First of all, there’s no such thing as the off season in my book. There’s either outdoor sports I prefer or outdoor sports that are only slightly less fun. If you’re lucky enough to live in a climate where there is no winter, then this article won’t be as much use to you, however, I intend to focus mainly on injury prevention which is widely applicable.

During the spring, summer, and autumn months, my activity of choice is backpacking. Less strenuous than mountaineering or rock climbing, backpacking is supposed to be enjoyable, but what about that first trip of the season? I’ve been sitting around all winter and I’ve got a beer gut and some cobwebs to clear out right? Wrong!

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Winter is the time for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, downhill skiing, and most importantly, it is the time to build strength in those problem areas at the dreaded gym. I’m a person that has battled stress injuries to my legs and feet for years, and in my journey to healthy tissues, I’ve had to learn a few things. The number one lesson that I’ve learned is that strength and flexibility prevent injuries.

“What is the best way to train for backpacking?”

“Go out and do it!”

How many of you have heard this advice? I have in many many places. It is generally good advice, except if you aren’t in shape for it. Going out and just hiking if you have weak core, hip, foot, or calf muscles will cause an injury eventually. I have a few basic pieces of advice that I’ve learned from my experience with injuries. Before we get to that, I have to put in the obligatory disclaimer:

I am NOT a health professional and this advice reflects my own experiences. Always consult a doctor and know your own unique situation before beginning any new exercise routine! 

Now that that’s out of the way:

Rule #1; don’t jump into a new exercise routine that your body isn’t ready for. I made this mistake and have been paying for it for years. I was an athlete all though highschool and when I got to college I took a few years off of any sort of activity at all. Two years later when I got a wild idea that I wanted to climb a mountain and start backpacking again, I thought “I’ll just start training like I did in high school!” So I started running wind sprints, hiking up the local mountain, and pushing myself against my old limits and generally ignoring my body’s complaints.

Big mistake.

It didn’t take long before I was at the doctor for severe shin splints and continuous hip pain. Three months of physical therapy later I knew what my mistake had been. I had not built up my support muscles enough to cope with the sudden increase in stress. I should have increased my exercise gradually and focused on strength and flexibility in my legs until I was ready to begin the intense cardiovascular training that I had jumped into.

The exercises that I should have been doing were:

  • Lunges – all the lunges in the world!

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  • Core work – including back and oblique muscles
  • Squats – light to moderate weight and moderately high reps with focus on form and slow deliberate movement and balance
  • Stretching – I chose to start using a series of yoga poses as a stretching routine, focusing especially on my hamstrings, glutes, and calves.
  • Low impact cardio – Such as cycling or swimming, I went with swimming

This early phase of my training is focused on building strength especially in all my “stabilizer” muscles. All of these exercises should be done slowly and deliberately. Don’t focus on intensity, focus on doing it right!

Rule #2; ramp up slowly. We aren’t talking about increasing activity levels after 1 week, we are talking over the course of several months. I know it seems slow, but trust me, it’s faster than recovering from an injury.

This is the stage where I started hiking and climbing. My muscles were stronger and ready for more stress, so I increased the cardiovascular type training and decrease the strength type training. This is where I started doing wind sprints, vigorous slope climbs with a heavy pack, hypoxic drills in the pool, anything that gets the heart rate up to maximum.

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It’s important to remember to stay limber during this stage. I ended up getting shin splints again from running hills and not stretching adequately enough afterward. I have always struggled with tight hamstrings and calves, and stretching them is extremely painful for me, but it’s still better than physical therapy.

Rule #3; don’t forget the little things. The third stage of training, after my cardiovascular level was where I wanted it, was endurance. This was where I started to strap on a pack and just walk. I focused on distance and time and not so much on effort or difficulty. This was the stage where I injured myself again.

I increased my pack weight and intensity too quickly (again) and started walking too far at first. With the lower level of difficulty, it is tempting to continue exercising until you feel tiredness but it’s important to listen to your body. I was walking on city sidewalks, asphalt trails, and gravel paths for ten to twelve miles at a time. I ended up giving myself a nasty case of Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis and a stress fracture in my metatarsal from a combination of sudden increased lower leg activity, improper footwear, and walking on hard surfaces. Remember, tendons, fascia, and other soft tissues adjust more slowly than muscles do. It can take months of effort to strengthen a tendon as large as the Achilles.

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After another two months of physical therapy, and ultrasound, I learned that to prevent this from happening, I should have paid attention to all the small little muscles in my feet more and focused on flexibility. I needed to work on doing balancing exercises to strengthen all the tiny little stability muscles within my feet, and I should have ramped up my distance gradually to prepare my plantar fascia and especially my Achilles tendon for increased stress.

The exercises I started doing included:

  • More lunges – I did lunges until I couldn’t stand it anymore! Focus on balance and length, not on speed or reps.
  • No weight squats on balance discs or a balance board – this forced my feet to balance while my leg muscles were working. It was difficult at first but after awhile I was able to do 3 sets of 30 without falling off the balance discs.

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  • Slow and deliberate toe raises on stairs – be sure to extend below “flat” meaning allow the heels to fall below the step. This lengthened and strengthened my calf muscles, and feet.
  • Draw the alphabet with my toes – this improves range of motion and muscle control in the feet. It was surprisingly difficult for me.

Rule #4 brings me to my bottom line: I had to learn to listen to my body! If it hurts, there’s a reason. Exercise should be uncomfortable and difficult, but it should not be painful. I learned when to stop and reevaluate my training goals and my fitness level, and that I shouldn’t be afraid to go back and improve some of the weak spots.

Don’t ever forget that all these exercises are to help you do something you love and are passionate about. Go for hikes, go snowshoeing, learn how to ski or snowboard, get outdoors! Just make sure to stay within your current limits and let nature’s beauty be your motivational speaker.

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