
You will run into hikers (just don't run over them) who scoff at using poles.
Usually, those hikers have fairly young cartilage and are lean.
But time has a way of erasing everyone's cartilage eventually.
Why take a pounding on your precious joints? Test it for yourself.
An added benefit I like about using trekking poles is the additional upper body workout they force me into getting.
Not to mention the feeling of security and balance they provide on narrow, rocky trails.
I've tried several pairs of poles, but these are the ones that come along on every hike because they've proven themselves to be tough, easy to collapse or extend, and lightweight:
Another area of debate is one pole, or two?
I've used just one, and my rhythm and balance feels "off".
Also, the side of my body using the pole (usually my dominant right side) seems more tired after the hike.
Thus, I believe in using both poles.
But again, experiment and see what feels best for you.
Work WITH your body's natural defense mechanisms, including the soreness that comes with hiking.
The media has trained us to fear inflammation and sore muscles, and to reach immediately for pain relief.
Using a medical definition, inflammation is a non-specific response your body uses to address trauma, injury, or over-use syndromes.
Have you ever noticed its cardinal signs after a hike?
If you experience any of these in addition to the expected mild soreness after hiking, you're not going to ignore them, right?
Inflammation is a message from your body, asking for corrective measures.
Whatever the root cause of the hiking soreness problem, invest time into identifying and fixing it before it goes chronic on you.
Chronic means you are risking permanent injury if you keep ignoring the messages your body is sending to your brain in the form of hiking soreness.
That's why I advocate prevention, and listening keenly to the feedback my body gives me about hiking soreness after a hike.
So much for prevention.
Now let's tackle what to do if you've got major muscle soreness during a multi-day trip, or even after a day hike, and you have to keep going.
Here's where I might lose you because I'm still not advising you to reach for the pain relief pills.
Instead, I'm going to recommend self massage for your major muscle groups (the ones you can reach).
Depending on your familiarity with massage, I'm expecting one of two reactions:
Many Americans can't see the value of therapeutic massage. If you're from a culture that realizes the value of soft tissue manipulation, bravo!
I'm a licensed medical massage therapist, and I've seen the quick glances exchanged between people when they hear "massage" mentioned.
Here's the beauty of self massage for hiking soreness: you have everything you need without opening your pack. Two hands, sore muscles.... that's it!
Start with your feet, even if they aren't sore (that's a link to lots of foot tips).
Self massage is highly effective therapy for foot soreness, because you can give yourself immediate feed back on where and how much it hurts.
If you have access to warm water, soak your feet before and after the massage (extra points for aromatherapy such as lavender or rosemary added to the water.)
While you're at it, sip some cool water to hydrate those loosening muscle fibers.
Some hikers find it soothing to alternate warm with cool water foot soaks, ending with cool.
And if you have a favorite foot lotion, apply it while your skin is soft and supple.
If you've never given your feet this much attention, please try it! You count on your feet to carry you on your hiking journeys, so pay them back with some love.
And if you're open to different ways of thinking about hiking soreness, explore Reflexology.
Now for some attention to the leg and thigh muscle groups that power you up the trail.
Use the same basic approach to deal with hiking soreness that worked so well with your feet:
There's not much you alone can do about your hiking soreness in your upper back, but here are a few tricks.
Cup your shoulder with the opposite hand and search for the sore spots with gentle probing fingers.
Rub your neck and lower back using all fingers in slow circling motions.
Another trick: Lean back or lie down on a bumpy surface and use your force to press against the sore spots.
It's amazing how much better sore muscles feel after such gentle but sustained treatment.
And directing your breath to the sore areas seems to help, too.
Be sure you drink a few glasses of cool water after this work, to assist your body in clearing out muscle metabolites that cause soreness.
If hiking soreness is a routine problem for you, go to a professional licensed massage therapist.
Be sure to request the Hiker's Special: extra attention focused on the large working muscle groups that get you up and down the trail!
This makes a great gift idea for your loved ones who are scrambling to give you just the right gift.
As you can see, it's going to take some dedication to your own well being to bail yourself out of hiking soreness.
There are no easy fixes, but the ones I suggested (and use myself) will keep you gliding along the trail without an excess of hiking soreness.
What are you waiting for?
Oh, maybe more self care tips? Here they are!
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