Hiking after injury

An epic hiking trip has been on your “bucket list” for years – the Swiss Alps, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, a Colorado 14er. Then it happened. An injury that stopped you in your tracks.

Whether it was a torn ACL, a sprained ankle, or a shoulder injury, suddenly your dream hike seems much farther off. Yet you’re not getting any younger.

So how do you come back from an injury, and still make the most of your dream trip?

Having a specific goal – in fact, envisioning specifically what you want to do, also known as mental imagery – can help your recovery

The key is to set up a training plan as far in advance as possible.

Whether your injury or surgery was recent or a while back, these five components are key to preparing for a post-injury hiking trip:

  1. Your team
  2. Your mindset
  3. Your strength
  4. Your stamina
  5. Your footwear and gear

Tap into your team

Most health care plans include a limited number of covered physical and/or occupational therapy visits after certain injuries and surgeries. Yet once you’re done with covered visits, you’ll probably have more work to do on your own, especially to reach a goal that’s beyond normal daily functioning.

So keep the lists and illustrations of the exercises your therapists gave you. If they didn’t tell you which ones would be beneficial to continue, ask for recommendations.

If you’re unsure of what to do for your upcoming hike, go back to the physical therapist you worked with post-injury (if you had one), even if you have to pay for an extra visit. It’ll be worth it to have expert guidance from someone who understands your capabilities and how you’ve handled the recovery process.

Consider working with a certified personal trainer to get ongoing customized guidance based on your situation. A personal trainer will help you use the proper form when you exercise.

After an injury, you may have a tendency to compensate for the body part that was injured, which can put extra strain on your “good” knee/hip/shoulder/etc. And that can lead to cascading injuries in the future.

Working with a personal trainer can help you make sure you are doing exercises correctly, and with an appropriate amount of weight or resistance.

Ask for referrals – your physical therapist or doctors involved in treating your injury may be able to offer some options – and references. How much experience do they have with working with people who have had injuries? Do they have specific training in functional fitness?

Check out these tips for choosing a personal trainer. 

Mindset matters

Many people find that the mental recovery from an injury is nearly as difficult as the physical recovery. Between the time on the sidelines and the slower-than-hoped progress back to “normal,” even the most patient patients get frustrated.

Once you’re officially done with physical therapy, it can be tempting to go back to your pre-injury activity level. Resist that urge and ease back in slowly.

Be kind to yourself when it comes to getting back to the shape you were in before the injury. Put it in perspective – how long did it take you to get to the level you were at pre-injury? Probably years.

So give yourself a break when you’re starting to rebuild. Besides, nobody is as young as they used to be, so that makes the process a bit longer too.

Rebuild your strength

Assuming you completed physical and occupational therapy, you should have a decent foundation of strength to build on. Yet PT and OT are primarily focused on getting your strength, range of motion and physical abilities to the point where you can perform normal daily tasks.

As you look forward to taking a hiking trip, you may need to build additional strength in the previously injured area. Other parts of your body may need some attention too, especially if you put all of your energy into the recovering limb or joint!

Your physical therapist or personal trainer may suggest body weight exercises to start. These exercises will help you get in tune with how movements feel before adding weight/resistance.

The next step may be adding dumb bells and other weights that are used by one muscle group at a time. These are useful for figuring out which body part(s) are stronger or weaker than others. Plus you can use less weight on one side for a while to allow the weaker muscle group to build up to more closely align with the other side.

For example, if you had a shoulder injury, you may use a lighter weight for the side that had the injury to start. As the injured side gets stronger, you can add more weight while keeping the “good side” at the same weight.

If you use a barbell or certain types of machines, your natural tendency is for the stronger side to “help” the weaker side, which maintains the imbalance.

Resistance bands are also popular for post-injury training. For many exercises using bands, it’s quick and easy to adjust the resistance by shifting your stance or range of motion.

If you’re not working with a personal trainer, add activity and weight/resistance for the recovering area in smaller increments than you may see recommended in online articles and other resources.

Be patient and remember that small increases add up over time and will allow you to make stronger and more sustainable progress than doing too much too soon. Improving by 1% every day adds up over time.

Of course, if a move causes sharp pain, STOP. Pay attention to your body and make note of any aches, twinges, fatigue or unusual feelings. Most exercises have many variations and alternatives that you can do to work the muscles, so you might just need to switch to a different version. A personal trainer can help with this too.

Increase your stamina

If your injury put hiking on hold, (re)start with short treks on varied terrain as early in your training as you can. Even if you live in a fairly flat area, at least go on a dirt trail, and preferably one that has rocks or roots, to get used to the uneven surface.

To find nearby trails, check out sites like AllTrails <link to https://Alltrails.com > and apps like Hiking Project. They show detailed information about trails, and include reviews from people who have hiked them.

Your local parks and recreation department is also a great resource. Or stop by a store that sells outdoor clothing and gear and ask one of the employees.

Increase your distance gradually, adding 5-10% to the length of your hikes per week. Aim to complete multiple hikes that are at least somewhat similar in elevation change and length to what you expect to do on your trip within a month of your departure date.

Add weight to your pack very gradually, starting with just water and basic essentials <link to https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/ten-essentials.html>. Pay close attention to how your body reacts, then add more of what you expect to carry on the trip. Wear the pack on back-to-back hikes and note if you have any soreness or unusual twinges.

Select your footwear and gear

If you already have footwear, pack and other gear from before your injury, get it out and give it a try. The injury may have shifted your gait or how a pack feels on your back.

If you determine that you need new shoes, boots or other equipment, get them at least 2 months before your trip so you’ll have a chance to get used to them.

Use your footwear like you will on your hike – if the itinerary includes two or more days of hiking in a row, then hike in your boots or shoes for two days in a row. That second day can be very telling! Don’t be shy about exchanging footwear that’s not working well for you.

Similarly, use the pack you plan to take on the trip several times before you leave. If it rubs the wrong way or is uncomfortable, go to your local outdoor store to get it fitted or find a new one.

Consider using trekking poles. They reduce the amount of force on your knees, especially on the downhills. Plus they provide extra balance and stability.

If you’ve had a shoulder, elbow or wrist injury, though, you may want to try poles that have shock absorption.

Also look for adjustable poles, which you can shorten for longer uphill climbs and lengthen for the downhill sections. Many adjustable poles collapse so they’re easy strap to your pack when you don’t want to use them, such as scrambling over larger rocks where you use hands and feet.

Ready to head for the hills

As your trip gets closer, check in with yourself and your hiking partners, if applicable. Based on your progress, set realistic expectations for trip. Hopefully you’ll be feeling strong and confident about doing everything on your itinerary!


Get Personalized Help

Want an estimate based on your specific situation? Just email me at becki@trailblazerwellness.com and I’d be happy to help you figure out when you should start training for an upcoming adventure!