In this article Summit Strength coach Andrea shares her personal journey with knee pain. Inside she explores how it has affected her life, her hiking and how she has overcome it.
Reducing Knee Pain While Hiking
Back in the early 80s, when Olivia Newton-John was telling us to "Let's Get Physical", and Jane Fonda espoused sayings such as "Feel the Burn" and "No Pain, No Gain", a whole heap of us listened and took up activities we'd never done before.
And, due to a lack of information/lack of access to information/information that was current at the time but these days we'd shudder at, we'd launch ourselves into these new activities with wild abandon! High impact activities with little regard for a proper warm-up, correct footwear, rest/recovery etc
Such was my story.
Around this time, I was jumping around my parents' loungeroom to the disco beats, moving freely and feeling as fit and happy as you do in your 20s.
I had a boyfriend at this time who used to run the Sun Super Run every year with his footy mates. I decided to give it a go.
16kms from the Melbourne CBD, up over the Westgate Bridge, around suburban streets to finally finish at Flemington Racecourse.
I thought I should 'train' as I'd never done running before. So, like a bull at a gate, I hit that hard concrete every morning before work in my less- than-supportive runners and without warming up. I went from Zero to Hero in a few short months and completed that run without stopping.
I was chuffed!
But I did notice a bit of pain in my right knee. And chose to ignore it.
Over the ensuing years, I've partaken in other sports that put a strain on the knees; basketball and indoor cricket, most notably. And more running on and off whenever I decided to enter a fun run to keep things interesting.
I joined the emergency services, and part of our physical training was a ridiculous amount of running on a hard surface in the beloved Academy-issued Dunlop KT26s, which provided zero support for such intensity. More pounding of the knees.
*The classic Dunlop KT26 - not too much support in those!
All those years of high impact activity took their toll.
You don't notice it so much until you get older. But there was always a slight niggle in my right knee. As the years passed and I started doing more walking than running, I really started to feel the knee pain. I never really did anything about it; I just learned to live with it.
Fast forward to around four years ago when I started hiking.
I hadn't done any training for hiking. I just hiked. I stuck mainly to fairly flat trails. I knew that if I went up a hill, I'd likely have to come down it again. The thought of that filled me with dread.
By now, my right knee was really painful on descents.
In fact, just stepping down two steps from my front porch was painful.
But still, I didn't do anything about it.
Again, I just assumed that this would be my lot in life and something I'd have to accept as my reality.
Early 2020, I happened across Summit Strength on a Facebook post. I saw that they had a 5-Day Hikers Knee Challenge, and I decided to give it a go. What did I have to lose? So I signed up.
And whilst I'd love to be able to tell you that my knee pain was gone in 5 days, that didn't happen.
But what did happen was I learned things about the strength exercises that I could do that would put me on a path towards pain-free hiking.
The 5 Day Challenge piqued my interest because this was all new to me.
Strength training for hiking?
I was willing to see if that helped.
I started training with Summit Strength, on their Hiker's Knee Prevention Program with a focus on ultimately being able to go downhill without pain.
The workouts were interesting in that they were different to any general 'cookie cutter' gym program I'd done before. They were hiking specific, and they were incredibly effective. And I didn't need to bust a gut to do them. I was training smarter, not harder, and the results started to show somewhere around the 6-week mark.
This is a little segment of one of my first strength workouts I was doing. As you can see, a little bit different than what I saw most people doing in the gym!
I continued with my training program and found my knee pain mostly gone.
I recall I'd been on a hike and came down a really steep hill. I got to the bottom and realised a few minutes later that I hadn't had any knee pain! Well, this was something new!
Sure, I have moments where it might twinge a little if I'm not careful or don't use my poles, but the improvement has been nothing short of amazing!
And as much as it seems like magic, it really just came down to having a coach who knows hikers and what hikers need to get them strong for the trails. To train the body to support the joints to ease the load from those joints.
If I hadn't happened across that Facebook post early last year, I have no doubt that I'd still be struggling downhills and hobbling around due to knee pain at the end of every hike.
In February this year, I climbed Mt Ossa, Tasmania's highest peak.
I did this with a fantastic group of women. It was a tough climb but standing there and looking at what we'd have to contend with on the descent was something that caused me great concern. Huge boulders, loose rocks and steep gradient.
I knew I'd done the work, but this would be a real test.
If my knee hurt, I'd be hobbling for the remaining four days we had left on the trail. So I was rapt that I was able to come down that mountain with no knee pain at all!
Sure, I was slow. But I did it! Climbing Mt Ossa was an experience that I'll never forget. I would never have even attempted it before I found this training program. A genuinely life-changing moment that happened all because of a chance post I saw on Facebook.
Don't make my mistake and think you have to accept knee pain (or other pain) as something you just have to live with. Don't continue believing that your hikes will always have to be marred by pain. Be proactive and give this a go. You've got nothing to lose but that knee pain.
Rowan is a personal trainer who specialises in training for hiking, trekkers and mountaineers for their bucket list adventures.
Summit Strength is a personal training for hiking service created specifically to help hikers have the best chance of a safe, enjoyable and successful adventure.