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Backpacking Fitness

Fight Off Early-Season Soreness With This Foot-and-Leg Self-Care Routine

Hiking muscles feeling rusty? Give them the love they deserve.

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With spring approaching and days stretching further into the evening, hikers are eager to explore the trails once again. But as the early season miles start to add up, that enthusiasm can turn into overuse injuries, curtailing hikers’ seasons when they’ve just begun. To help ensure the miles are pain-free and enjoyable, stay on top of aches with these simple exercises. Perform them at home after a hike, in camp, or on the trail. 

Note: Some pain should not be self-treated. See a doctor if you feel sharp pain, pain that lingers, numbness, tingling, or swelling that you cannot explain. These may be signs of a larger problem. If in doubt, seek medical advice.

Feet

We don’t think of our feet as something that can weaken during the off-season, but they do. Hitting the trail without prepping them first, and you run the risk of a strain. A great way to help manage sore and tired feet, especially if you suffer from plantar fasciitis, is the rub, twist, and stretch sequence. It’s perfect for rest stops, lunch breaks, lounging at camp, or TV time at home. From a comfortable seated position, perform each of these three movements for 20 seconds on each foot.  

To start, use your fingers and knuckles to rub the entire sole of the foot using a pressure that feels good. The goal here is to provide a nice massage for the soles, toes, and heel areas. Don’t forget the often-neglected areas near the base of your toes and around your heel bone.

Next, place your palms on either side of your foot and gently twist, targeting the sole of the foot. Pull the right side up while pushing the left side down. Next, pull the left side up while pushing the right side down. Repeat this twisting motion from the toes to the heel.

Finish the sequence with 20 seconds of stretching. Begin by pulling the toes back to stretch the bottom of the foot. Next, curl the toes under to stretch the top of the foot. For a more thorough stretch, perform the same motions for the big toe separately from the other toes.

Calves

Tight calf muscles can lead to knee pain and heel and foot issues such as the aforementioned 

plantar fasciitis. An effective way to address tight calf muscles is to use a trekking pole as a massage tool.

Massage your calf for 3 to 5 minutes per leg using a firm yet comfortable pressure. Working from about 6 inches above the ankle up to the knee, glide the trekking pole horizontally along the calf. Target the inside and outside of your lower leg and the thicker upper portion of the calf near the knee. Follow this massage with your favorite calf stretch for 20 seconds, repeating three times per side.

Shins

Too many big miles early in the season can cause the large shin muscle, the tibialis anterior, to become irritated. This muscle has two functions with each step: It lifts the toes to avoid tripping and controls bringing the foot back down to the ground after the heel makes contact. If this crucial muscle is overworked, it can become inflamed and cause lower leg soreness, and contribute to shin splints.

To keep the shin muscle healthy, grab a trekking pole for some massage. It’s the same gliding technique you used on the calf using a firm but comfortable pressure. Here, move horizontally along the outside of the shin bone from below the knee to above the ankle. Apply consistent pressure as you move the trekking pole along the belly of the tibialis anterior muscle.

To stretch the shin muscle, kneel on the ground and sit on your heels with your feet pointed straight behind you. Consider using a yoga block or bolster like a rolled-up jacket to sit on initially, which may help make this stretch easier. Spend 20 seconds in this stretch, then repeat for a total of 3 times.

Lee Welton is a physical therapist assistant and personal trainer in Southeast Idaho. He thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018 and has trekked through the Dolomites in Italy. He can typically be found hiking and exploring the trails in Idaho and Wyoming. For more information, videos, and resources from Welton, visit trailsidefitness.com.