By Jenny Neyman
The sun made a valiant effort to burn through its cloud veil Sunday, coaxing green buds to spread on trees, spring flowers to poke up out of last fall’s detritus, and at least one central peninsula resident to shelve housework in favor of a workout.
“I’ve just been working on my house too much and decided to take the day off. I thought about going kayaking or hiking, but I decided I needed to stretch my legs,” said Dawn Bragg, of Sterling.
“My husband and I just moved to Sterling from the (Matanuska-Susitna) valley last June. This is my first spring hiking on the Kenai Peninsula, so I was excited to see what’s out here.”
The destination for her inaugural hike of the season was Skyline Trail, a 1.5-mile trek with 1,800 feet of elevation gain near Mile 61of the Sterling Highway.
Early on in the hike, Bragg was noticing her surroundings — a few spring lilies growing by the side of the trail and emerging views of blue-green Jean Lake below sparkling in the sunlight.
Come Monday, though, chances are that she would notice something else from her hike — stiff, uncomfortable legs.
“I’ll be sore, especially going down this steep stuff here. I haven’t used these muscles in a while,” Bragg said.
Muscle soreness is a common part of spring hiking, when people dust off the hiking gear, and muscle groups, they haven’t used much since last year.
The steeper the first hike, the more likely it is to result in sore legs, said Jason Buckbee, a physical therapist with Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna. But the soreness may not come from what people expect.
As hikers toil up the hill, thoughts of going back down seem to offer blessed relief from ragged breath and muscles straining to haul weight forward.
“Actually with Skyline, going down the hill is harder on muscles than going up it,” Buckbee said.
That’s because the leg muscles that combat gravity and stop the body’s downward motion on a hill aren’t used to as much strenuous use as the ones needed to get uphill, so they’re more prone to injury. Muscles have two types of contractions, Buckbee said. Concentric contraction is the most common, when muscles contract and shorten at the same time, like when going up a hill.
Eccentric contractions are when muscles contract yet lengthen at once, which happens going downhill. There’s more force on those muscles, causing them to form micro-tears in the muscle fiber, which release toxins and cause soreness.
Muscles may be weary during or right after a hike — the much-dreaded Jell-O leg phenomenon — but typically aren’t painful. As a result, people miss a critical opportunity to prevent some of the worst of the soreness from setting in.
“Light stretching of the quads and hamstrings will reduce soreness, rather than just hopping in the car,” Buckbee said.
That’s a pitfall Bragg admits to.
“I just kind of deal with it (soreness). Stretching is a good thing, but I don’t always think about it. If I remember, I do it,” she said.
To really prevent spring muscle aches, hikers should have started this winter, by doing regular aerobic and strengthening exercises. If that didn’t happen, don’t start out hiking something steep, Buckbee said.
“Ideally, people who are hiking Skyline have hopefully been doing some kind of strength training through the winter. If not, they probably don’t want to attack something like Skyline on their first hike of the season. Start with general walking, then lighter hikes, because strong muscles don’t have to work as hard going up the trail, especially steep ones,” he said.
While on the trail, there are a few things hikers can do to lessen downhill-related soreness.
“You can walk down backwards, if you like,” Buckbee said.
OK, not really. But using poles does help.
“For every pound pushing down on the poles that’s one less pound your muscles have to absorb. But you’re putting some stress on your upper extremities. You may notice a little bit of soreness in your arms afterward, but overall it’s easier on your legs and especially your knees,” he said.
Making sure both legs are used the same, rather than favoring one foot over the other, helps by evenly distributing the muscle exertion.
“You definitely want to try to work them evenly as much as you can. If you’re walking asymmetrically, it throws the mechanics off from the foot all the way up to your lower back,” Buckbee said.
There are also things that don’t help prevent hill-induced soreness. Fancy hiking boots are one of them.
Wearing comfortable, well-fitting, supportive footwear is important on any trail, but hikers don’t necessarily need heavy-duty boots on steep climbs. Boots are important for stabilizing ankles against twists and sprains, and are good when carrying heavy packs. But those aren’t usually concerns on a steep trail like Skyline, Buckbee said.
“I hike it in like a running-type shoe or trail runner. To me, that’s less weight on each foot I have to carry up the trail. Unless you’re prone to ankle sprains or carrying a load, ankle support won’t be as big of an issue,” he said.
Running downhill, on the theory that it lessens the amount of time the downhill leg muscles are working, also doesn’t help.
“Running is not going to do much good,” Buckbee said. “It’s actually going to be harder on your knees running down the hill. Those will really hurt from all the extra pounding.”
After the hike, stretching and icing are key.
“Initially afterward, ice is your best friend. Any new injury or new soreness, ice it for the first two to three days afterward. Ice and ibuprofen, that sort of thing,” Buckbee said.
Those willing to go to the icing extreme to eradicate soreness can try sitting in a tub of ice water. That’s a popular remedy used by long-distance runners. It’s effective, but not terribly pleasant.
“I think I’d rather be sore for two days,” Buckbee said.
Muscle soreness generally worsens two days after an exertion, as opposed to the first day after, as lactic acid from the muscle tears builds up. Although moving around can be the last thing the afflicted may want to do, it’s a good idea.
“Some light activity, like walking, and drinking plenty of water helps work the soreness out better than just sitting around and waiting for the soreness to go away,” Buckbee said.
Other than leg pain, back pain is a common hiking ailment, usually from improperly carrying too heavy a load.
“Make sure they’ve had somebody who knows what they’re doing fit their backpack to them. I’ve seen pretty large-looking packs for day hikes going on with people. The more weight you have higher up on the body, the worse it is,” Buckbee said.
“Most other things are environmental hazards — poison oak, insect bites, sunburn, things like that,” Buckbee said.
“Just try not to bite off more than you can chew early in the season.”