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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 hamstring 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.
Stability ball leg curls
How Lie face-up on the floor with legs extended and heels on top of a stability ball. Lift your hips off of the floor and pull your heels toward your butt, keeping your toes and knees pointed up. Hold your hips high and straighten your legs; do three sets of 10. When that move becomes easy, try them one-legged: Extend one leg toward the ceiling while you roll the ball toward your butt with the other.
Why Each time you step down, the hamstrings contract and pull the lower leg beneath you, “like doing leg curls all the way down the mountain,” says Snyder. This exercise mimics that on-trail movement to strengthen hamstrings and prevent the knee pain caused when the quads are disproportionately stronger than the muscles on the back of the leg.
How Sit down on a foam roller placed just below your butt, perpendicular to the leg. Resting your body weight on the foam, use your hands and nonsupported leg to crab-walk your body backward, rolling over the foam from butt to knee. Reverse direction and roll from knee to butt. Repeat eight times, or until the tenderness and discomfort in your hamstrings subside. Switch legs and repeat.
Why This rolling exercise relaxes and lengthens hamstrings after a tough workout, soothing fatigue and flushing lactic acid from the muscles. “If muscles do not recover from one training bout, the next session will be compromised,” says Snyder. This simple recovery move prevents cramping and lowers the risk of injury during your next training session. Get the same benefits on a multi-day trip by substituting a water bottle for a foam roller to restore hamstrings’ full capacity and range of motion.