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5 Tips to Better Hiking

Tree roots create a natural staircase
Tree roots create a natural staircase

I went for my first difficult hike after breaking my ankle in July ’18. And I noticed some interesting things that I might never have known had I not had this injury. I think it’s worth a blog post, because regardless of whether you’ve ever broken or sprained your ankle, many people are deficient in ankle dorsiflexion* and/or weak in the feet and hips and can use these tips to keep hiking safe and satisfying.

*Ankle dorsiflexion is when you bring the top of the foot up towards the front of your leg. It’s the opposite of pointing your foot like a ballerina. This action is required for climbing.

Work on Dorsiflexion to Avoid Tripping

I found that I was stumbling over my toes a lot, primarily because of weak and fatigued muscles down the front of my shin, which are forced to overwork (due to lack of dorsiflexion) to pull the top of my foot up to clear rocks and roots. These are the muscles that dorsiflex your foot, so if you have to work extra hard to bring the top of the foot up all the time, they will get tired and you’ll find yourself stumbling and tripping over your toes. Some people do this even on flat ground. Work on your dorsiflexion to avoid tripping!
ps If your hiking boots have a heel, you will need to work even harder to pick up the front of your boot (because standing level is going downhill in heeled footwear, requiring even more work for those front of leg muscles!). Look for boots with traction but a level toe/heel relationship.

Be a Horse Going Downhill

Lowering the foot that is leading on a downward slope can be tricky. Most people I see lean forward at the hips and rely heavily on the front of thigh muscles (quadriceps), which is hard on the knees. If you misjudge your footing you can find yourself gaining unwanted momentum and start losing control. Whether you are going down stairs or down a hill or down a small slope, try this: let your back leg’s hip shift out in order to lower the leading foot downhill and to the best of your ability, land heel first. Try not to “commit” to the landing (ie putting weight on that leading heel) until you are sure you won’t start sliding. Keep your balance on the back leg and “feel” for a secure foothold until you shift your weight over the downhill foot and then let that hip shift out and repeat, lowering yourself down the hill. This is often compared to a horse going downhill – its hindquarters shift side to side as it lowers itself down to avoid a straight down free fall. Landing heel first and leaning your torso back will help you fall on your back should you lose your balance and slip. You don’t want to fall forward on a hill!

Rocky and uneven, on the side of a hill with a steep slope

Walk, Don’t Fall

The Hip List is an exercise I teach so that people can utilize the lateral hip musculature when walking. If you don’t use these muscles this way (which is the opposite of downhill horse walking by the way), then you are essentially falling as you go forward, no hill required. When I get fatigued on the trail, I find I forget to walk this way and revert to the falling model, because it takes less metabolism (ie it’s a lazier way to walk). However, once you start falling forward, you are reducing the amount of time you have to make a choice where to put the foot that is leading forward. THIS IS HUGE. Once you start putting your foot down at the mercy of your momentum, and not by choice, you are now at the mercy of your environment, potentially leading to trips and possibly falls.
Having strong lateral hip muscles means you can freeze the action for a split second (or longer) and make choices as to where that foot lands.

Look Don’t Leap

Here’s a test for you; can you look all around you while walking on level ground (such as a city sidewalk), and still walk straight? This is a game I play all the time. Can you walk several steps forward while looking right and left and still have control over where your feet are going? What if your feet encounter some debris on the sidewalk, or a crack in the concrete, a sudden hole where there is a tree planted. Are you toast, or is that a non-event? If you can’t do that on the city sidewalk, you are going to miss a whole lot in the forest. Do you need to stop to look at birds or check your surroundings? Mountain climbing goats need to be very sure-footed, but they don’t have to look at their feet – ever!

Unlike the goats and other wild animals who develop in that environment and thus have the skills necessary, our walking is mostly done on prepared surfaces, so when we hit a real trail, we need to suddenly slow way down (fine) and check each footfall, and if there is some reason to look around (check alternate trail choices, look for birds, look for threats such as bears, cougars, other people) we need to stop entirely to do that before we can continue onwards. How sure are you of your foot being able to deal with what is under it at all times, regardless if you are ready-or-not?

Part of this is foot mobility (the ability of the foot to mold over the surface it’s on, preventing a tipping of the whole foot, ankle and possibly a fall), and part of it is balance (those lateral hips again!) and proprioception (the ability to tell where your body parts are in space relative to each other). To develop this, practice looking up and around as you walk, preferably on a level trail unlikely to surprise you at first.

Niagara Escarpment rocky trails

Get Ready for Vitamin Texture

As you can see from the pictures in this post, this trail had some serious Vitamin Texture. This is something human feet, knees, hips, pelves (pl. of pelvis) require for optimal function. We tend to walk on flat surfaces and the only variability we have there is speed (walk faster to make your walk more “nutritious”). This trail, although only 2 kilometres long in this area, took 40 minutes to traverse, and then I turned around and went back. It was hilly, slippery in parts, muddy and rocky, with roots and springs and steep cliffs (staircases were provided in two places). So yes, speed is not the only variable, this walk although very slow, was much more nutritious for my body than a fast walk through the city (and I still got a “cardio” workout!). What doesn’t show up well in the photos was how steep those hills were! My legs were jelly.

It is a good idea when you are home to prepare your feet, ankles, and hips by choosing natural surfaces when you can, and mobilizing your feet starting with a ball and graduating to rocks and rock mats.

To Recap, here are the 5 ways to make your hike safer and more satisfying:

  • Work on Dorsiflexion – Calf Stretch!
  • Be a Horse Going Downhill – shift your hips out to lower the downhill foot
  • Walk Don’t Fall – Hip List!
  • Look Don’t Leap – practice balance, proprioception to look around you while walking to be aware of any sudden surprises (welcome or not!)
  • Get Ready for Vitamin Texture – make your regular life as nutritious as your hiking!

Happy Hiking!