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Hiking Soreness:
 Best Tips For
Post Hike Recovery

Sore muscles after a hike? Try these tips for preventing muscle aches and pains, and for dealing with soreness after hiking. #hiking #backpacking #soremuscles

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.

  • You can decrease your post hike recovery time.
  • If you're in a hurry, read these tips.

And you shouldn't be fearful about whether or not you can get through a multi-day hiking trip in one piece.

There are many ways to stack the deck in your favor,

and against muscle soreness.

Let's take a look at some of the best ways to handle - and maybe even prevent - your hiking muscle soreness.


Fiddle with these factors

Here's the burning question you want answered:

How can you minimize the odds of muscle soreness on your next hike?

And the answer is:

By paying attention to every factor you can manipulate to avoid that hiking soreness.

Things like:

  • properly fitted gear
  • high quality hiking socks and trail footwear
  • correct weight distribution in your pack and through your spinal column, hips, and knees
  • adequately conditioned and warmed up muscles
  • correct hiking techniques & pacing for terrain and distance
  • ergonomic hiking aids
  • anti-inflammatory actions

Use that blue "TOP" button over there on the right to zoom up to the search box and find detailed tips on any and all of these important hiking topics to minimize your hiking soreness.

Wait!

I forgot two even more important factors:

Embrace the reality that what you eat and drink on a hike can contribute to how you feel the next day.

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 up look at this touchy subject of post hike muscle soreness.

Prevention seems a prudent place to begin.

  • Tips for directly dealing with muscle soreness are all yours toward the bottom of this page.

If the pack fits,
wear it!

First, the prevention of hiking soreness!

(We'll deal with handling the reality of sore calves after hiking further down the page.)

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!!!

Could it really be this easy?

Maybe hiking soreness prevention is as simple as adjusting the straps on your favorite pack.

  • You've taken the time to play with all the "bells and whistles" on your pack, haven't you?
  • You've stood in front of a full length mirror, with a hand mirror so you can see your back side, to scope out whether the pack sits too high, hugs too tightly, is too wide... haven't you?
  • And you've asked your trail buddy to yank or release the straps you can't reach, until the pack fits just right on you... right?

(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.

So fiddle around with all of those straps until there's no stress or tension:

Chronic muscle soreness?

Hiking soreness in the same places over and over again 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.


Warm up those muscles -
and then GO

Another thing to consider (and you're gonna hate this):

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.

  • If you are one, hand out your business cards to passing hikers.

Stretching helps!

After decades of trail time, 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:

  • I deliver more blood to them, I lengthen their fibers, I tell them to loosen up a little - here we go!
  • In return, they perform optimally and without complaint.

Nice deal for a minimum time investment in stretching, don't you agree?

Strengthen AND stretch
to prevent muscle soreness

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:

  • Take the stairs (two at a time?) and shun the elevator.
  • Enjoy a brisk 15 minute walk at lunch time, and again after dinner.
  • Plan some sort of aerobic exercise (dance, brisk walk, run, bike, swim) of at least 30 minutes duration several times per week.
  • Jog in place while watching a movie at home.

How about this new daily habit?

  • Lie down on the floor and do whole body stretches for a few minutes.
  • All that means is get in touch with where your body wants to stretch, and where it feels tight.
  • Channel your inner cat and relish the deliciousness of stretched muscles.

Just a note
to keep it real

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.
  • Until the bill comes due.

Older or less limber hikers would do well to pay attention to warming up before tackling the trail.

It's such a simple, free way to avoid, and relieve, back pain.

  • Do you respect your body enough to do it?


Improve
your muscle strength

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:

  • moderate weight training 3X per week (start with 2 pound weights and work your way up to 15)
  • resistance exercises (stretchy bands are fun!)
  • brisk walking with vigorous arm swings
  • swimming (especially in warm salt water)
  • biking at alternating speeds

...all ways to prevent hiking soreness.

Are you a social creature?

You can:

  • join a spin class (it might hurt at first, but think of your strong legs!!)
  • find a dance class at a local YMCA
  • commit to a daily brisk walk with a neighbor (wear a backpack with a bit of weight in it)
  • join a hiking group that pushes you a bit past your comfort zone.

Start somewhere, and (OK, you knew this was coming)...

Just Do It!

An example

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:

  • Every morning before breakfast I lift 10 & 15 pound weights (I began with 3 pounds and gradually worked my way up) for 10 minutes.  Nothing fancy, just a brief work out for all major muscles on my upper body.
  • Every afternoon I walk several miles up and down hills (4 - 5 miles), breathing deeply and swinging my arms vigorously, to keep my legs strong and my aerobic capacity high.
  • I hike or snowshoe every weekend, weather and schedule permitting.

I don't like to swim or bike, dancing is beyond my coordination abilities, and yes, once in awhile I drag out the resistance bands, but weights and walking do it for me at the ripe old age of 60+.

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!

But start.

Need some companionship and encouragement? Consider joining our Over Forty Hiker community.

You'll know you're making progress when you push yourself a bit on the trail and you feel fine the next day.


Hydration -
ignore at your own risk!

Water is a requirement for your cellular biochemistry.

It's tagged the universal solvent because it

  • flushes away toxins
  • contributes to the building of energy molecules
  • keeps muscle fibers and soft tissue compartments from sticking together while contracting

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?

  • Drink early and often on the trail.
  • A hydration backpack that gives you unlimited sipping opportunities can help you with that resolution.

How much water makes sense?

There's a good deal of debate about how much water to drinnk on a hike is the RIGHT amount.

I've heard people spout "facts" which advocate consuming liters of water a day.

  • Hyponatremia (low sodium levels in the bloodstream resulting in physical problems) is a concern with this approach.

Instead, be realistic.

  • Water is heavy. You can only carry so much of it.
  • Try to stay ahead of your thirst signal by stopping every hour to hydrate.

Tip:

If you're not much of a water drinker to begin with, try to double the amount you drink at home over the next few months.

Coffee, tea (unless it's herbal), sweet carbonated drinks, alcohol - these don't count as daily water intake, and can even work against you as they pull water out of your blood and into your urine.

Sip water, just plain water, at every opportunity.

Or jazz it up with lemon, lime and cucumber 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 tea once in awhile).

Your kidneys will breathe a sigh of relief.

  • Your chance of kidney stones has decreased.

Your heart will zing with joy.

  • Normal blood volume = more efficient strokes for your heart muscle.

Your skeletal muscles will perform with less soreness.

  • Fibers don't stick together, bunch up, or spasm.
  • Muscle compartments can glide past each other as you stride, lift your backpack, and scramble up a hillside.
Female hiker in flower meadow on trailHydration is a key element in avoiding hiking soreness.


Consider adding electrolytes

Electrolytes are important charged particles (sodium, potassium, calcium) 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 to run:

Enhance your hiking water and see how you feel the next day.

  • I tried this approach a few years back and was truly amazed at how my endurance improved and my soreness diminished.

Here's the brand of powdered electrolytes I prefer:

Ultima Replenisher Lemonade 13.65 ounces Jar

I'm partial to the lemon flavor, but they're all tasty.

I use this less expensive bulk jar to load up my water bottles prior to each hike.

I also carry small packets in my lunch sack as a precaution on really hot or vigorous hikes.

Trail tip:

Throw a few of those hydration "sticks" into your emergency kit. You never know when you'll need them, and they are packaged to stand up to heat and moisture.


As you eat,
so goes the 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.

Why?

Carbs are the key to sustained energy on the hiking trail!

  • Here are the best rice choices as a backpacker to replenish your carb supply at dinner time.

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. 

Two more
hiking nutrition strategies
for you to try


Ergonomic approaches
to avoid hiking soreness

How you use your body on the trail will also determine how sore you feel after a hike.

If you're experiencing pain after hiking, please give these Hiking For Her's best ergonomic tips some consideration if you seek to avoid hiking soreness.

Work with the terrain

Knowing your body's limitations and honoring them will keep you out of the land of extreme hiking soreness.

Example:

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.

  • So why not start off with some training hikes?
  • Soreness will diminish as muscles become accustomed to regular hiking routines.

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.

I know to budget in more time for descent.

  • And if an alternate route exists, I take it.

Bottom line: Know what you're up against, and pace yourself appropriately.

Trekking poles

But I go one better to protect my knee cartilage:

You will run into hikers (just don't run over them as they hobble along) who scoff at using poles.

  • Usually, those hikers have fairly young cartilage and tend to be lean.
  • Or they're old school hikers who can't wrap their minds around a new trick.

But time has a way of erasing everyone's cartilage eventually.

Why take a pounding on your precious joints when you don't have to?

Test it for yourself

Super simple to gather this data:

  • Rent or borrow a pair of hiking poles and hike downhill for at least half a mile.
  • Turn around and go the other way.
  • How do you feel the next day?

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:

Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock Trekking Poles

One pole or two?

Another area of debate: should you use one pole, or two?

I've used just one pole, 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.

And hiking soreness concentrates in that shoulder.

Thus, I believe in using both poles.

But again, experiment to find what feels best for you.


Inflammation -
friend or foe?

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.

But is it the enemy?

Some hiking inflammation is normal

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?

  • pain (a bit more insistent than soreness)
  • heat
  • redness
  • stiffness 
  • swelling

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.

Heed the message!
What needs to change?

  • Maybe you need to change your boots or try different combinations of socks.
  • Maybe you should remove your boots and socks at your lunch spot, to allow circulation to return to your feet.
  • What about soaking in a cold stream, or soaking your bandanna in it and applying it to your neck or legs? Hydrotherapy is effective for encouraging blood exchange between your core and your limbs.
  • Re-read the pack and hiking poles information above, and experiment with some changes in fit, pole length and technique.
  • Maybe you really do need to warm up more with stretches before you tackle steep slopes. Try it!
  • If you don't like the way you feel post-hike, your hiking technique needs to change.
  • Swollen feet or swollen fingers after a hike can be a normal amount of inflammation, or maybe not.
  • Listen to your sore toes and make some chances.

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 your body gives you about hiking soreness after a hike.

Gnarled weathered tree stump on a mountain ridge overlooking a mountain riverYou don't want a hard, brittle, battered body like this tree stump, do you?


Best tips for dealing with
hiking soreness

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).

Uh, really?

Depending on your familiarity with massage, I'm expecting one of two reactions:

  • A loud groan ("Isn't that vaguely inappropriate?")

 -or-

  • An enthusiastic nod of agreement followed by "But I don't have time for that".

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!

As a licensed medical massage therapist and naprapath, I've seen the quick glances exchanged between people when they hear "massage" mentioned.

  • So for the record, I'm talking about Swedish massage and sports massage with a trained therapist, OK?
  • Not the red light district kind of stuff.

Self massage for hiking soreness
begins with kindness to your feet

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 specifically for hikers).

  • Examine the skin and nails, looking for blistered hot spots, long or torn nails, broken skin, calluses, fungal infections --- rule those out as sources of hiking soreness.

Now, sitting comfortably, cup one foot between your two clean hands and probe gently for sore spots.

  • Let your intuition guide how much pressure to use, and how long to work on each sore spot.
  • Try little circles with your fingertips, alternating with broad strokes with the palms of your hands.
  • If your skin is dry, use a high quality olive or almond oil to make your work easier.

Self massage is highly effective therapy for foot soreness, because you can give yourself immediate feed back on where and how much it hurts.

Ways to enhance your foot massage

If you have access to warm water, soak your feet before and after the massage.

  • Extra points for aromatherapy such as lavender or rosemary essential oils 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.

  • My favorite: Aveda, a minty tingle experience. But avoid this in bear country, due to its strong herbal odor.
  • Aveeno makes nice fragrance free skin products.
Try this one.

A nice long soak in a foot bath any time sounds like a wonderful idea, doesn't it?

Here's what I use to give my feet some love.

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.

  • The link between sore spots on your feet, and trouble spots elsewhere in the body, may be an eye opener for you.
  • At the very least, a trained reflexologist will work out all of the hiking soreness on your feet.

Legs next!

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:

  • Cup the calf or thigh muscle with both hands.
  • Probe gently for the sore spots.
  • Press them gently for as long as feels right.

Your pressure is compressing the tissues, including the lymph channels, and helps clear out any congestion and return it to the heart.

If you find exquisitely painful spots, use one thumb or knuckle to put direct pressure there.

  • Let your pressure "sink in" as you breathe deeply, and don't be surprised as the pain diminishes.

What about upper back and neck?

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.

  • When you find a tender spot, put a bit of pressure on it with one finger.
  • Let your finger "sink in" and keep breathing as you keep applying increasing amounts of pressure, to your own tolerance.

Rub your neck and lower back using all fingers in slow circling motions. Gradually increase the amount of pressure you use until you hit your limit.

Another trick: Lean back or lie down on a bumpy surface and use your force to press against the sore spots.

  • Use old tennis balls or dog toys at home, or a handy rock on the trail.
  • Really lean in, allowing those muscle fibers to stretch and relax.

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.

Maybe you need a pro!

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.

  • Ask around to locate the best sports massage therapist, and then find out if they have gift certificates.


A few self care remedies
for sore muscles

There are two products you can use at home to encourage your muscle soreness to resolve quickly, or at least a bit faster than if you did nothing.

Exercise recovery, if you will.

They work on two different facets of soreness.

How do I know? Because I'm a medical massage therapist! I've given a lot of sports massage therapy to sore muscles.

Myofascial trigger points
be gone!

Long story short, this "point" is a sore spot where the connective tissue (fascia) surrounding your skeletal muscle tissue has become irritated.

Why?

Because you hiked!

It's not a bad or pathologic event, this hiking soreness just happens when you use your muscles.

A massage therapist hunts for little bumps or nodes of trigger points, and applies pressure to them until they release.

The more pressure, the more pain or discomfort you'd feel.

So why not do it yourself, using a solid foam roller?

  • You know where the sore spots are located.
  • You know how much pressure to begin with, and how much you can tolerate.
  • You will know when the trigger point releases, because the hard little knot is gone and the soreness is diminished or gone.

Here's a great product to use on your sore spots, because it is constructed from solid-core EVA rather than polypropylene.

  • That's important because it won't lose its firmness after a few uses.
  • You want a dense, firm roller in order to apply pressure to your trigger points, but you don't want to replace it frequently.

Another nice feature: you can choose a shorter 18 inch length, or a long 36 inch roller, to fit your usual sore spots: shoulders, lower back, legs, etc.

The roller is accompanied with an on line instructional video, so you'll figure out exactly how to use it in no time at all.

Musculoskeletal pain relief, literally at your own fingertips.

Lactic acid & soreness
as you hike

When you cook a great meal in your kitchen, you have to take out the by products and garbage, right?

Same thing after a long hike with your muscles: they generate by products and garbage that need to be cleared out of your body.

Lactic acid build up (lactic acidosis) is the culprit for your muscle soreness or cramping as you're hiking.

  • If you experience these unpleasant symptoms, take a water break and rest until you feel better.
  • You might also feel nauseated and weak.

Take this as a sign that you're pushing your body harder than it has been conditioned to hike. You'll need to work up to strenuous hikes over time.

Or it could be a side effect of medication you're taking.

  • Talk with your health care provider ASAP.

Delayed onset muscle soreness
(DOMS)

Contrary to popular belief, it's not lactic acid build up which is responsible for hiking soreness the next day (or week).

  • It's the micro-tears and small injuries in your muscle fibers and connective tissue, and they need some time to heal.

You can relieve some of this soreness by using a muscle roller stick.

It's just like it sounds: a rigid therapeutic roller to apply pressure on your sore spots.

  • Think of it as a rolling pin you apply to your hiking soreness.

Just as with the foam roller, you control the amount of pressure and you can direct it to exactly where it needs to be applied.

It's a different way to approach myofascial trigger points, and it can increase circulation to a sore area.

More blood flow is a good thing, because it delivers building blocks for healing to your muscles and connective tissue.

And it also helps "take out the garbage".

Have a look at this stick.

  • It's long enough to get the job done (18 inches) without being unwieldy.
  • And the hand grips give you a lot of control over the pressure you're applying.

More self care tips
for hiking soreness

Never let it be said that Hiking For Her didn't go that extra mile for you! (small trail joke)

Sore muscles from hiking? Use these self care tips from Hiking For Her to get back on the trail fast. #hiking #backpacking #soremuscles


Hiking soreness:
you can make it
a thing of the past

As you can see, it's going to take some dedication to your own well being to bail yourself out of the pain of hiking soreness.

There are no easy fixes for muscle soreness, but the ones I suggested (and use myself) will keep you gliding along the trail without an excess of hiking soreness.

The good news? As you condition yourself and apply these tips, your muscles will stop feeling so sore for days after a hike!

  • But you will still probably experience trigger points.
  • That's why a foam roller or muscle roller stick is a handy thing to have in your gear locker.

What are you waiting for?

Go conquer your hiking soreness.

Oh, maybe you need more self care tips?

Here they are!


Home page > Best Hiking Tips >

Hiking Soreness


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