One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I’m a notoriously slow downclimber. So much so that no one who hikes and climbs with me thinks it’s unusual for me to be the last person back to the trailhead.
There’s a simple reason why. The pounding on my knees going down makes me descend rather gingerly. And slowly. Agonizingly so, at times. It’s a problem, in my opinion, because it could potentially be a safety issue (save that discussion for another day). What really got me in a twist about it was the fact that I train my legs consistently. Aside from the cardio work I do, I regularly lift weights to strengthen not just those California beach muscles in the upper body, but also the less glamorous muscles in the legs.
Now that doesn’t mean I’ve got tree-trunk legs. I don’t. But what’s there is strong (except those blasted knee joints!). And I do have rather large calves.
So why in the world do men with 20 years on me have less trouble going downhill than me?
I posed that question to an online forum at 14ers.com, a mountaineering Web site for people who like to hike and climb Colorado’s tallest peaks. The answer?
Aside from the knee issues I have, the fact is that all the training I do simply wasn’t the right training for downclimbing. Doing squats, leg presses, leg extensions and even lunges just won’t cut it here. The reason why? For the most part, these exercises don’t simulate the pounding of walking/running/climbing downhill.
(Just to clarify, lunges sort of do that. But not as much as you might think.)
Their advice: Find hills and either walk or run downhill. The stresses on the muscles are different when going downhill than they are on flat surfaces or going uphill. Also suggested: Spending time doing stairs or stadiums, with special focus on the downhill portions. This I can do pretty easily at work. It’s eight floors from the lobby to my office floor. Do that a few times a day, and you’re talking 16-32 flights a day, with half going downhill!
Another person suggested setting the treadmill on the highest incline possible, turn it on and run backwards with your front side facing the back of the treadmill. Kinda extreme, and I haven’t tried it. Seems like an easy way to bust your butt at the gym, and not in a positive way. But I’m throwing it out there just in case you’re crazy enough to try it (Note: If you do and it works, write me! If you do and you fall on your butt and it makes for a funny story, write me!). Consider this a disclaimer — I don’t recommend this.
And of course, the plainly obvious suggestion: Go out and hike trails with lots of terrain and simply train your legs that way. It makes sense. Want to be a better swimmer? Get in the pool more. Want to be a better climber? Climb more. You get the idea.
So I’m doing more stairs, hoping to train my quads, hamstring and calves in different ways so any future forrays into the mountains (whether that’s here or in the high country) go a little easier on the downhill side.
As always, feel free to send me feedback, trip reports or any other news of the outdoors. If you’re fascinated by it, chances are I will be as well, not to mention other readers! Post here or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.