Open main menu

Going down was the pits! I need suggestions, please.

Okay... stay with me now cuz I'm hoping one of y'all can help.. I live in the flat lands.. but an old college friend and I are going to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone for a "girls getaway".. uhhhhh and we're in our 50s.. and she's rarely camped much less backpacked.. and I'm a walker and hiker on flatlands with some backpacking experience in Arkansas and Washington State.. but don't have mountain experience (especially at high altitudes) other than reading, watching you tube videos, etc.

I went for a short training hike on an 8% grade over 6 miles in an attempt to get some elevation (don't laugh I had to drive several hours to find that!).. and I had no problem going up but going down hurt like the dickens.  My calves were on fire! I ended up walking backwards to relieve the pain. I work out a lot.. lift weights.. do HIIT.. do long slow walks with some running.. but... 

So, my question is this - How in the world do I get my calves ready for the downhill in the Tetons??  I have tried everything to replicate the feeling and I got nothin'..

Any help is appreciated.. 

Best thing I can think of is to get a "training pack" and fill it with books or heavy items up to around 40 lbs and start climbing hills on a daily basis.  This will work out the kinks.

And 90% of all leg issues and pains can be "walked out" and while painful for awhile will disappear as mysteriously as they appeared.

hmm, yeah flatland training is hard...the best way to train for any activity is to do it but not having hills makes that very difficult.

maybe some of our mid-western members will weigh in.

I climb bigg-ish peaks in the cascades and my leg days are really important to me. 

I hope this isn't overwhelming:

You are an RN so I assume I don't have to give the warning of starting easy, blah blah blah...

To me the calves are an uphill muscle and the quads are downhill ones.  I do a lot of toe raisers and running in football stadiums.  For quads I do squats and dead-lifts (low weight/high reps) I also like lunges while holding weights. 

With your standing toe/calf raises, do them on stairs or a step one leg at a time.  Work up to three sets of 20-25 on each leg.  If you have a way to do it, try weighted calf raises every other workout, low reps (2-6) with high weight.  Use enough weight on low-rep days so that its really hard to finish that third set.

Step ups onto a 12-16" box, three sets of 30-40 each leg then step downs, three sets of 30-40 reps on each leg is also fantastic. 

Box jumps, whatever height you can do, three sets of 20-25 will also strengthen your core and your explosiveness which helpe a lot in the steeps.

I hope this helps.  PM me if you'd like to talk more.  Legs are actually pretty easy to train even in the flat lands.

Go get it!

As Walter and Patrick implied, the old saying "the best training for an activity is the activity itself". (for reference, you and your companion are "just kids" from my point of view, having passed 7 decades and well into my 8th decade - my wife and I did a 10.5 mile, altitude gain and descent of 2100 feet yesterday with no soreness - but we do hikes like that at least ever couple days, plus frequent walking up and down the stairs in our house)

Walking on the flats helps. But,as you found, the downhill part is hardest on the knees, hip joints, calves, and thighs. To emphasize - get to the hills as much as possible, the steeper the better (but start easy and build up, to repeat once again)

Stair climbing (up and down) with a loaded pack, or a stair walker or treadmill help a little bit if you can't get to some kind of slope. But doing real hills is the best. Start with smaller loads (10-15 pounds) and work up to the 40 pounds that Walter suggested (since you have zero experience with hills, take it step at a time - but you can work from the 10 pound pack up to Tipi's 40 pounds in just a couple weeks of daily hiking on hills - doing a hill once a month gains nothing - daily, daily, daily is the way).

You can relieve the soreness temporarily in several ways - massage by someone trained in athletic massage, soaking in a hot tub/Jacuzi, or NSAIDS (Non-Steroidal-Anti-Inflamatory-Drugs - with Naproxin said by MDs to be most effective and Ibuprofen next - but do NOT depend on the pills for long-term use - they have some really bad side effects on the liver, including death, if you use them long-term - training is the best cure).

Another thing that helps most people is just walking the soreness out (Walter mentioned this already).

Oh, and another thing in preparing for real trails on steep hills - seek out rocky trails after you do a bit of building your leg strength. It's easy to fall into training on well-groomed trails. But when you star more extended backpacking in the western mountains, you will find that a lot of trails are rougher. Doing the rough trails will help build your sense of balance as well as the muscle strength. Once you do develop the strength and balance going up and down hills on rough trails, you will find hiking the hills a real pleasure (and you will be able to go faster and enjoy the scenery more when you don't have to continuously stare at your feet to see where to place them).

I am a big fan of stair climbers for mountain training. You can add weight on your back and resistance as you progress. I like to climb hills as part of the training, but that may not be possible. If you are newbies from the flat lands, maybe you do not want to sleep out there in Ystone or Les Trois Teton. Consider car camping and doing day hikes during the day and sleeping in a campground. Your hiking will be much easier, and your sleeping will give you some peace of mind.

To prepare for downhills in a place where you have none, go up and down lots of stairs. Try some weight machines.

Thanks everyone for the advice....

Tipi, I've been doing the training pack for about 45 days now.. and you are right, as weird as it sounds I got my calves back to normal by walking walking walking... 

Jeff, I'm already doing all you spoke of EXCEPT the calf raises and weighted calf raises.. (oh and box jumps, can't do them as I have had a ruptured achilles in the past and don't want to take any chances.. so I stick to the step-ups).. I have started the calf raises with slooooowww eccentric movement and will progress to weighted ones soon.. thank so much for the thoughtful and detailed response.

Bill!   wow.. you inspire me... and my take away from your post is DAILY DAILY DAILY.. got it!

ppine.. my "back up" plan is car camping... but I really have my heart set on backpacking... but I promise to be smart about it because I also want to enjoy my vacation!  Thank you so much for taking the time to respond... 

I have been having trouble with my hip with the metal in it. I talked with my physical therapist. Was it arthritis, scar tissue, age, bad tendons? No. He said stretch more and get busier.

Your calves may ache merely because of flexibility issues.  Stretch until you can touch the ground with your palms.  Do not perform strength oriented exercises until you attain this level of flexibility.  The internet will provide several suitable back and leg stretching exercises. 

Bicycling is a great calf conditioning exercise, especially when done using a system that clamps your foot to the pedal.  Real bicycles on real roads are far superior to gym spin cycles for this purpose.

In lieu of real hills consider real stairs.  Climb the equivalent of twenty flights every other day.  You can toughen up the calves by placing only the forward half of your foot on the step as you advance upward.  This forces you to rely more on your calf muscles.

Incorporate calf muscle conditioning into your every day activities: walk with an exaggerated spring on your stride; when seated flex your ankles to lift your heels of the floor; You can also perform this ankle flex while standing.

You might want to confer with a sport medicine specialist to make sure your footwear provides adequate arch support.  Poorly match footwear causes all sorts of issues.

While this doesn't seem related, poor core muscle tone can cause pain in other parts of the body - your calves may be compensating for abdominal muscle issues.  There are yoga strengthening exercises that are excellent for building core muscle tone without busting a sweat.


not much to add.  Keep in mind that while muscles contract in a one way when you are going uphill, eg stair climbing machines, they contract differently when you are going downhill, when your legs are effectively operating like a braking mechanism.

machines are great for training your heart and muscles for the uphill; not very useful for the downhill.  there isn't a great substitute for the real thing.

in the absence of accessible hills to walk up and down, i look for steep stairs (older buildings, college campuses maybe, stadiums).  that's the best simulation I have found for hiking up and down short of being on a trail, and keeping in mind as Bill observed that walking up and down a  uniform trail or stairs doesn't fully capture how a rocky trail feels on your legs.  you're doing the right thing by going up and down with weight on your back.

one thing you can't simulate for the Tetons is the altitude.  Jenny Lake, a popular jumping-off point for many great hikes in the Tetons, is nearly 6800 feet, and you can easily gain 4000/5000 vertical feet on a healthy day hike from there.  No matter what you do, your legs and head may feel the altitude.

also, weather changes quickly and sometimes violently, and you need to respect it.  I have gone from a sunny and pleasant mid-morning to torrential rain and getting pelted by hail shortly after lunch in the Tetons.   

for all these reasons, suggest that if you plan an ambitious day hike, leave a lot more time than you think is necessary and have alternative plans to turn around or camp short of your ultimate goal, just in case.    

Hi one thing I tell new people is to "get off the brakes" 

try to keep knees unlocked and just let it happen. If I was to describe some of my descents it's like controlled falling. Here in Nz it pretty much only hills so I'm quite used to it. 

Anyway relax on the downhill and you will find it much better. 

Nathan Stretch said:

Hi one thing I tell new people is to "get off the brakes" 

try to keep knees unlocked and just let it happen. If I was to describe some of my descents it's like controlled falling. Here in Nz it pretty much only hills so I'm quite used to it. 

Anyway relax on the downhill and you will find it much better. 

Controlled falling is exactly what it is. The key to this sort of descent is strong leg muscles. Each landing requires the legs, especially the quads, to catch your falling body and direct it to the next landing on the other leg.

Too steep of terrain or weak legs will likely result in a trip to the hospital though. Control is the important part, otherwise you are just falling.

No offense intended, but you have many things stacked against you for this trip. Lack of experience, and the altitude are the main ones. Even if you get in shape, it is going to be challenging to go on a trip like the one you are talking about.  I would urge you to go to Wyo and have a great time, but camp out of a vehicle. You will be less sore and less scared. The country you have chosen is not very forgiving.

The advice given by everyone here is sound advice to be sure, and I can't disagree with any of it.

But, I wholeheartedly agree with ppine. What you are planning is comparable to spending 40+ years in the kiddie pool, and then suddenly being dropped in the ocean 500 miles from shore.

Remember... "baby steps".

I guess I have to disagree about camping out of a car and the fear factor.  I'm not hearing plans to summit the Grand Teton or do some other class 5 terrain - that would be a big concern.  Last time I hiked in the Tetons, I had my kids (15, 13, 10 at the time) and a spouse who is in good shape but not a big hiker.  We were fine.  Grand Teton National Park is huge and has some big, hard climbs, but there are plenty of manageable options that are safe and only moderately taxing in terms of difficulty and altitude.  So long as you plan well, understand how much vertical gain you can handle considering the elevation, and make smart decisions that account for weather that can change fast, should be fun and safe.  

A late comment...

Some find trekking poles of some use in this kind of situation.

Note how often folk comment that they started to use trekking poles AFTER they got bad knees or something along those lines.

I started using them before and I still don't have bad knees.

August 4, 2020
Quick Reply

Please sign in to reply