Author: Barry Stephen

14th January 2019

Hill walking is a fun and very rewarding way to exercise and improve your general health. Many health benefits are associated with walking both physical and mental.

Regular walking has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, strokes and some cancers.
Mentally it can be a great form of exercise to help you clear the mind, breathe in some fresh air and forget about any worries.

Walking is also a fantastic way to burn calories and help you lose weight. That said, long distance walks over hills and tough terrain can be very demanding and requires a good level of fitness and focus to be able to complete and enjoy the experience of a big hill climb.

As a keen walker myself who has completed many a long walk including the West Highland Way twice, Boca Dela Pesca and many Munros, I know how demanding it can be; there has often been the occasion when a fellow walker has had to turn back or not complete the full distance due to injury, poor fitness, lack of strength or has just underestimated the demands of the challenge. Here are my top 5 tips to make the most out of any big hill climbs you have planned this year.

  • Practice Walks – If you have a goal of climbing a particular mountain then make sure you build up to the event. The same applies when you choose to run a marathon; you plan smaller runs that progressively build up to the full distance. Hill walking is no different. Build up your capacity for the event by planning regular walks that get progressively more challenging. Your fitness will improve, your recovery times will get better, essentially your body will adapt to these demands meaning you can enjoy it more, oh and you will break your shoes in too which means potentially less chances of blisters ☺
  • Strengthen your lower body – If you’re already doing regular strength work then great but if you’re not then you should really consider starting now. Do not over look it. Hill walking is demanding on the legs. Strong muscles mean stronger joints. You want to perform the task well and with minimal chances of picking up an injury. If I have learnt anything since becoming a PT it is that people in general, lack strength and the strength required for them to perform some of the challenges they set themselves. Get into the weights room and focus on movements that involve the glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings mainly but with some calf exercises too. When you walk up a steep hill you do so at an angle and with a greater amount of knee and hip flexion compared to walking on a flat surface. This requires the hamstrings and glutes to work hard. When you walk down hill the stresses are on the quads and knees. Throw into the equation the demand placed on the often untrained calf muscles and we have a great need to do strength work. Those with more strength in these areas will most definitely fair better than those who are weaker as failure to do contract these muscles efficiently will result in your lower back potential taking the strain leading to injury and discomfort. Exercises such as Squats, Romanian Deadlifts, Lunges, Hip Thrusters, Calf Raises and KB Swings are our main recommendations. Click here to view our hill walking specific training plan.
  • Strengthen Your Upper Body – Walkers will get great benefit from training their upper body muscles (back, chest, shoulders, arms). In particular you should focus on your posterior chain muscles (upper, mid and lower back), if you are carrying rucksacks your shoulders are likely to be internally rotated for the duration of the time walking and could cause you to move into a slouched, forward head position that can lead to unnecessary strain on your neck, shoulders and lower back. Strengthening your back will help you deal with this better, help improve posture and make your joints and muscles more resistant to fatigue. The difficulty of carrying a backpack over long distances is strength dependent. Those with greater strength and better posture will fare better than those with less strength and poorer posture. As fatigue sets in posture starts to change. Strength training not only allows you to get stronger to improve posture but it also brings more self-awareness to posture as well. Exercises we recommend are Pull-Ups or Pulldowns, Single Arm Rows, Face Pulls, Split Stance DB Shoulder Presses and Press-Ups. Click here to view our hill walking specific training plan.
  • Strengthen your Core – The true function of the core is to effectively transfer forces from the lower body to the upper effectively and to help stabilise. Hill walking is a full body movement and a strong core will be of great benefit to this activity. Those with stronger core muscles will fair better and recover quicker with less chances of picking up an injury. Our recommendations for exercises to perform to build a solid core are the plank, the dish hold, shoulder taps, side plank and Russian twists. This link – shows you how to regress or progress each exercise within a 10minute routine – do 2-3 x per week.
  • Improve Flexibility – Of the whole body but in particular the feet, hips and thoracic. Tight muscles do not work as effectively or efficiently as supple ones. Over use of a tight muscle will potentially lead to injury and faulty movement patterns. Better flexibility means better range of movement across joints and less chance of injury. As we have already mentioned hill walking requires certain areas of the body to perform in a repetitive manner. Poor flexibility in these areas will mean a limited range of movement will occur, increasing the likelihood to force an injury, overwork a weaker area and increase recovery times. Our key recommendations when it comes to stretching are perform a mix of self myofascial release, static stretches and dynamic movements to get the most benefit. Here are 10 stretches I consider key for hill walkers.