11 Tips for Hiking and Trail Running Injury Free

  • Posted July 13, 2022

By Ascent Physio Natasha Lohues

Whether it’s hiking or trail running, there are a few things you should keep in mind before you hit the trails this summer to make sure you are able to decrease your risk of getting injured. We want to maximize your adventures during the short Alberta outdoor season!

When hiking and trail running, the majority of injuries occur in the lower leg (knee down to foot), but low back injuries, hip pain, and the occasional upper body injury from slip or fall can also occur. There are a few different strategies you can look into to try to minimize your risk of injury this season!

Training Related Tips For Hiking and Trail Running:

First things first: you might be tempted to step out the door and go straight for a 10km run as soon as there is sunshine and 20°C weather. But that may not be the best option for your training! One of the biggest risk factors for getting injured on the trail is fatigue. When your body is tired you start changing your muscle activation pattern and lengthening your stride, putting increasing stress on the skeletal system. You are also more at risk for balance errors and slower to react to environmental obstacles (aka the infamous tree root on the downhill). It’s important to pace yourself and build up capacity. Below are a few tips to keep in mind.

  1. Run/Walk, add mileage slowly: When hiking or running, keeping your end goals in mind and start small by gradually getting your body used to the end goal and building up endurance along the way. If you are new to running or if it has been a long time since you last laced up your running shoes, consider starting with run/walk intervals to gradually build endurance and use the 10-15% rule- to gradually increase mileage.
  2. Easy terrain: Start with easy terrain and avoid steep downhill running at the beginning of your training as this has the greatest demands on your body! Slowly add in downhill over a matter of weeks (or months!) as you build endurance. Hiking poles have been shown to reduce the peak loads on your bones and joints during downhill walking, so using poles- especially if downhill hiking has bothered your hips or knees before, may be a good investment!
  3. Rest days: For frequency: 3-4x/week is a good target for runners (this can vary depending on competition level). At least one rest day, and cross-training 1-2x/week can be extremely important for preventing chronic injury. For weekend hikers, consider adding in longer week-day walks on varied terrain or increasing cross-training during the week.
  4. Faster cadence: When running, an elevated step rate has been shown to decrease the load on your bones and joints as you run.  Aim to increase cadence to 10% higher than typical (~ 170-190bpm as a rough target zone). You can multiply your current cadence by 1.05 to safely increase.

Pictured above is our physio Natasha on a few recent hikes.

Tips for Cross-Training:

In order to keep you feeling your best on the trail adding in cross-training can be extremely important to improve strength, stability, mobility and endurance while decreasing the risk of injury!

  1. Dynamic warmup: If you are a trail runner or hiker getting ready for a steep incline, a dynamic warm-up can be really helpful to prepare your body for the quick reaction time needed to avoid obstacles on the trail. An example of a warm-up includes: A-skips, hip circles (in and out), walking lunges with trunk rotation, hip swings (side to side and front to back), and inch-worm walkouts. Aimi for 10 reps of each exercise for each side.
  2. Improve balance: Foot and ankle strengthening can be critical to help improve the stability and proprioception of your foot which means you might be less likely to land awkwardly and roll an ankle! For improving balance, start with balancing on one foot- if 60 sec feels easy, work on an unstable surface like a folded yoga mat or a pillow (bonus points if you have access to a wobble board or bosu). To strengthen: try towel curls , single leg heel raises, and arch “shortening” exercises (holding for 5 seconds). Aim for a number of repetitions that feels challenging, and repeat for 3 sets. You can take a break in between each set. Try to complete 2-3x/week if possible.
  3. Strengthen kinetic chain: Improving the strength and coordination of the whole kinetic chain from the foot to the trunk can make a big difference in stability and efficiency during the gait cycle. And it may play a bigger role in preventing some of the chronic hip,  knee, foot and ankle pain that can happen with trail running or hiking. Adding in deep squats (single leg squats if you are able!), lunges with rotation, side planks, and single leg bridges can be a great way to ease into strength training. 
  4. Add plyometrics: More specifically for runners, plyometrics (fast, explosive movements) can be really helpful to improve coordination, reaction time, and landing stability to reduce risk of injury. Try adding plyometrics 2-3x/week such as scissor jumps, tuck jumps, single leg hopping, or skater jumps.

Aim for a number of repetitions that feels challenging, and repeat for 3 sets, taking a break in between each one. Try to complete 2-3x/week if possible.

Tips When Considering Footwear:

We totally get it. You JUST bought your new pair of hiking boots or running shoes and you are dying to take them on your next weekend adventure! Breaking in new shoes is no easy feat however (pun intended) and there are a few strategies you may want to try to avoid blisters or foot/ankle injuries with your shoes!

1. Break in new shoes: To break in a pair of new shoes- consider wearing them around the house with your regular insoles or socks you would normally wear. Next, try wearing them outside the house for a day of errands. If you notice any pinching or hotspots it is a good time to try out different lacing techniques that may alleviate the issue. Finally take them out for a few short hikes or small runs and see how they feel. If you have no issues, feel free to slowly ramp things back up to your normal level of activity. If your goal is a multi-day trek with a 50lb pack or a 25km trail run- this process will take quite a bit of time so plan accordingly!
2. Get fitted: In terms of which shoe is the best fit for you, it can be helpful to talk to some experts to get the correct fit. It’s really important to have the right fit and the right type of shoe for your activities on the trails. Ankle sprains are the most common acute injury and the right type of shoe can be helpful in preventing them. Shoes that are too big/ to small or put your foot into a position that isn’t right for you can also contribute to over-use injuries considering the amount of steps you are putting in on the trails.
3. Use appropriate footwear for activity: Hiking boots have increased ankle support and deep-tread for rugged terrain, but the type of boot and fit is important. Trail runners are more lightweight, but still a deeper tread compared to a running shoes built for pavement. Both may be a good option depending on your goals, but personal preference, comfort, and previous injury history may all play a role in your choice!

Want more tips or personalized programs to build your injury resilience? You can book in for a 1:1 initial assessment

Vincent, H. K., Brownstein, M., & Vincent, K. R. (2022). Injury prevention, safe training techniques, rehabilitation, and return to sport in trail runners. Arthroscopy, sports medicine, and rehabilitation, 4(1), e151-e162.
Warden, S. J., Davis, I. S., & Fredericson, M. (2014). Management and prevention of bone stress injuries in long-distance runners. Journal of orthopaedic & sports physical therapy, 44(10), 749-765.
Huang, Y., Xia, H., Chen, G., Cheng, S., Cheung, R. T., & Shull, P. B. (2019). Foot strike pattern, step rate, and trunk posture combined gait modifications to reduce impact loading during running. Journal of biomechanics, 86, 102-109.
Bohne, M., & Abendroth-Smith, J. (2007). Effects of hiking downhill using trekking poles while carrying external loads. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 39(1), 177-183.

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