by Diane Spicer
The name paints an accurate picture of red, hot, painful flames.
FACT: Hikers use all of their muscles.
FACT: Working muscles can become inflamed.
FACT: Trail injuries are often accompanied by inflammation.
So let's get familiar with hiking inflammation:
Let's define our terms more carefully.
"Inflammation" in a hiker's body implies that at least 2 of the "cardinal signs" of inflammation are present:
heat and redness, if not soreness, swelling or loss of function.
Those cardinal signs give you a strong clue that you've overdone it.
But why do these signs pop up?
Why does hiking inflammation happen?
Because your body is programmed to respond to insults and injury with a "stereotypical" response for protection and healing.
Here's the general story:
This acute inflammatory process takes several days to complete its work.
Pain and swelling are protective, forcing you to get off the swollen ankle or stop using the leg when your hamstrings are pulled.
This hiking inflammation buys your body some much needed time:
Ignore these obvious signals, and you're setting yourself up for chronic inflammation - much harder to deal with, and potentially able to sideline you for an entire hiking season!
Don't be the hobbling hiker powering through.
This is a hard reality for thruhikers to accept, but think long term. You want to hike again next season, right?
I have an example of unwelcome hiking inflammation myself, which serves to illustrate how treatment can be very effective if applied aggressively and early.
After a 14 mile, 3500 feet of elevation gain hike in the Cascades (Washington State), I noticed that my left heel felt really sore.
I took off my high topped heavy soled leather hiking boot (required when tackling rugged & rocky terrain) and peeled off my double layer of socks.
I was alarmed to see my red, swollen, hot, and PAINFUL heel. It didn't want to bear my weight for even one more step when the protective, supportive boot was off.
Being familiar with hiking inflammation, I hobbled over to an icy stream near the trail head (lucky woman!!) and plunged my entire lower leg into the numbing water.
I kept at it, withdrawing and plunging into the water, until about 20 minutes had gone by.
I swallowed an anti-inflammatory pill I had in my first aid kit, and drank a huge amount of water.
Luckily, I wasn't the designated driver that day, so I elevated my foot during the long drive home.
NOTE: This is an extreme case of hiking inflammation.
I probably felt some twinges during the hike, but was too dialed in on the spectacular scenery to notice.
It took me over 6 months to completely resolve the injury.
But the good news in this tale of woe?
I was able to completely reverse the inflammation!
No more hiking inflammation for me, thanks anyway!
Or you, either! Keep reading.
So is inflammation a bad thing?
Or is it helpful?
The answer depends upon your point of view.
HELPFUL: If you realize that inflammation is a non-specific, protective mechanism built into your body to deal with trouble, you'll be thankful for it.
BAD NEWS: If you're a week-end warrior or long distance hiker hell bent on finishing your hike, then you'll be annoyed and angry when you start to hurt.
Indeed, that is the question.
Short answer: your body seeks homeostasis, the normal "status quo", 24/7.
For example: It works hard to keep your internal temperature constant, even when your external environment undergoes temperature swings.
Specific hiking example:
That's the power of homeostasis! ("keeping it the same")
During a hike, your blood vessels are constantly dilating and constricting, routing blood where it's needed: to your thigh and back muscles, and away from your stomach.
So it's a given that your body is trying to do the right thing by going through its inflammatory cycle when you are exercising beyond your normal routine, or are injured.
And once you're off the trail?
Your body has important work to do to get your ready for your next hike:
A tough job!
These activities can give you pain sensations and mild swelling in your extremities, but probably not all of the other cardinal signs of inflammation.
So if you're feeling mildly sore and tight after a hike, that's good news!
You gave your muscles and joints a nice work out.
Even better news:
The more you hike, the less sore you will feel the next day. Your body becomes efficient and conditioned.
And you're smart enough to help it out with plenty of water and lean protein, fresh fruit and veggies, stretching, daily walks, and plenty of restful sleep.
It's likely that this is a normal event, caused by the pull of gravity on the fluid in your tissue spaces.
Another possible factor: vasodilation.
For some tips and tricks for dealing with swollen fingers after a hike, go here.
To deal with swollen feet and ankles after hiking, try these tips.
Sore feet can be managed with these tips.
NOTE: This swelling should be painless, to differentiate it from inflammation due to injury, infection, allergic reactions, blood clots, hyponatremia or other underlying issues.
If the post-hike swelling hurts,or it doesn't resolve after a few hours (especially after using those tips linked to above), get to a health care provider ASAP.
Why wait for "the morning after" effect?
Once you're back at the trail head, and your boots are off, do some pre-emptive stretches.
Nothing elaborate, just try this:
Ahhh! Your muscles on the front of your thigh say thank-you-very-much. And of course, you'll do the other side, too.
Here's another easy post-hike stretch:
You probably think "This is too simple", but please believe me when I say that simple beats complex every time for prevention of hiking inflammation. All it takes is a little discipline.
Now you can get into the car, or onto your bike, and your muscles won't cramp up to the degree they would have without the stretching.
This buys you some cellular peace, too:
You'll have to think ahead for this tip.
Throw a cooler of ice and water bottles in the back of the car, and enjoy the cold water as a refreshing part of the cool down routine after a long summer hike.
Use the cooler as a foot bath to head off hiking inflammation!
If that sounds too unsanitary or takes too much work, and there's a convenient snow patch or rushing stream handy, use that instead.
The point is to let Mother Nature help you out here by reducing swelling and reversing congestion.
More icy tips below...
Along with these nutrients, which are replenishing your depleted stores, swallow an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory.
NOTE: This is not medical advice. If you have pre-existing conditions & take medications that would interact negatively with anti-inflammatories, of course you wouldn't do this.
But if you're a healthy person with no adverse reactions to these products, they can head off hiking inflammation's soreness and stiffness induced by a long hike.
Not a fan of over the counter medication?
My favorites are Tiger Balm and Mineral Ice: fire and ice!
Tiger Balm is sold in little glass jars with a tiger on the lid in case you didn't get the "tiger" part.
It is applied to unbroken skin, and creates a sensation of soothing heat. The ingredients include topical analgesics (pain relief).
I use the "ultra strength" variety, but there are various formulations to try.
Fair warning: there is a distinct odor to Tiger Balm, a menthol/camphor smell, but it's not unpleasant.
And on the up side: it hasn't stained my clothing or towels.
Try the opposite approach: get things cooled down with Mineral Ice.
This blue menthol gel is rubbed into unbroken skin and produces an instant numbing sensation (topical analgesic) to tackle the soreness in your muscles.
I've used this when doing sports massage, with good results.
Be aware that it will diminish sensation in the application area, so don't try to do anything strenuous right after you apply it, or you could injure yourself.Mineral Ice
With either of these products, WASH YOUR HANDS before touching your eyes, mouth or food, or you'll be sorry!
By relieving the muscle soreness in this way, you are helping flush the muscles of lactic acid and other compounds produced during exercise.
That's going to reduce the healing time between hikes, especially if coupled with proper hydration and good nutrients.
Here's one more trusted source of relief from soreness:
Topricin in a 0.75 ounce tube so you can carry it in your backpack.
Enjoy a nice long soak in a hot bathtub saturated with Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate).
This is the cheapest way to buy relief from muscle pain and stiffness that you can imagine, and it really does wonders for sore hiking muscles.
This works for reversing hiking inflammation, trust me! You will feel SO much better after this old fashioned, low tech, cheap combination of minerals and hydrotherapy.
Hiking inflammation can be combated by ingesting anti- inflammatory herbs in a wide variety of formulas.
I'm going to throw you on the mercy of your local health food store or herbalist here.
Ask them for a list of herbs known to combat (hiking) inflammation.
And in case you're not into natural remedies, where do you think aspirin, a famous anti-inflammatory, came from?
Personal experience: I've used capsules of turmeric and bromelain to help my body recover from pulled muscles and the soreness that accompanies a long backpacking trip.
To recap: Hiking inflammation is no joke.
It can build up over time and create nagging chronic injuries in soft tissue. Those take a long time and lots of patience to heal.
But most hikers can expect to be a bit sore and stiff after a vigorous hike.
If you're a young twenty-something of a hiker, you can probably get away with pushing through the pain and stiffness - for awhile.
But if you're a bit older (and wiser?), it's time to pay attention to stiff, sore muscles and joints before their whispers turn into roars.
Repeat after me:
Prevention of hiking inflammation is worth way more than a pound of cure!
Another way to chase away soreness is to incorporate antioxidants into your hiking routine. Read why here.
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades, & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
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