Why do I get Knee Pain when Walking Downhill?

6 Tips to Prevent Knee Pain when Walking Downhill

If you, like me, suffer from knee pain when walking downhill, you are sure to want to reduce it, or even prevent it altogether. The team here at Teal Gecko have both researched, and shared from their own experiences the 6 best ways to prevent or cure knee pain when walking downhill.

How to Protect the Knees on Downhill Hikes

Slow Down

Downhill Hiking puts our knees under a lot more pressure than walking uphill. When we take a step down we are putting multiples of our body weight onto just one knee. The faster we go, the more pressure we slam down onto the knee joint. Slowing down our downhill hiking pace has two beneficial effects. Firstly going at a slower pace reduces the pressure of each downhill step on the lead knee, and secondly, hiking slowly downhill builds and tones up the supporting muscles around the knees.

The slow steps down are achieved by using the quads to fight against gravity and our weight, this in turn works out the muscles, helping them to keep the knee supported, and held in the correct alignment to prevent injury on the inevitable occasions when we trip or lose our balance.

Don’t Let Your Stride Increase

The Hill, combined with your Body Weight and the weight you have in your Rucksack are going to want to take you rapidly downwards. If you let the momentum start to build you will accelerate pretty rapidly. If you do start to accelerate, the natural way most people try to regain control, is to take longer strides using the planting of the lead foot as a brake.

Taking long strides, quickly, downhill is a recipe for disaster. The pressure on the front knee will increase significantly, you will become more prone to losing your balance, and inevitably, you will speed up further in an ever increasing cycle. Keep you steps short and slow for maximum safety and minimum knee pain.

Don’t Lean Back Too Much

Avoid knee pain when walking downhill - Don't lean back

I have noticed that a lot of people lean back in an effort to slow down. Leaning back past your natural centre of gravity will make you unstable and prone to falling backwards, especially if you are carrying weight. Leaning back will also put you at risk of pulling a muscle, or worse in your lower back. Putting your back out on a hike could turn out to be an absolute nightmare, so anything that makes it a possibility (such as leaning back) should be avoided.

Try to maintain an upright posture with your knees, hips and shoulders pretty much vertical. I am not talking bolt upright like a mannequin here. Always keep a good cushioning bend in the knees, but also try to avoid leaning too far back, or forward for that matter. Keeping your balance on descents is vitally important in preventing knee pain when walking downhill slopes.

Traversing Is Your Friend

I know the pub might be open at the bottom of the hill at the end of a long, tough hike on a sunny day. But you don’t have to dart towards it down a steep incline in a perfectly straight line. Try Traversing from left to right in long shallow legs. Traversing, or Zig Zagging down a steep hill will obviously increase how long it takes you to complete your descent, but it will also drastically reduce the pressure, and therefore the potential pain in your knees.

Get Some Hiking Poles

Hiking Walking Poles

I bought some Hiking Poles after I had my knee replacement. I was struggling a bit with my new knee, and a friend of mine had been nagging me to get some Hiking Poles for years. I wasn’t keen on the idea. They seemed like just another extra bit of kit to carry. However, once I tried them out (and managed to keep the things under control), I found Hiking Poles to be a massive help to prevent knee pain when walking downhill, in both keeping my balance, and sharing the load that would have gone straight onto my lead knee.

Make sure you get Hiking Poles that you can adjust, so that you can make them longer for the descents. You do not want to be stretching for the ground in front of you with a short pole, causing you to lean forward and lose your balance. There is a good article here to help you to decide if Hiking Poles are for you and what type to go for.

Prevent Knee Pain when Walking Downhill by Getting Fit To Hike

Why do I get Knee Pain when Walking Downhill - Weak Supporting Muscles

This is an often overlooked area for Hikers. Seriously, if you can build up the strength in the supporting muscles around the knees, you will be in a far better position to prevent knee injuries and to avoid pain during hikes.

I personally do body weight squats in the morning while I am standing waiting for the kettle to boil for our early morning coffee. I generally manage between 30 and 35 squats before the kettle clicks. If you aren’t odd, like me, you can go to a gym to do your Squats, Dead Lifts, Quadricep Raises and Lunges. There are many more lower limb exercises that you can do, but these basic ones will be enough to strengthen and tone the muscles around the knees up. If you only have time for one exercise, do Squats, they are my favourite and they are sufficient to help prevent knee pain when walking downhill.

Conclusion

Using some or all of the 6 simple tips above will reduce your chance of injury and knee pain when walking downhill. However, if you implement these changes and you are still experiencing more pain and discomfort than normal, there is the possibility that something more serious is going on inside your knees, as was the case with me.

If your knee pain persists, seek medical attention and don’t tough it out as I did for many years. Having my knee replaced was one of the best decisions I ever made. Although it took me out of action for several months, I am now striding around the hills again almost totally pain free.