Brisk walking—especially uphill, with a pack—may be your path to bulletproof running legs.
Want stronger, more injury-resistant hamstrings? Perhaps, in addition to traditional strength work, you should do more walking—especially brisk walking…particularly uphill. That’s right: One of the big benefits of hiking is stronger hamstrings.
Walking, experts say, uses hamstrings more strongly than does running. After all, walking involves reaching your leg out in front of you in a motion that would be viewed as severe overstriding if you did it running. This forces you to use the hamstring (and glutes) to pull yourself forward more than you would in running, before pushing off with the quads and calves.
Step for step, walking may not be all that intense an exercise, but it has the advantage that you can do a lot of it—enough that all of that relatively low-intensity hamstring work adds up.
“The low impact of hiking means it’s great for strengthening and working out all the muscles in the legs—with a low chance of muscle damage and less tightness than from running,” says Ian Sharman, ultra-runner and head coach at Sharman Ultra Endurance Coaching.
It certainly worked for me. I was a hiker/backpacker long before I became a runner and, while I had more than my share of other injures, hamstrings were never a problem.
2:10 marathoner Ryan Vail agrees. “I think it’s a great way to stay fit and can be a substitute for weight lifting,” he says.
Matt Walsh, a physical therapist and strength coach at Portland Athletic Center of Excellence (P.A.C.E.), Portland, Oregon, concurs. “I use uphill walking as a hamstring builder as well,” he says. “I have done this for years for post-op ACLs and hamstring tendonosis.”
The Benefits of Hiking Go Beyond Science
There’s no scientific literature to back this up, other than some discussions of walking as an adjunct to a beginner running program or for injury rehab, such as Walsh’s work with ACLs. But all that this means is that runners, coaches, and physical therapists are, as is often the case, ahead of laboratory researchers.
One consequence of this lack of scientific research, however, is that the ideal walking protocol for hamstring strengthening isn’t well known.
In my case, I was into views and scenic bivouac sites, often far above the nearest lakes or creeks. That meant I was also into lugging heavy packs, often including several liters of water, up long, steep hills.
Sharman sees that, in general, as the best type of hamstring strength work. “Hiking uphill involves shorter strides, being on the toes, and therefore having an even better strength benefit to basically all the leg muscles,” he says.
However, Vail finds that if the grade gets too steep, the balance of effort shifts from the hamstrings toward the quads and calves. “Heavy grade is quad-heavy, while flattish terrain would be geared more toward hamstrings,” he says, though he notes that carrying a heavy pack has nearly as big an effect as the grade.
“The heavier the pack, the shorter my stride,” he says, “and that seems to change the load more to IT bands and quads, regardless of the grade.”
What Goes Up…
Sharman adds that one of the side effects of hiking uphill is that you eventually have to come back down. That has the advantage of working your legs in yet another way—but not without a price. “There’s more damage caused by downhills,” he says, “so these should be taken very easy at first.”
One way to avoid having to come back down (and to control the grade at which you walk uphill) is to use a treadmill or incline trainer, adjusting the grade and speed to what seems to give you the optimum hamstring workout.
Surprisingly Tough, Always Different
When you find the right pace and grade, don’t expect it to be easy. Sandro Nigg, owner and CEO of Biomechanigg Sport & Health Research at the University of Calgary, Canada, took up uphill walking for injury prevention. “I was surprised how hard a fast uphill walk is,” Nigg says.
But the effort is worth it, Nigg believes. Overall, he says, running injuries come from a combination of three things: many repetitions of a specific movement, little recovery time, and little variability. By including hiking in your regimen, he says, you are addressing the first and third of these by adding variability to your motions and reducing their repetitiveness.
“I speculate that the step-to-step repeatability is low in hiking, compared to typical running,” he says.
That said, much of this will remain trial-and-error until scientists get around to testing it, something that may not happen anytime soon. “The problem with these studies is that they are very resource intensive,” he says. “A good trial would require hundreds if not thousands of runners.”
In the interim, the indications are that if you want strong hamstrings, walking and hiking might be just the ticket.