Sure, you could hike yourself into shape come spring—but you could hike yourself right into an injury in the process. A too-sedentary off-season can shorten and weaken your hamstrings, and that means feeble knees. “The hamstrings keep the knees safely aligned as you hike,” explains Suzie Snyder, an adventure racer and strength-and-conditioning coach based in Wallingford, Connecticut. Strong hams support your pack’s weight and help ligaments stabilize the knee over uneven terrain, especially when you’re descending with a pack. “Work those muscles, and you’ll hike downhill faster and reduce the risk of knee injuries,” Snyder says. Strengthen your hamstrings with these three exercises; for maximum benefit, do them three times per week, starting six to eight weeks before your first big trip.
>> How Standing with feet shoulder-width apart, take a large step forward, shifting your weight to your front leg while bending the rear knee and dropping the hips toward the ground. Keep your front shin vertical and your thigh parallel to the floor. Pause briefly, then step back to a standing position without dragging the front foot. Alternate with the other leg for 20 lunges total. Work up to three sets of 20 reps per leg. After two weeks, drop to three sets of 10 reps while wearing a 10-pound backpack. Add five pounds to the pack per workout until you reach 30 to 40 pounds.
>> Why Lunges work the hamstrings and glutes, which “apply the brakes as you hike downhill,” Snyder says. Wearing a loaded pack raises your center of gravity and challenges your balance, which trains your hamstrings to steady the knees over loose rock or uneven ground.