Mariko has spent the last 10 years writing about travel, outdoor adventures and humanitarianism. When she's not travelling, you can find her on a local hiking trail, exploring the Canadian Rockies, or researching her next exotic destination.
If your legs are tired, you know you’ve had a good day on the trail. But if you’re experiencing sore glutes, tight hammies or muscle fatigue for days on end, it’s time to consider a post-hike recovery routine.
Cool down before you sit down
While most of us know it’s good to warm up before any physical exertion, it’s just as important to gradually cool down after any physical activity.
Instead of ending your hike by suddenly slumping down by the campfire, as tempting as this may be, aim to gradually transition instead. When you do, you’ll give your heart rate, body temperature and muscles more time to adjust to their natural resting state.
A staggered transition from a walking pace to a complete stop can prevent blood from pooling in your legs and ultimately help reduce dizziness and cramping. If the route allows for it, taper your finish with a relaxed pace on a flat trail. If not, spend five to ten minutes walking out your legs by your campsite or in the carpark.
Take time to stretch
Tempted to skip the post-hike stretch? Don’t be. Stretching is commonly reported as one of the most helpful exercises to reduce muscle tension and pain.
For the best results, focus on the muscle areas you use most in hiking, like hamstrings, quads, glutes and hip flexors. For those carrying a pack, incorporate gentle stretches for your lower back, chest, shoulders and neck. Lean into the stretch until you feel a gentle to moderate tension for around 30 seconds.
Stretching on a regular basis can improve your flexibility, range of motion, and may even improve your circulation. Increased blood flow to painful areas can aid your recovery time, reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and help with overall muscle tension.
If the thought of stretching bores you to tears, a time-based goal will help you keep motivated. Set up a timer for at least 15 minutes and work your way through a set of established exercises.
Ideal stretches for post-hikes:
- Standing Hamstring Stretch
- Figure Four Stretch
- 90/90 Stretch
- Lunging Hip Flexor
- Standing Quad Stretch
- Ankle Stretches
Eat within 45 minutes
Eating as soon as you can after a hike has multiple benefits; you’ll help repair your muscles, rebuild vital glycogen stores, and boost your mood.
During a long or intense hike, your body will rely on your glycogen stores for fuel. As part of physical activity, it’s natural that some of the proteins in your muscles will also break down or become damaged.
The sooner we eat, the sooner we recover, according to some studies. This is because our bodies are enhanced to rebuild glycogen and muscle protein directly after physical activity.
To get the most out of your post-hike meal, incorporate both protein and carbohydrates for muscle repair and to restore your glycogen levels. Glycogen is a form of long-term energy storage in the body, so restoring its levels will help you maintain your energy and enjoyment of multi-day hikes.
If you’re eating at home, prepare a meal that includes lean protein like beans, eggs, fish, tofu, quinoa, or turkey. If you’re camping overnight, opt for nut butters, beef jerky, quick oats or sachets of tuna. More than 45 minutes from home? Pack some food in the car or pop some protein bars in your hiking pack to reap the benefits.
Don't let blisters ruin your recovery or your hike
One common but preventable thing that compromises your post-hike recovery is the blister. Not only will it be a major cause of discomfort and even pain during a hike, but it will see you hobbling around for a week after your hike.
Make sure you follow these steps to prevent blisters when hiking, while also cleaning and maintaining the condition (and water-resistance) of your shoes post-hike.
A post-hike recovery must: rehydrate ASAP
If you want to recover fast, rehydrate. Even though you’ll be sipping water throughout, most people will still be slightly dehydrated after a hike. This is more true at high altitude where the body naturally dehydrates faster, or during cold weather when we forget to drink as much as we should.
How much water? That will depend on your individual hike conditions. But as a general rule of thumb, hikers should consume at least two cups of water immediately after they finish to aid in their recovery.
Like protein and carbohydrates, water is essential for muscle repair. In fact, some studies show that glycogen production and muscle repair is slowed by up to 50 per cent when muscles aren’t properly hydrated, so all the more reason to reach for your water bottle.
If the weather is hot and humid (or the trail is long and relentless) it might be necessary to rehydrate with an electrolyte solution. Pack a few electrolyte sachets as part of your first-aid kit, especially if you’re prone to heavy sweating or have low blood pressure.
Of course, nothing will help in your hydration more than a water bladder. More accessible than a water bottle and able to carry more water, a water bladder will reduce how much you need to drink post-hike.
Look after your feet
Look after your feet and you’re less likely to have aches, pains and blisters. To keep your feet in tip-top condition, incorporate a few extra steps in your recovery routine.
Dry out your shoes. Blisters are more likely to occur in a warm, damp environment. After your hike, remove your shoes as soon as possible, expose as much of the inside as possible, and let them dry out overnight. If you’re at camp, slip into some thongs, breathable socks or comfy slippers.
Give yourself a well-deserved foot massage. Massage increases blood flow and circulation and will help any niggly aches and pains. Start in the arch and work your way up around your ankles.
Wear compression socks. Not just for long haul flights, compression socks will also help increase blood flow to your feet and calves for faster muscle repair.
Moisturise and exfoliate. You can choose to minimise callouses by exfoliating and moisturising your feet on a regular basis. Blisters that form under callouses can be very painful and difficult to remove — the last thing you want on the trail.
Get rolling on your foam roller
Massage has been shown by some studies to be one of the most effective ways to minimise muscle soreness. Instead of shelling out for a professional massage every time you hike, invest in a foam roller instead.
Like a typical massage, foam rolling encourages blood flow to tender, sore muscles and helps improve mobility and overall performance. It’s one of the best and easiest ways to aid your recovery.
If you’re new to foam rolling, aim to roll a few inches away from tender areas, using short, slow rolls. Spend around 30 seconds on each muscle before moving on.
Don't have a foam roller or are mid-hike? If you’re on a multi-day expedition, opt for a tennis ball instead of a foam roller. If you are hiking with others, beyond your tennis ball routine, take turns in shoulder massages. Get a good grip of the upper trapezius (either side of the neck) and squeeze! This area gets a lot of pressure on it because of your hiking pack and can tighten up over a multi-day hike. Don't worry, you'll feel this one.
Try a hot or cold treatment
After an intense hike, an ice or heat treatment can be beneficial for post-hike recovery. Cold treatments, like ice packs or baths, can help with inflammation, while heat packs encourage more blood flow to tender muscles. One US study in 2015 found that athletes who had performed squats for 15 minutes lost 24% muscle strength as a result, but if a cold/hot treatment was provided immediately after exercise, they only lost 4% muscle strength.
You may be lucky enough to end your day near a creek, river or swimming hole. Don't pass up the opportunity to soak your legs and feet in anticipation for the following day.
Repair sore muscles with a good night’s sleep
Sleep plays an important role in preventing muscle pain after a hike. According to the National Sleep Foundation, there are four cycles of sleep we go through multiple times each night. During the deepest part of our sleep, blood flow increases to our muscles which helps them to repair, while hormones such as the human growth hormone are released.
If you’re sleeping outdoors after a hike, don’t skimp on your bedding. Bring temperature appropriate sleeping bags, sleeping mats, and clothing so you can give yourself the best sleep possible.
Keep moving to aid your post-hike recovery
It might sound counterproductive, but if you experience stiff, sore muscles in the days following a hike, consider some low-intensity cardio or low-impact exercises.
A little gentle movement is a good thing. It can help stretch tight muscles, increase blood flow, and flood your brain with happy endorphins — all being natural antidotes for lingering pain.
While we don’t recommend hitting your nearest summit, it’s a good idea to take a relaxed walk around the neighbourhood, swim a few easy laps in the pool or perform some basic exercises at home.
Avoid a long recovery
If you’re hiking, chances are you’re probably going to feel the burn, and that’s a good thing. But if you want to avoid a long term recovery that could include injury, inflammation, chafing, sunburn or dehydration, it’s essential to come prepared with the right gear.
At a minimum, wear in your hiking boots, fit your hiking pack properly (speak to staff in-store for help with this), wear appropriate layers and use a water bladder. For hikes that feature steep inclines and declines, loose terrain and river crossings (or all three!) consider a set of walking poles to maintain your balance and minimise injury.