Hiking downhill – a Physio perspective

Moving smoothly and efficiently will maximize the enjoyment of the day and reduce strain on the body. This is easily practiced in smooth easy walking, rolling along flat terrain. As we ascend hills the power to overcome gravity allows us to stimulate our muscles, heart and lungs. The descent requires our muscles to control our body weight as we saunter downhill.

Correct use of our lower limbs will allow us to control our speed as we descend the hills, allowing for a smooth lope back down the trail.

As weight is lowered down the mountain the legs bend and straighten to absorb the forces of the body and decelerate the falling motion. The heel hits the dirt and the ankle, knee and hip all flex. The backside, thigh and calf muscles all perform an absorbing contraction to provide smooth control of the flexing leg. This lengthening control requires a high degree of coordination. When we are tired and a little clumsy, walking down hill can seem like a jarring experience. If movement through the body is uncoordinated, repeated strain on the muscles and joints can lead to tightness, stiffness and pain.

It is difficult to maintain proper walking habits at the end of a day, especially when we are tired and our minds are focused on cold refreshments and food. Instead, we can train movement patterns at home in a controlled environment. Smooth downhill stepping is very similar to walking down stairs. It will allow us to study our movement pattern. Let’s slow down and take it one step at a time.

Stand with the ball of your foot at the edge of the step. Slowly lower the other foot to the step below. As you step down control the movement until your foot is one centimeter above the lower step. Stop there, don’t allow your foot to touch the step below and smoothly reverse this to stand on the upper step again. The last few centimeters are difficult and many people allow themselves to drop to the lower step. Try again, really slow this time. You must be able to stop the motion at any point you choose. Gradually ease yourself close to the step below then ease back up to the top step.

Now that you are comfortable with the training drill, look and feel what your lower body is doing. Is your knee pulling inwards to become knock-kneed? Are your low back and pelvis contorting, bending sideways or rotating? Do you feel tightness or strain anywhere?

A mechanical view of proper technique requires maintaining the proper alignment of the lower limb. The weight should be balanced on the ball of the foot, evenly between the ball of the great toe and pinky toe. The center of the knee should be in line with the second toe and center of the hip socket. The pelvis is ideally level to the ground and pointing squarely downhill. An ideal movement will feel smooth and easy. This smooth movement will optimize the natural movement of the leg.

The practice in a controlled environment needs to be brought outside. When fatigued we will feel a lack of control of the lower limb. Attention and awareness can allow us to correct movement faults we see. When descending a hill try and mimic the smooth movement learnt on your steps at home. Pay attention to the weight on the ball of your foot. See the knee lined up with the second toe. Feel your backside contract to keep your torso gliding downhill in a smooth, rolling pattern.

This is a simple way of looking at a complex movement with many variables. It is an attempt to correct some frequent problems in the mechanics of motion. I hope that this will help some of you have fewer aches in the evening and for the years to come.


Written by Stan Metcalfe, Physiotherapist