Hiking: We “Summit” up for you

Don’t let pain stop you from reaching new heights this summer

In this blog, learn about injuries you could sustain from hiking, ways to prevent them, exercises to do before you hit the trails, and find some great resources for the best hiking spots!

After months of shoveling snow and a few weeks of treading through the mud (especially recently), the time for being outdoors in Maine is coming into its peak. “Ahhh finally,” you exclaim after taking a deep breath, no longer trapped in the stale air of indoors because of bad weather! Along with warmer weather ultimately comes the drive to be outside, and if you’re anything like me, it also entails finding trails and mountains to explore in this great open state. Hiking can carry some risk of injury when out and about with a myriad of uneven terrain, roots, holes, and other obstacles; as well as the possibility of your body being sore or irritated from an increase in activity from the sleepy winters. Don’t let that scare you away though, and be sure to take the trails head on with the advice later on in this blog segment!

Injuries out in the wilderness can come in all shapes and sizes, affecting all sorts of body parts and regions, yet it is most useful to classify them into two main categories with a bonus third category (in my humble opinion): Overuse injuries, traumatic injuries, and insufficiency injuries of the muscle or bone. While there is some overlap in many cases, it helps guide our thinking and our approach to preventing these types of problems, keeping you on the trails rather than on the sidelines.

Finley at Blue Mountain, NY Adirondacks

Just to name a few, hiking injuries can include hamstring strains, calf muscle strains, tendonitis of the knee and ankle, bursitis of the hip/knee/ankle, ankle sprains, low back pain, foot and ankle pain, wrist injuries while falling, stress fractures of the foot, ankle, leg, and hip, and in some unfortunate cases: good old broken bones. BUT these are not certain outcomes and in fact happen much fewer and far between than you might think. The reward of outdoor activity far outweighs the risks we’ve just highlighted.

When talking about traumatic injuries, we usually think of trips and falls and stumbles we may not plan for. While we cannot see into the future for such occurrences, a good way to avoid such injuries relies on basic trail safety and prior planning. Before you go always make sure to research trail conditions, weather, and the difficulty ratings of you hikes. Bad weather coupled with poor trail conditions can lead to slippery paths that make for unsure footing and a likelihood of ankle sprains and falls. To reduce your risk, properly fastened and well-fitting shoes are the first line of defense and should include well defined treads that help grip in loose earth or inclement weather. Shoes can also include high- and low-profile ankle supports to provide more or less support when trail walking or hiking. If you’ve had a previous ankle injury it may benefit you to research shoes with taller supports to give your ankle the help it needs, as previous ankle sprains can often be the predictor of future sprains. While traumatic injuries can span all sorts of other breaks and bruises, good footwear and stability can be all the difference in avoiding an unexpected accident.

Cliff Walk in Iceland

In comparison, overuse injuries are much more common in the spring and summer months as everyone rushes to get back outside and active. These injuries include bursitis, tendinosis/-itis, achy feet and ankles, and strains of the muscles of the legs in the hips, knees, feet, and ankles alike. Overuse injuries are often caused by large increases in activity over short periods of time and can be quite nagging in discomfort. To avoid injuries that often fall in this classification it is important to gradually increase your level of activity over the course of weeks; rather than days. As tempting as it is to dive right in, our bodies require time to respond to the new stressors we place on them if the winter months have been a little more inactive in comparison. We must find a happy medium of adequate challenge and soreness, without lasting discomfort longer than 2-3 days. Any longer and you may have pushed just a little too hard. This becomes especially important in the first few weeks of getting back into the swing of it all, and less so after months of training.

The last but certainly not least category includes insufficiency injuries of muscle and bone and is found in a higher propensity in the older and younger populations of hikers and active individuals. These injuries include stress fractures, osteoporotic fractures, and tendon insertion disorders including (but not limited to) Sever’s disorder in the younger active population. When it comes down to it, these injuries most often affect those who may lack bone density or are not done growing yet! Harder to simply avoid, these injuries are often prevented by again gradually reintroducing activity, monitoring your bodies response, and continuing to complete weight bearing exercises which are great for increasing bone density in the at-risk older population.

At the end of the day hiking remains my favorite way to get out and be active. It requires little skill and only a good bit of common safety sense. Ultimately, the name of the game is preparation to avoid many of the common problems and injuries we’ve listed above. It will only benefit you to become familiar with the route, your body, and your limits before exploring the great outdoors.

Blue Mountain, NY Summit

Above all, always try to hike together. There is safety in numbers, and having a helping hand in the off chance you do get hurt can make a world of difference. Oh, and check for TICKS! Have fun out there, always keep exploring, and be sure to stop and inhale that cool mountain air around once you’ve made it to the top!

Exercises to do on the trails

Stretching is one of the best ways you can prevent injury on your hikes this summer. Check out these 5 stretches you can do right on the trail!

1. Standing Soleus Stretch:

Starting Position: Begin by standing near a stable surface (like a tree!) Now take a big step back with the affected leg and the unaffected leg stays in front of the other. Make sure you are not standing in tandem for balance. Make sure to keep the back of your knee straight and heel firmly planted on the ground. Movement: While holding on to a stable surface, gently bend both knees and squat downwards, leaning backwards slightly.  Make sure to keep your heel firmly planted on the ground.  Continue until you feel a stretch in your calf.

2. Standing Calf Stretch:

Starting Position: Begin by standing near a stable surface,
(like a tree!) with your feet hip width apart. Now take a big step back with the affected leg and the unaffected leg stays in front of the other. Make sure you are not standing in tandem for balance. Make sure to keep the back of your knee straight and heel firmly planted on the ground. Movement: Lean slightly forward allowing the unaffected knee to bend a little until you feel a stretch in your calf.  Hold as directed.  Repeat as directed.

3. Heel Raise:

Begin by standing in front of a stable surface (like a tree!)  Gently lift both heels of the ground and push up onto your toes keeping your knees straight. When fully lifted, slowly lower your heels back to the ground.  Repeat as directed.

4. Single Leg Stretch:

Lay in supine with the hips and knees in tabletop position and hands resting on shins.  Inhale to prepare and curl the head and chest up off the floor while exhaling, keeping the low back flat.  Alternate extending each leg out while placing the inside hand on the knee of the bent leg and the outside hand on the ankle.  Be sure to exhale while extending each leg and inhale while switching.

5. Piriformis Stretch:

Lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, cross the leg you intend stretch across your other leg keeping your ankle at your knee.  Place both hands behind the thigh of your uncrossed leg and gently pull your knee towards your chest, feeling a stretch in the buttocks of your crossed leg.  Hold as directed.  Repeat as directed.

Best places to hike in Maine and NH

Check out these resources to find the best hiking spots:

Blog and information written and provided by Branden George, PT DPT and Amethyst Hersom. We’d love to see your success on the trail this summer. Send your summit story and/or pictures to amethyst.hersom@mainephysicaltherapy.com and let us know how you got “Back in Motion”!