FF8: Preparing for Steep Hiking (Summer 2011)

Arriving Ready To Go
    “Walking the Inca Trail” was on the lips of other hikers when we were in the Italian Dolomites in 2011 and we compared their experiences with our own in the Alps. Almost all traveling outdoor enthusiasts have the same problem: how do you prepare for the predominant terrain of your next adventure when there is nothing like it at home? The contrast with home is often what draws travelers to far-off places to begin with, and yet it is hard to arrive in proper condition, especially for steep trails, on any continent.

The roads & the trails are steep in the Dolomites.

  Our young, experienced marathoner friend commented upon how well his passion for running had prepared him for walking the Inca Trail, except for the punishing descents. Predictably, his quads and knees were painfully sore the day after a 2300’ descent. And when in the Dolomites in the summer of 2011, an older Floridian complained of his aching calves. He trained for hiking in the Dolomites and on the Inca Trail using the inclined mode on a treadmill. The treadmill gave him the needed cardio-vascular (CV) conditioning for both events but didn’t spare his legs from the pain of being in the steep mountain trails.

Stairs Are Your Friend

    In addition to boosting your CV fitness for your next steep trail adventure, we recommend working out on stairs to specifically condition your legs and core for the exceptional terrain.  Stairs are the best, most readily available training tool we’ve been able to identify for steep hiking. And for years I’ve been a fan of 2-at-a-time stair workouts, both going up and down.

    Be especially careful when going down 2 stairs at a time: hang on to the hand rail and don’t do too many flights the first few times. Using the hand rail will keep you from landing on your face while you recalibrate your balance and introducing the activity gradually will give your knees time to adapt. I have very vulnerable knees but have found judicious use of  going down stairs 2-at-a-time to be excellent for my knee stability.

    Introduce stair work by going up then down a few flights, mixing in both single and double stair stepping. By having short sessions up and then down, you’ll minimize the initial repetitive strain on your body. Once you’ve adapted to the new routine, increase the number of flights up before turning around to increase your endurance for the challenges of sustained ascending and descending.

Ah...making it to the top without stiffness the next day.

    Working out in a stair well is a good time to study your body for side to side imbalances that could lead to injuries. Entertain your mind by scrutinizing how each foot lands on the steps; studying how similar the angles of the knees are when you land and push off; noticing if your hips feel fluid and balanced; and monitoring your success with maintaining an upright torso when going in either direction. These details are harder to note and correct with the irregularities of trail conditions.

    I don’t know the answer to “How much is enough?” because for me it is more of a matter of “How much can I bear to do?” I do know that on a favorite steep trail that has many rustic steps, we can reach 2000’ elevation gain in about 40-45 minutes when pushing to our sustainable CV limit. If I were trying to be in tip-top steep hiking condition, I’d strive to get as close to matching this level of effort walking up stairs as possible. Finding the stairwell and having the discipline to do so are other matters.

    On the way to your next big hiking event, consider doing laps on the back stairwell of your hotels to maintain your conditioning--but only if you’ve proven yourself as being durable for this harsh activity before you travel. We can tolerate the monotony of going up and down stairs for 30 minutes, alternating laps with single and double stair-stepping.  Interspersing jogging days with stairwell workouts keeps our legs and CV systems tuned up while en route while reducing the risk of repetitive strain injuries from either activity.

Those Dangerous Squats

    I’m a great believer in doing squats on a daily basis, despite having been advised by a physician to “never do squats” because of my knee challenges.  She was right--squats can be bad for the knees--but life is full of the need to squat so I believe it’s better to train well for them than do them poorly out of necessity now and then. And really steep trails have one repeatedly powering from a one-legged squat position.

   The secret to squatting safely for most people is to be pristine about making the kneecaps track straight over the feet as you both go up and down. Just about everybody thinks their knees are tracking correctly and almost nobody’s are unless they’ve trained themselves to do it. For a reality check, have someone with a good eye for body alignment scrutinize your knee tracking when you squat and discipline yourself to do every squat perfectly. Working them in front of a mirror helps but there is no substitute for the watchful eye of another.
    I do 20-25 slow squats every morning as a counter to the limited range of motion of cycling and because I think it is the prudent thing to do for the rest of my life. Adding more sets would be smart as preparation for steep hiking. And once one is well adapted to repeated squatting, adding weights to increase the load--like working up to the weight of your backpack--would be even better preparation for the trails. Once you are well-practiced with doing squats, cautiously introduce 1-legged ones. Folding the resting leg under your buttocks and using a hand on a wall for balance makes them easier. I only do a half dozen one-legged squats on each leg and only do them a few times a week.

Above: correct knee alignment when squatting; Below: incorrect (ouch!).

Interval Training for Ascending

    If you are well-disciplined at hiking at a slow, steady pace, consider picking up your speed when you train for your next steep hiking event. We’ve watched many a hiker plod along with a rigid torso and still arms like they are making the final assault on Mt Everest and it appears that they are wasting power with each overly deliberate step. We find that picking up the tempo and swinging the arms like when walking normally helps us capture more of the forward momentum, presumably capturing more power and making us more efficient. Avoid swinging your feet to the side or rocking side to side to optimize the results of your effort.

    On a short training hike, try pushing yourself to go as fast as you can for as long as you can, then stop to rest for a few minutes. Once you’ve recovered, charge off again, as is done with interval training. We’ve challenged ourselves to do this unstructured interval training and now can blast up steep trails at our maximum sustainable level of effort and only stop for a couple of minute rest after an hour of speeding along. Pushing ourselves well beyond our comfort has totally transformed our hiking because it’s increased our level of fitness which has increased our range and decreased our sense of fatigue.

    Picking up your hiking speed also demands that you get snappier with your feet.  But we have found that even with our aging brains that the eye-brain-foot link can be prodded into greater efficiency. “Trust your feet and go for it” has been our strategy and the feet have delivered. Lighter footwear does aid the feet in learning to dance instead of clomp on steep rocky trails.

The Benefits of Forefoot Striking on Descents

    Pushing to one’s limits on the uphill is hard, but I’ve always been slower on the steep descents than the ascents and found them more demanding on my body, until September of 2011.  Much to my delight, one day during the last week of our summer in the mountains, a bit of magic came my way: I was suddenly able to descend with speed and ease.

    Two years prior I’d been mesmerized by the sight of a 30-something male trail runner dancing down the rocky slopes with grace and ease while we and others cautiously picked our way down the perilous, rolling rock faces with a heavy reliance on a walking stick. “I want what he’s got” was burnished in my brain. I didn’t need to be a competitive athlete and run with his pack, I only wanted his ease and confidence. From that moment I was on a mission to discover what he knew that I didn’t know.

    It was a slow, circuitous journey but forefoot striking in minimalist footwear was the key to the transformation for me. Two years later in July of 2011 I could tell that the changes in my footwear and foot-strike were allowing something new to happen in my legs; I could tell that the ratchet-like movement in my knees was starting to improve. That nasty pattern of “place the foot then pause to determine what the knee will do” was starting to shift, as was the pattern of skidding on the rocks rolling under my shoes. Over the ensuing weeks I could feel the slightest improvements in the fluidity of my movement and my purchase on the trail. Unexpectedly, one day in September we headed down a familiar steep trail and Bam! my problems were solved.

    No more ratchety movement; no more hesitation with every step. Suddenly I was flying down the wickedly steep trail that I’d fearfully picked my way down a dozen times over the last several years. Bill always politely paused and waited every couple of minutes while I pushed myself as hard as I dared given the steep drop-offs. But on this day I could suddenly run; I could jump off of rocks that 2 days prior I discounted as decidedly ill-advised; I could teasingly look back and ask “Are you coming?” What a difference; what a thrill. The long, slow and sometimes injurious adaptation to forefoot striking seemingly had taken hold and I jumped classes on the descents: I was no longer a cautiously calculating hiker with a walking stick; I had become a swift trailer runner in minimalist shoes without a pole.

    It’s a significant investment in time, energy, and motivation to make the shift to minimalist footwear and forefoot striking but if steep downhills are your nemesis, you might want to consider making the move. You can read more about our experiences with and opinions about minimalist footwear on our cycling webpage:  http://www.velofun.us/Gear%202010/whw_2010_Min_Footwear_I_03.htm : www.velofun.us.

About Those Boots

Restricted ankles make steep descents difficult.

  If you love your high top boots for hiking, carefully evaluate their effect on your gait, especially on a steep descent, before your big hiking event. Look for some really short rise/run stairs and try trotting down a few flights at a good clip with your hand on the rail for safety. Odds are that they will restrict your ankle mobility to a point of making you dangerous on the descent.

    We watched just such a spectacle in the Dolomites one day as a clearly experienced hiker made his way down our favorite steep trail. He couldn’t flex his ankles in his rigid high top boots and had resorted to throwing his knees out to the sides to lower his feet to the next narrow step. He relied heavily on his 2 trekking poles to catch himself as he used controlled falling to descend. The pounding forces and severe angles required by this technique looked like a loser for his knees and perhaps his hips. Others in his situation would go down backwards or sideways to solve the problem created by their ankle restricting boots.
    Low top hiking shoes or completely unlacing the boot tops would have been a safer alternative for him and the others. Allowing the ankles to gyrate in odd directions on steep descents puts the demands on the joint that was designed to handle the task, which is the ankle. On the other hand, fixing the ankles in boots transmits the twisting forces to the knees, which aren’t designed for those strains.

Bill fully utilizing his foot & ankle flexibility on the steep descent.

    Many hikers are convinced that ankles must be covered to be safe when hiking but we haven’t found that to be the case. With a handful of early exceptions, we’ve done all of our hiking for the last 5 years in sandals or less substantial footwear and have not scuffed, scraped, strained, or sprained our ankles. If you have been a high top boot wearer there is a good chance that your ankles have become weak. But if you demand more from your ankles, they will get stronger. And the realities of modern hiking on established trails means that it’s harder to bang up your ankles than in the bygone days of bushwhacking.

    Regardless of what you anticipate wearing on your feet for your big hiking event, test them out going both directions on a dozen flights of stairs or really steep terrain to note where they rub or restrict your movement. Steep stuff changes how everything moves: your body, your gear, and their interactions. And any regrettable conditions get painfully amplified with hours of repetition of the movement on a long hike.


Trekking Poles: Pro’s & Con’s

    Telescoping trekking poles range from being life-savers to liabilities. We bought 1 pair when we started hiking in the Italian Alps and each used 1 pole as a walking staff on all of our hikes. Many, many times we were grateful for the extra stability and confidence they delivered on very steep slopes, especially on scree trails that had been washed out. They could also make the difference between staying on our feet or landing on our bum when on the often muddy trails in the Austrian Alps. And they were invaluable while we became more capable with walking barefoot and in our minimalist shoes. But as we became more surefooted and more experienced with these new terrains and new footwear, we used them less and less. Now we only take them on known difficult trails or long outings on unfamiliar routes but rarely use them.

    There are several down sides to trekking poles. On steep trails or when fatigued, people often lean onto them too much, distorting their posture and putting excess load on their backs. And people tend to overuse the poles, which inhibits the improvement of their balance and confidence.  On narrow trails, especially via ferrata trails, having 1 or both hands free for grabbing rocks is more useful than a stick. Bill rigs up a way to carry both poles on his pack, but it is a nuisance to stop to release or attach them on the trail.

Usually there is no alternative to a washed out trail & poles are a lifesaver.

    If you buy poles, also buy rubber tips which are much more sturdy than the flimsy tips that come on most poles. Often the rubber tips are better on the trail than having the metal points exposed and it is a courtesy to others when on buses, lifts, and indoors to use the tips. Too many hikers lose track of who or what their hiking poles are jabbing and having the rubber tips in place cuts way down on the unintentional damage you’ll do, especially at the end of a long day. We generally use our poles without the removable baskets--the baskets don’t contribute much where we hike and they increase the hassle-factor when stowing or carrying them.

    Even though we use trekking poles less and less on the trails, we love traveling with them. They are invaluable on the bikes for deterring charging dogs and indoors often get daily use as laundry lines, window props, and for nudging uncooperative window curtains that are otherwise out of reach.

Guidance from an Altimeter

    We consider an altimeter an indispensable tool for cyclotouring and hiking.  Tracking our elevation gain on a given day is even more important to us than knowing the elevation or distance. Especially if you are like me and easily get sore from hiking, learning your limits is very helpful and an altimeter is the best tool I’ve found for doing that.

    I had several years during which I had tremendous trouble with post-hike stiffness that would hobble me for days afterwards. By using the altimeter, I learned that 400m (1300’) each of up and down was about my limit if I was out of hiking form. Things have improved for me and this year a steep 700m (2300’) first hike caused an acceptable amount of delayed soreness. Knowing my limits and how much conditioning time I need helps us in planning our events.

    Being able to check on your absolute elevation can be very helpful too in making a “go on vs turn-around” decision if conditions turn hostile. Sometimes elevation is a better way to judge time or effort needed to get to the top than distance.

Altitude Issues

     We have little experience with altitude issues when hiking, though we are tested to about 10,000’. The limit of our personal knowledge is that Bill has trouble with light-headedness and dizziness at 7000-8000’ if he has been eating meats cured with nitrates. It’s known as a “hotdog headache” because nitrates are used in hotdogs. The condition only presents in him if he both has nitrates on board and we are exerting at higher elevations.

    When we finally head for the Inca Trail ourselves, we will prepare for altitude sickness by: researching the subject so as to make our our diagnoses and our decisions on when to intervene; hang-out at altitude for more days than is recommended for acclimation to improve our odds of success; and we will carry the recommended medications.

    Sleep disruption is a component of altitude sickness and improving one’s sleep hygiene before being at altitude would be a good investment. Learning to sleep with earplugs and eye covers in advance is one such example and is prudent for any adventure traveler and seems especially wise in anticipation of being at places like the Inca Trail. Convincing oneself to skip the caffeine and alcohol should also improve sleep quality. And doing all that you can to know what helps your sleep is a part of advanced trip planning. Over a year ago I learned that I am among the few that get significant sleep improvement with hefty magnesium supplementation. Not many people do and such supplementation isn’t safe for everyone, but it is an example of the types of interventions one can evaluate far ahead of the need for optimizing your sleep at altitude.

Help for the Hands

    On very steep trails, we are often literally on all-fours, simultaneously using our hands and our feet to progress upwards. In these instances, fingertip-less leather gloves are very welcome. Inexpensive worker’s gloves are a good choice or dispensable cycling gloves will work too. The gloves protect one’s hands from all kinds of unexpected hazards when it’s important not to be distracted by contacting small trees, sharp rocks, mud, or snow. We always wear at least thin fingerless sun protection gloves and will keep on our heavy leather via ferrata gloves if we’ve been on a wire.

    Learning to press into, rather than pull, rocks is a wonderful habit to develop when on steep trails. We usually resort to all-fours for better balance and extra stability should a foot slip. By pressing one’s hand into a rock you can usually get the needed assistance without risking dislodging the rock, which may be disastrous for you and degrades the trail for others. Only needing a rock to hold when you press down on it for a little help also means far more rocks are anchored well enough to assist than if you are hoisting yourself up by pulling on them.

Tube-Style Backpacks

    The number of brands of backpacks available in the US and Europe and the assortment of models and sizes within those brands makes pack selection downright overwhelming. After sampling a number of styles with a strong bias towards ones that are easy to carry as luggage on our bikes, our hands-down favorite is REI’s 18 liter “Flash 18”. It is the first pack we’ve tried among those shaped like a simple tube and we love it. It’s narrow opening and absolute lack of outside pockets make it a nightmare to get things in and out of it, but it’s a dream on our backs. Despite its shortcomings, it is our top pick from our inventory, especially for steep hiking.

    If you don’t need your pack to compress to the size of a small garment for stashing in your luggage, I’d recommend looking for a different model among the tube-shaped packs, like one with outer pockets, as long as the pockets don’t make the pack wider. The long, narrow profile of this tube pack and its simple chest and hip straps make it a delight on steep trails--a feature important not to lose.

My new tube-styled pack stayed securely out of my way.

    The Flash 18 stays put when we are pitched over, scrambling up or downhill on a precariously steep slope. Our larger packs shift side to side and upwards, throwing our balance off when we are already in a dicey situation--ol’ Flash doesn’t flinch under the pressure. The narrow profile is also welcome because there is no chance of bumping your elbows on it if you resort to big arm swings or when in awkward scrambling positions.

    The 18L size is a bit small for a day pack but ironically it was large for its intended purpose, which was trail running. I wanted an ultra light, minimalist pack to hold a half liter of water, a very compact wind breaker jacket, and a snack. I wanted something about 1/3 of this size and yet the 18L Flash was lighter and stowed smaller than packs designed for running. Now we try to make this Flash pack do everything: trail runs, 2 hour high-intensity outings, half day hikes, and full day hikes. Adding a long length of bungee to the daisy rings does provide accessory space for a fleece shirt or jacket which makes it more versatile.

Managing Back Discomfort

    Knowing what and how to stretch was never more important to me than after hiking on steep terrain several years ago. At the end of a long hiking day our first year on the Italian Alp trails, we made a mad, downhill dash to escape a monster thunderstorm and my low back was in chaos before we were off the mountain. Once indoors, I performed my back stretches and twists and hamstring stretches to no avail. I was in pain and baffled. Finally, after running through my short list of usual self-care stretches, I discovered it was the external rotators in my buttocks that were the culprits--they were overworked and were ferociously tugging on my back.  The good news was that I knew who they were, where to find them, and what to do to release them. In a few minutes, my back pain was completely resolved.

    Bill is currently having asymmetric back pain while hiking and is running through the laundry list of likely muscles that are out of balance. On his list of suspects are the: psoas, hamstrings, external rotators, and glutes. At this point he hasn’t identified a single source of his distress so is stretching all of these muscles before and after steep hikes as a shotgun approach to making him pain free. With time, he will likely learn which particular muscles in him react so negatively to steep terrain and will be able to narrow his focus to them.

    If you don’t know these muscle groups or how to stretch them, consider getting on a first name basis with them before you begin an extended hiking event on unfamiliar trails. The stresses of steep hiking, both ascending and descending, put a lot of strain on the low back and it’s wise to be prepared for it. A personal trainer, physical therapist, yoga teacher, massage therapist, or other body-focused practitioner should be able to give you safe and specific techniques for addressing each of the above-mentioned  muscles and may have some additional suggestions. Such self-care for your low back is invaluable when you are away from home and embarking on a big athletic activity. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to do the same for any other especially vulnerable areas you know about.

    In addition to using stretching to prevent and interrupt back pain when hiking on steep trails, paying attention to your posture and backpack fit can also help. Many people naturally walk tilted forward, which puts a huge, unnecessary load on the lower back muscles. Add a backpack to the equation, and your odds of back discomfort skyrocket. Tending to your day-to-day posture before you hit the steep trails will reduce the odds of overloading your back.

    The conventional wisdom is to transfer some of the backpack weight onto your pelvis with the use of hip or waist straps, though I find that irritating to my vulnerable sacro-iliac joints in the pelvis. My back does however benefit from using a snug chest strap and loosely fitted hip strap to keep the pack still and close to my body. The challenge is to find the very best combination of pack features for you.

Telltale Trees

    Should you ever find yourself hiking above the forests in the Alps, be forewarned about small clumps of trees, especially in heavy fog or if there is poor visibility for other reasons: often a clump or line of small pines will signal the edge of a cliff or steep drop-off.  We slowly learned this lesson the easy way, when looking for shelter from the rain and when looking for shade for a picnic or privacy for peeing. But each time we got to the tempting cluster of tress and inspected it, we discovered we were on a dangerous edge.

Tell-tales trees at higher elevations indicate an abrupt drop-off.

    Our best guess is that the grazing sheep and cows in these high alpine regions munch away on any saplings out in the open, killing them. It’s only the trees that sprout on the edges and faces of the cliffs that are spared from the ravages of the grazers, making inviting fringes of low trees that are also out of reach for our needs. We always keep this in mind when in the Alps so we won’t step over the edge on one of those rare occasions when we are hiking during very poor visibility.