Our walking doctor, Ian Runcie, explains how to do it!
Recently an acquaintance of mine, new to hiking, nearly gave up because of pain in the calves after walking up a steep hill. I was obliged to tell him that he was doing it wrong.
Here’s an experiment: sit at the dining table with your hands underneath the table, palm upwards and press up with your hands so as to oppose your getting up from the chair. Now move your feet back and angle your feet so they are on tip toe. Now try to push yourself up on your toes whilst pushing up hard with your hands. Where do you feel the tension? Hopefully, if my experiment works, you will feel quite strong tension in your calves. Now repeat with your heels on the floor. You should feel tension in the muscles around the spine and, if you push harder, in the muscles in the back of your thigh. These are very strong muscles and will lift you up hills all day without aching.
The answer then is to use your heels, not your toes, to go uphill. It is, of course, tempting to place the balls of your feet on the ground as you go up, especially if there are small stony crevices that your toes fit nicely into. But if you are going up any notable height- don’t. Instead move your feet slightly sideways and slam your heels into the ground – every step. Your calves will will thank you for it and will be ok for another few thousand feet on the morrow.
Take a step. What part of your shoe hits the ground first? For most people it’s the outside edge of the heel. The human foot has yet to evolve perfectly to walking upright and this is one reason for our tendency to fall (another is our fondness for ethanol).
Boot and shoe manufacturers spend a great amount of time designing grips for our boots but most of the time we just don’t use them. If it is at all wet or slippery, this part of the heel tends to whizz forwards with nothing but fresh air behind it. Small wonder there are so many falls.
We can use the grips that the bootmaker provides by altering our step and slamming down our toes or the balls of our feet when we go downhill- every step. It feels so much safer that very soon you will find that it becomes second nature.
A word of warning though, boot grips are not perfect and the most treacherous terrain for falls is not rocky downhill paths but wet grass which under certain circumstances can become like glass. Be aware of this, go slow, lower your centre of gravity and move it backwards so that, if you do fall, you don’t have so far to go and don’t fly forwards.
Sideways on a slope or ‘contour chasing’
This is frequent cause of sprained or even broken ankles. The downhill foot can buckle causing sudden strain on the ligaments around the ankle. The solution is obvious: move your downhill foot outwards, the steeper the slope, the greater should be the angle of your foot – every step. Remember to place your toes down first as above.
And if you do fall
I speak from hard experience.
You often get some warning of a fall. Above all let your body relax; stiffness is your enemy. Try to fall sideways onto the muscles of the back of your arm if you can and tuck your head in. Failing that, there are bad ways and not so bad ways of falling forward. Practice helps, as any wrestler or judoka or even skier will know. But not everyone will want to practise by throwing themselves violently forward onto the ground. I don’t know if fell runners practise falling but perhaps they should.
Assuming you have time not to fall flat on your face or chin (if that applies you were probably moving to fast), the worst thing to do is to fling out and stiffen up your arms. This is known in A&E departments as a FOOSH (fall on outstretched hand). You can break any of the bones between your fingers and your shoulders that way. If you do fall on the outstretched arm, relaxing will allow the elbows and shoulders to act as springs rather than like sticks and help to absorb the impact. Bending your elbows slightly with your hands palm outwards will also help.
What you really need to do is turn sideways whilst turning your head the opposite way to avoid head injury. Try to get as much of the fleshy parts of your arms and behind your shoulders to hit the ground first to absorb the impact. Best of all is to roll – watch the wrestlers and the way they seem to roll up one arm and take the impact onto the muscles behind the shoulder. Keep rolling round as far as possible and, if you have a backpack, you can even transfer some of the impact onto this. Unfortunately a good roll is usually the result of some practice: see the relevant section (1.5) of this wikihow for info.