Making your muscles and tendons stronger can make those long days on the trail a lot easier. However, you won’t have to spend hours in the gym to see improvements in your hiking fitness. With a bit of creativity and understanding of muscle movement, you can get stronger doing a few exercises in the comfort of your home.
Eccentric Muscle Contractions
Have you ever noticed your thigh muscles feel more sore after a hike with a steep descent? This happens for a couple of reasons.
First, thanks to gravity you’ll land with greater force with each footstep. In some cases, you’ll experience twice as much impact while going downhill as you do hiking on level ground or going uphill.
Secondly, when you’re hiking downhill, your quads go through what is called an “eccentric contraction.” They are lengthening while they are contracting. Eccentric contractions cause more damage to the muscle tissue than other types of contractions, hence they result in increased soreness.
To get stronger, you need to apply tension to the muscles. Over time, you should increase the amount of tension to continue to improve your strength.
You can do this in a number of ways. You could simply lift more weight. You could also do more repetitions of an exercise. Or you could change how long it takes for you to complete a repetition.
In particular, you should emphasize an isometric contraction, where a muscle holds a position, and perform an eccentric contraction, where you emphasize the lowering part of an exercise.
Isometric and eccentric exercises are beneficial for a couple of reasons. They are done at a slower pace, which allows you to focus on good form. And they are safer than high-speed exercises, since you’re eliminating any possibility of ballistic (maximum velocity) movement.
To perform an isometric squat, stand with feet hip-width apart and lower into a squat position, keeping a long, strong spine (don’t round your back). Hold the bottom position of the squat for five to 10 seconds then stand back up. Repeat for eight to 10 repetitions.
In this squat variation, you’ll emphasize the eccentric portion of the squat. Begin in the same starting position, then lower yourself into a squat position slowly; take five to 10 seconds to complete the motion. Stand back up with normal speed and repeat for eight to 10 repetitions.
Perform a regular pushup with your hands wider than your shoulders. Keep your body in a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. Hold the bottom position of the pushup for five to 10 seconds.
Maintain good form as noted above. Lower yourself slowly, taking five to 10 seconds to complete the motion. Push back up at normal speed.
Curb Ivanic is a North Vancouver, British Columbia-based strength and conditioning coach. corerunning.com