by Diane Spicer
Hiking soreness and pain: the price you pay, right?
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 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.
Because walking with sore legs is no fun.
This Hiking For Her guide to coping with hiking soreness covers a lot of ground for you.
Each of these links will take you to a specific section of the guide.
How can you minimize the odds of muscle soreness
on your next hike?
And the answer is:
By paying attention to every single factor you can manipulate to avoid that hiking soreness.
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 closer look at this touchy subject of post hike muscle soreness.
Not in the mood for details?
Tips for directly dealing with muscle soreness like achy calves are all yours right here.
But if you're in the mood for diving into the details of short circuiting muscle soreness after a hike, prevention seems a prudent place to begin.
You could also skip over to post hike recovery tips and spend some time soaking up some strategies for what to do when you're sore after a hike.
What's the thing most associated with a hiker?
A backpack, right?
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!!!
Read these tips on the best hiking backpacks instead.
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.
So fiddle around with all of those straps until there's no stress or tension:
Soreness in the same places over and over again after a hike 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 backpack purchase.
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.
After decades of trail time, I firmly believe in stretching.
Muscles need a clue that you are 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:
How about this new daily habit?
All that means is get in touch with where your body wants to stretch, and where it feels tight.
If that seems like a silly waste of time, how much do you really want to leave sore muscles in your past?
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.
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.
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?
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.
My routine, as an example:
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!
Need some companionship and encouragement?
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 to drinnk on a hike is the RIGHT amount.
I've heard people spout "facts" which advocate consuming liters of water a day.
Instead, be realistic.
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 heart will zing with joy.
Your skeletal muscles will perform with less soreness.
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.
Here's the brand of powdered electrolytes I prefer:
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.
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.
Nothing could be more simple: look at the color of your urine.
If you pee small amounts of dark urine which smells strongly, you need more water immediately!
The next time you pee, your urine should be lighter in color and you should produce a lot more.
If not, keep drinking water until it comes back out abundantly!
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.
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.
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.
Knowing your body's limitations and honoring them will keep you out of the land of extreme hiking soreness.
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.
I know to budget in more time for descent.
Know what you're up against, and pace yourself appropriately.
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.
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?
Super simple to gather this data:
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 telescoping pair 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 absorbing poles
Another area of debate: should you use one pole, or both?
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.
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?
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 your body gives you about hiking soreness after a hike.
So much for prevention.
Now let's tackle what to do if you've got major muscle soreness bugging you during a multi-day trip, or even after a day hike, and you have to keep going despite the discomfort.
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.
As a licensed medical massage therapist and naprapath, 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 specifically for hikers).
Now, sitting comfortably, cup one foot between your two clean hands and probe gently for sore spots.
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.
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.
Aveeno makes nice fragrance free skin products.
This one is great for post-hike mosquito bitten sensitive skin, with its natural shea butter and soothing oatmeal ingredients.
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.
This foot bath creates spa conditions in your own bathroom.
Add some soothing Epsom salts and a drop of lavender essential oils, and your feet will feel restored. Not to mention smooth and soft again!
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:
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.
More tips for dealing with sore calves after a hike here
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. 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.
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.
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, including my own.
Long story short, this "point" is a sore spot where the connective tissue (fascia) surrounding your skeletal muscle tissue has become irritated.
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?
Here's a great product to use on your sore spots, because it is constructed from solid-core EVA rather than polypropylene.
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.
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.
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.
Contrary to popular belief, it's not lactic acid build up which is responsible for hiking soreness the next day (or week).
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.
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 muscle roller massage stick.
Never let it be said that Hiking For Her didn't go that extra mile for you! (small trail joke, although it might hurt to laugh)
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!
What are you waiting for?
Go conquer your hiking soreness.
Oh, maybe you need more self care tips?
Make Hiking Soreness Disappear
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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Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer.
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