There's nothing better than hiking up a mountain and reaching the summit. A hard day's work that’s completely worth it due to the stunning views on top. You can change out of your sweaty shirt, have a bite to eat, sit down for a bit and just enjoy the majesty that is nature. But what comes up, must come down. You still have to hike down the mountain. This can be quite hard on the knees and there are a lot of hikers who struggle with knee injuries because of it.
I've had some trouble with my right knee recently. After being locked down for some time due to the pandemic, I went to Norway to do some hiking. On arrival I immediately did a longer and more difficult hike up a mountain that resulted in a sore knee when I started to walk downwards. Going downhill usually isn't the most fun for me, but if you also experience pain every few steps, it's even worse.
I took some rest and scoured Google for all kinds of tips to help me avoid this issue in the future. I've had this problem with my knee before, so it was high time to do something about it. After doing some research I've compiled a list of 15 tips that may help you avoid knee injury when walking downhill. I've done several hikes afterwards without any knee problems. I hope this helps you as much as it has helped me.
- Go to a physical therapist!
- Use trekking poles
- Wear the right hiking shoes
- Train your legs and butt
- Train your mobility, flexibility and balance
- Start slowly with smaller hikes
- Wear a hiking knee brace / sleeve
- Don’t pack too much
- Rest before heading down, during the descent and after your hike
- Mind your posture and keep your knees bent slightly
- Zig zag down when possible
- Walk at your own pace
- Hike down focussed, slowly and with small steps
- Going faster may sometimes be better for stability
- Use your hands and butt
1. Go to a physical therapist!
If you already have problems with your knees and regularly have pain walking downhill or after a long hike: please go to a physical therapist. The other tips below may help a bit, but it's always best to visit a professional, who's been studying all the complex mechanisms related to movement.
They can help you find the actual issue with your knee and give you exercises to solve your problem. There could be something wrong with your knee or there could be some kind of imbalance elsewhere, and none of these other tips may actually help you. So go get professional help if you have this issue regularly!
2. Use trekking poles
Trekking poles are a great tool to reduce the strain on your knees. Especially when walking downhill. By using the correct poles you can distribute the force on your legs on your arms and shoulders as well, making it way easier on your knees. It also helps give you more stability, making the trek down more secure.
Especially when you get older it might be a good idea to bring some trekking poles. Just make sure you have poles that are adjustable in length so they fit you. You may have to lengthen them when you go downhill, so do that before you start your descent.
Check out this blog post to learn more about trekking poles.
3. Wear the right hiking shoes
Make sure you have good quality hiking shoes that offer great dampening. The correct hiking shoe can dampen a lot of the force on your knees, making it easier to go downhill. Your old hiking shoes might look great from the outside, but the dampening on the inside may be totally worn out. So it could be a good idea to get a new pair.
When you need hiking shoes it's best to go to an outdoor store near you and ask for help. Tell them you have problems with your knees and they will find the perfect fit for you. Also make sure they are nice and tight, so you don't slide around in your shoes. Ow, and clip your toenails before hiking!
Check out this blog post to learn more about hiking shoes.
4. Train your legs and butt
You can alleviate a lot of force on your knees by training your legs and butt. The muscles can then handle most of the force, sparing your knees from excessive strain. The gluteus maximus (your large butt muscle) and quadriceps (front of the thigh muscles) are used a lot during downhill walking, so be sure to train these with specific exercises. You can for example do Shoulder Bridge Lifts, Lunges and Squats.
The peroneus longus (outer side of calf) and tibialis anterior (front of shin) are also used during your descent, so make sure to exercise these and do some stretching. Walking up and downhill will also train your legs, so hike regularly to train your muscles. Having a period without any hiking and then suddenly doing long treks is a sure way to get injuries.
5. Train your mobility, flexibility and balance
Besides training your muscles for strength it's a good idea to train your general mobility, flexibility and balance. By training this you will feel more confident when you hike up and down mountains, because you will get to know your own body and its limits way better. There are lots of different exercises and special courses that can help you with this.
Flexibility is a muscle’s ability to lengthen passively, or without engagement. When you perform static (holding still) stretches using body weight, limb support, or props, you’re working on muscular flexibility.
Mobility, on the other hand, is related to the joints and their ability to move actively through their full range of motion. Think of lifting your leg in the air to a 90-degree angle and bringing it back down again. That’s active mobility.
I do a simple mobility routine every morning that takes about 5-10 minutes. It has helped me get way more flexible and mobile within a short amount of time. It has also helped with my balance, which has been useful for my hiking. I feel way more at ease higher up the mountain than I did before, because I know my balance is better than it used to be. When I hike down, I also feel more confident standing on one foot knowing that I won't lose my balance easily.
I highly recommend checking out the Calisthenicmovement YouTube Channel, where they have lots of different exercises that are shown clearly. The video below is a perfect way to start training your mobility.
6. Start slowly with smaller hikes
I live in The Netherlands and there aren't any mountains. There are some small hills here and there, but nothing like what you experience during a trek through mountainous terrain. Because of this my body isn't used to climbing and descending a lot. But when I go on a hiking trip I'd like to get up a big beautiful mountain as soon as possible. That's usually not a smart idea. Before you go for that longer hike, it's better to hike up a smaller and easier to traverse mountain. Get those muscles used to hiking up and downhill again. Making your body do too much too fast is a sure way to get injured.
I've had this with my latest trip. After the lockdown I just wanted to climb this one mountain in Norway and didn't do an easier hike before. The reason: it was the last day of great weather according to the weather forecast. It resulted in a lot of muscle ache and pain in my right knee from hiking down. So learn from my mistakes and make sure to ease into hiking. It can be annoying, but it's better to take it slow.
7. Wear a hiking knee brace / sleeve
If your knees feel a bit sore you can wear a good knee brace or sleeve for some extra support. Just make sure it’s a knee brace or sleeve for hiking! And if you don’t have any issues yet, it may be a good idea to bring one with you. Just in case you start feeling the strain on your knee, so you can put it on right away.
I have a knee brace in my backpack when I go hiking. I put it on if I feel my knee is starting to have issues and it seems to help a bit. Going downhill doesn’t feel as straining as without the knee brace.
Choosing the right knee brace can be hard. Here’s a nice blog post recommending some knee braces.
8. Don’t pack too much
Traveling light is way easier on your knees than carrying a heavy backpack. This is pretty straightforward: you have less weight, so your legs need to carry less of a load. Make sure to only pack the essentials and avoid bringing heavy gear if it’s not needed. If you need to bring a lot of gear for a multi-day hike, you can try and opt for the lightweight options.
The same goes for your body weight of course. Being a bit heavier yourself also has a negative effect on your knees. So maybe lay off that cake for now. Unless you’re one of those lucky few who can eat anything and remain slim. ;)
9. Rest before heading down, during the descent and after your hike
Hiking up a mountain can be really difficult and a great exercise for your body. When you're at the top you're probably really tired and you might already have some muscle ache from all the strain you've put your body through. Descending when you're really tired can be very bad, because you probably won't have the focus and strength to balance yourself correctly.
Make sure to rest for a while before heading down. Take an extra 10-15 minutes and enjoy the view some more, but make sure to stay warm of course. During your descent it may be good to take small breaks to give your muscles some rest. And when you're finally down you should take it easy. Maybe take a rest day after a difficult hike to recover a bit. Resting is important!
Also don't try to pack your holiday with too many difficult hikes. Especially if you're not a trained mountain climber. You can overload your muscles and strain your knees by doing way too much hiking. And, again, that's an almost guaranteed way to get injured.
10. Mind your posture and keep your knees bent slightly
Maybe you already do this instinctively, but when going downhill it’s best to keep your knees bent slightly. Especially for the leg that’s about to hit the ground. This way, the muscles take most of the strain instead of your joints. Locking your knees will simply put all force on your joints, which is really bad for them.
You can also move your butt a slight bit towards the ground if the terrain is a bit steeper, so your center of gravity is low and over your legs. This also keeps you a bit more safe, because when you fall, you fall back on your butt instead of forward.
Avoid leaning too far back or front. Try to have a straight posture and keep your center of gravity over your legs. This helps put less stress on your knees and keep you in balance.
11. Zig zag down when possible
You should try to zig zag down as much as possible. This will make the descent less steep, making it easier on your knees. This is especially useful on very steep slopes and loose terrain. This is also called ‘switchbacking’ and is something a lot of hikers do to get down safely. It will also make you feel more secure on your way down and in control of your descent.
A lot of trails use zig zags to make it easier for the hiker to get up and down. Be sure to use this instead of finding a shortcut. Especially on your way down.
12. Walk at your own pace
When hiking with others it’s really tempting to move at their pace. Maybe you have a friend who’s a bit more experienced with hiking and walks faster than you. Or maybe someone passes you on your way up or down and you might want to go a bit faster because you feel you’re going too slow. Please: Don’t! Move at your own pace, so you’re 100% in control and at ease. Moving at someone else’s pace will make it more strenuous on your body and will feel less natural for you. You can also lose your focus, which is something you really need when hiking.
Especially when you regularly have pain in your knee from hiking it’s best to talk with your friends about this and ask them to slow it down a bit. They’ll probably be very understanding and will have no issues with taking it a bit easier. And if not: don’t force yourself to do something that doesn’t feel right for you. Go at your own pace.
13. Hike down focussed, slowly and with small steps
Hiking down needs focus. It’s usually best to do it slowly and methodically. Place down your feet softly as if you’re as light as a feather. Don’t just clomp down your feet wherever. Be mindful with every step you take and know where you’re placing your foot. Regularly look ahead to see what’s coming, so you’re not suddenly surprised with a steep descent.
Try to move down slowly and take smaller steps. This will help to keep your centre of gravity over your legs, giving you greater balance and control. It will also make the impact on each step a lot less strenuous, saving your knees in the long run. This technique is especially useful when you’re on a very steep slope or on loose terrain.
Hiking down can be very meditating if you use this method. You’ll be right in the moment, focussed on each tiny little movement. Eventually moving down will become second nature to you and you won’t need to focus as much as before.
14. Going faster may sometimes be better for stability
This is a tip I’ve found that may not apply to all cases of going downhill. When the descent isn’t too steep and the path is good, it may be better to go a bit faster rather than moving down slowly. Your balance system will switch into automatic gear if you go a bit faster and if you hit something loose, you’re already off the ground and onto the next spot. So there may be less chance of slipping. This is a parkour technique and of course needs to be practiced. So don’t try this out for the first time at a very steep spot, because we don’t want you falling down a mountain!
Going down slowly may still be better for most people, but going down a bit faster will kick in your instinctual balance, which may result in less slipping and strain on your knees. Although, if you hop down big distances it may be too much for your knees. Especially if your legs aren’t trained for it and you don’t use the proper technique. So be careful!
I like to go a bit faster on the not-so-steep parts. I take fast steps and touch the ground as soft as possible. This can feel really good: as if you’re flying.
15. Use your hands and butt
Sometimes you can use the terrain to take some stress off of your joints. For example, if there’s a nice and sturdy tree you can hold onto when placing your foot down, it might be a good idea to do this. Use your hands to your advantage! Especially if you don’t use trekking poles, it’s smart to hold onto trees, rocks or the ground itself to keep yourself balanced and to spread out the force over your arms and shoulders.
When you’re on very steep terrain and you don’t feel 100% secure, you can just move your butt to the ground and put down your legs to get lower. Your pants may get a bit dirty, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. There have been descents where my girlfriend and I moved like a crab (butt to the ground and using your hands and feet) to get down, because we thought it was a bit scary. It may look silly, but it works.
That's it for our top 15 tips to help reduce knee injury during your descent. I hope it helps you out and teaches you some valuable tricks. Do you have any experience with knee injury due to walking downhill? Maybe got some other great tips? Feel free to leave a comment below.
Enjoy your next hike! Hopefully without any pain in your knees. ;)