by David Leonhardt.
Although I live on the Internet, my joy is in the open air, far from technology, far from traces of human development. I hope to be hiking up mountains into my 80s.
But the side effects of aging can slow you down or even stop you, and at 50 I am already seeing the signs of aging. Who would have thought I would be typing this with glasses on? And who would have thought that my “trick knee” might pose a barrier to hiking?
I was in my teens when I first discovered that lots of walking on little sleep would make my left knee sting. It never really stopped me from daily life, but when I started doing more challenging hikes a few years ago,…ouch!
Three days ago, I climbed Giant Mountain and Rocky Peak in upstate New York. With no pain. OK, so I did feel the knees a couple times, but this was like a mosquito bite. How did I do it?
First a few quick stats:
- Giant Mountain: 4627 feet
- Rocky Peak: 4420 feet
- Total Ascent: 4057+
- Total Distance: 4.3 miles
- Time elapsed: 8 hours
Knee crunches. This was actually recommended by my doctor. I use a tool that was actually meant for the ladies to use on their arms…but it works wonders strengthening the muscles around my knees and making those weak knees less weak.
Stretches. Yes, stretches. I don’t mean just before the hike. Those are good, too, but I mean every morning for months on end, I stretch my legs in five different ways, but I think the one that works most to strengthen the knees is to pull my foot up behind me to try to touch it to the back of my head. Interestingly, the more I have been stretching, the less I have been crunching. One seems to substitute for the other…for me, at least.
Knee brace. This might be obvious, but I put on a an elastic knee brace under my pants when I know I’ll be doing any significantly strenuous hike. I do find that the elastic effect, which strengthens the knee, also interferes with the knee movement. In other words, it makes for better exercise – resistance training of sorts.
Advil. I usually remember to take an Advil, just in case. I do this as soon as I reach the summit. Advil takes about a half hour to take effect, and that’s how long I typically stay at a summit. The pain in a weak knee comes on the way down, so there is little point in taking the Advil before heading out at the trailhead.
Pole. A pole or walking stick sure helps on the way down. It gives you something to lean on with your upper body as you climb down from a rock, taking some of the pressure off your knees. I recommend a telescoping pole, so that you can store it when ascending, but it doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive.
Lead with weakness. Yes, I learned this trick the day before my first trip up Giant Mountain. This is probably no secret to most seasoned hikers, but I was taught by a chiropractor on our trip. When descending from a rock, lead with your weak knee. The leg that bears most of the strain is the one still up on the rock while the other leg reaches down for the ground below. To save your weak knee from pain, lead with it. This is of little help, of course, if both knees are weak (as occasionally I now find mine are).
Jump. This might seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes it pays to just jump down from a rock. “But doesn’t the strain of hitting the ground at full impact risk causing even more pain?” you might ask? In fact, quite the opposite. Assuming the rock is too high to comfortably step down, but not too high to comfortably jump, you can avoid the pain that comes from the upper leg, as mentioned in point #6 above. Make sure to bend your knees upon impact to cushion the landing, and do this only where you have a smooth landing pad (not like I do, sometimes, jumping from rock to rock – yes, I’ll probably pay for that one day!).
So there you have it, seven tactics to hike painlessly with your trick knee. There is no reason that you should let something so minor as knee pain keep you down, when there are still so many mountains to discover.