How to Reduce Knee Pain On and Off the Trail
Unfortunately, I’ve dealt with my fair share of knee problems as it pertains to hiking. Everything from pain when hiking downhill that left me sore the next day to the type of pain that left me basically in tears wondering when I’d get back to the car. To a full-blown more severe knee injury that required endless physical therapy and stopped me from hiking for over a year.
I know that most hikers can relate here.
Through what seemed like an endless journey with my knees, with one problem after another, I’ve learned a great deal about how to prevent knee pain and knee injuries. This is what I’m going to share with you in this blog post.
At this point, I’m actually grateful for my injury…
Who would have ever thought you’d hear that one, right?! Grateful for an injury???
But I am because it was the kick in the butt I needed.
I originally thought I would have to spend the rest of eternity dealing with pain management once I got on the trail, and this is just how it’s going to be. But turns out there’s a better way.
Yes, pain management once you get out there is still important, and we’re going to talk about how to manage knee pain on the trail in this blog post. But through my healing journey, I learned where I went wrong and what I could have done better that would have prevented that injury, and what can be done to prevent knee pain while hiking as a whole.
Common Hiking Knee Pain Prevention Mistakes
A common mistake I see people making and I was very guilty of this one as well, is relying entirely on gear. For example, relying on things like knee braces to prevent pain.
The mistake is that the body needs to be in a position to care for itself. Your gear is only going to get you so far. Plus, what happens if you one day decide to go on a short hike, which ends up much harder, and forget your brace? Or you lose a hiking pole? Now that’s not to say these things don’t help, and we’re going to chat more about that further in this post, but you need to really make a note here that the body needs to be in a position to care for itself.
How to Prevent Knee Pain for Hikers
Now following on that last point, the single most important way at preventing knee pain is to strength train! Most hikers will usually roll their eyes right around here because most hikers hate exercising outside of hiking or hate going to the gym or think strength training is not important.
But let’s look at it this way, you’re not going to the gym just for the sake of going to the gym, you’re training so you can be a stronger hiker, handle bigger and tougher terrain, and all without hurting yourself.
Most hikers think that all they need to do to train for hiking is to just hike more. Hiking more is great but walking and hiking aren’t strengthening your body the right way that is going to prevent knee pain. I mean if it would, wouldn’t your knees have stopped hurting by now?
I learned this one the hard way. I didn’t train correctly and didn’t focus enough on strength training which then led to my body not being able to handle the difficulty of the trail I was doing. Even though I was hiking challenging trails every weekend prior, and I ended up injuring my knee.
Strength Training for Hiking
Now that we’ve covered why you need to focus on strength training, let’s address a couple of things for you to consider.
For hiking and backpacking, yes you want to be working out your full body, but you mainly need to be focusing on strengthening your legs, glute (your butt), calves, and core. Because when your legs are strong, they’re able to handle the force and impact of hiking rather than your knees taking a beating.
Also, if you have constant knee pain, take a look and see if you have weak ankles or hips, or maybe both. Usually, knee pain, especially if you haven’t had a contact injury (like falling on your knee or tearing your ACL), is caused by either weak ankles or weak hips.
If you have a desk job and sit all day, chances are your hips are weak. This was my problem and because I didn’t address it, it manifested in a knee injury. So, while you’re doing strength training, you want to make sure you pay special attention to your hips and glutes.
Exercises like single leg glute bridges, lateral walks with a band, hamstring rolls on a ball, donkey kicks, fire hydrants, all target that area and will help you get stronger.
If ankles are your weak spot, strengthen your calves with exercises like calf raises, bent leg calf raises, and single leg calf raises.
For more on how to train for hiking, you can read through this blog post.
Balance Training for Hiking
Since we’re not hiking on paved and even trails, you also need to work on balance training. If you train your body to handle the stresses of hiking in a controlled setting like at the gym or at home, you’re going to be so much more prepared for hiking when you get out there.
By balance training, those are going to exercises like Romanian deadlifts (RDL) or otherwise known as single deadlifts, single leg glute bridge on a ball, or single leg shoulder press.
Balance training does fall under strength training, and some of the exercises will overlap, but you don’t only want to focus on balance exercises because then you’re not going to be optimizing your strength training to the fullest. With balance exercises you’re going to be mainly focusing on not falling over.
Stretching for Hiking
You also need to be making sure you’re setting at least 10 to 15 minutes per day aside to stretch. This is going to amazing things at preventing injuries. Because if you have tight areas, you’re not able to move freely, you develop poor movement habits which then turn into problems.
How to Manage Knee Pain While Hiking
Now that we’ve covered what you need to be doing at home and off the trail in order to prevent knee pain while hiking, let’s talk about some knee pain management strategies you can do on the trail whether you’re day hiking or backpacking.
Trekking poles give you four points of contact with the ground and help reduce some of the pressure off of your feet and knees. They’re also extremely helpful for water crossings! They also help with circulation and keep your hands from swelling by keeping your arms closer to the level of your heart as you hike.
KT tape works to support your muscles and joints without restriction the range of motion the way a brace does. When applied correctly, the elasticity in KT tape gently lifts your skin from the tissue below. This allows more space for blood flow and lymphatic flow which helps reduce pressure on the area and swelling. Here’s how to apply KT tape for your knees.
Turmeric and Anti-Inflammatory Supplements
Turmeric, famous for its use in South Asian dishes, also has a number of health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties that reduce swelling. By taking turmeric constantly for weeks before hiking and while on the trail if you’re backpacking, it will help reduce the swelling caused by the pressure you’re putting on your body and ultimately help reduce your knee pain.
At home, I have a juicer and regularly juice fruit and veggies, so I add turmeric to my juices. But on the trail, I bring it in pill form. Doctors recommend getting 1,000 milligrams per day. Combine it with food like black pepper which contains piperine, which helps the turmeric properties be absorbed into your bloodstream instead of just staying in your gut. I use the Garden of Life Turmeric tablets.
OMEGA-3 AND JOINT LUBRICATING SUPPLEMENTS
Taking one to three grams of Omega-3 supplements recommended for reducing joint pain. The fatty acids in this amount can help increase blood flow throughout the body during exercise which reduced joint pain and swelling. These healthy fats also play a role in restoring healthy join tissue and act as joint lubrication to reduce friction. Also, Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in fish oil, help reduce inflammation in your joint. I take omega-3 supplements on and off the trail in a pill form consistently throughout the year. I take Dr Tobias Omega 3 Fish Oil.
Collagen is the most abundant protein found in our bodies. It’s also a major component of connective tissue, including tendons, ligaments, skin, bones, and muscles. Ligaments and tendons are the connective tissue that holds two bones and muscles together.
As we get older, the amount of collagen our bodies naturally produce decreases. As collagen production decreases, our tendons and ligaments start feeling stiff and swollen. Ingesting collagen is like greasing a creaky door hinge. It stimulates cartilage growth and comforts and supports weak joints to reduce wear and tear. Studies have shown that collagen is even an effective treatment for osteoarthritis. I take collagen as a protein powder and I mix it in with almond milk, in smoothies, in pancakes, with oatmeal, etc. These are the ones I use: Ancient Nutrition Multi Collagen Protein Powder
Seek Medical Help
If you’re really struggling with knee pain and nothing is working for you, go see a doctor. You might have a small tear that you don’t even know is there. If it’s something big like your ACL, you won’t be able to walk, but there is so much going on in our knees that it might be something small that allows you to keep walking but causes pain when you put too much pressure on it through hiking. The only way to figure that out is to see an orthopedic specialist, ideally one that specializes in sports medicine.