Do Your Knees Hurt When Hiking Downhill? Here's Why.

Most of us have felt this pain before. So what gives?

By: Jen Weir + Save to a List

Hands-down, hiking is one of the best ways to enjoy life – it’s awesome exercise, allows you to unplug, the scenery is unbeatable and, most of all, it gets you outside. Nothing beats a dirt-trodden trail surrounded by trees, mountains, wildflowers, rocks and all the stunning views your senses can handle. While it’s easy to enjoy every second on the trail, some hikers may find downhill hiking to be less than pleasant. So what gives? What makes even the most agile and capable hikers experience knee pain while maneuvering downhill?

The Culprit

The reality is, you can blame yourself for your knee pain; well, kind of. The primary reason your knees hurt when hiking downhill is because they’re under significantly more stress than when heading uphill or on flat ground. As you descend one leg at a time, the leading knee is obliged to absorb the impact of not only your bodyweight but also the added forces of going downhill and the weight of whatever you’re packing. In fact, an article published in Knee Surgery, Sports Traumatology, Arthroscopy found that the compressive force between the tibia and femur (your knee joint) is between 7 and 8 times your bodyweight when going downhill! So even if you weigh in at a buck fifty, when you’re heading down the mountain, your knees are absorbing the weight of a small pony – it’s no wonder they get a little sore.

Some hikers make be more at risk than others for experiencing knee pain. For example, if your knee caps don’t track correctly, you have weak or imbalanced leg muscles, you have a prior injury, your feet/shoes give you problems or you put a lot of miles in on the trail, you may have a higher chance of your knees acting up.

Hike to the Summit of Mt. Whitney | Photo: Gregg Boydston

The Cure(s)

If you suffer from knee pain on a regular basis, you’re probably ready to nip it in the bud – nothing puts a damper on a day of adventure like slowly limping your way back to the trailhead. Aside from the occasional dram of whiskey to dull the pain, what’s a hiker supposed to do to ensure an enjoyable and pain-free outing? Lucky for you, there are a few different tactics you can try.

Trekking Poles Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, trekking poles should definitely be on your list of possibilities when dealing with knee pain on the trail. Poles help lessen the forces on your lower body, especially when you’re going downhill. Rather than your knees and ankles taking the brunt, poles allow for some of the load to be redistributed to your arms and shoulders.

Muscle Up One of the most effective steps you can take to mitigate knee pain is to strengthen the supporting musculature. Your hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes and calf muscles work constantly to stabilize and support your knee joints. If these muscles aren’t up to par, fatigue will set in quickly and knee pain will ensue. Squats, lunges, step-ups, lateral shuffles and jumping will go a long way in easing and preventing hiking-induced knee pain.

Support Using a knee brace or kinesio tape may offer enough external support to ease your knee discomfort. However, these should only be used as a temporary fix – it’s important to find and address the root of your problem or you’ll only end up making it worse.

Take Your Time While it can be tempting to bound quickly downhill to get the descent over with, that's the last thing you should do when your knees are feeling under the weather. Adding speed will only increase the force and stress on your knees. Take your time and carefully navigate your way down the trail, side-stepping and backing down when necessary.

Consult a Medical Professional If you have persistent issues, please consult a medical professional for treatment. 

Cover photo: Josiah Roe

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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