We have an annual hill climb challenge at Active Life Condition called the Grind. It’s about a 2.2km trail that ascends 237m up Blue Mountain in Collingwood, Ontario. With this challenge seems to come a sudden increase in the amount of hill climb training volume and in the past, this has led to the surfacing of knee aches and pains. I wanted to highlight an often-overlooked weakness that can contribute to knee pain to help mitigate these issues.
Often the knee itself isn’t the initial problem but becomes the primary concern when other structures in the body aren’t functioning optimally. Hips and ankles are the two most common areas that directly effect the health of your knee. When we look at the biomechanics of a hill climb, due to the incline and increased forward angle of the torso, the demand placed through the hips differs from walking or running on a flat surface. The force that is driven through the ankle and foot also changes dramatically due to these angles and combining this with the uneven ground surface of a trail, the demand for ankle and foot mobility intensifies as well. Having the stability and awareness to maintain the proper alignment to channel these forces through your body in the safest most efficient manner is crucial, and what we often see is the poor knee having to take up the slack being sandwiched between rigid or unstable hips and ankles.
The glutes get a lot of attention when it comes to hills or stairs, but I find the hip flexors tend to be a little more overlooked. With an incline they are required to move the thigh higher into a range of motion often not used and generally weaker. This leaves them prone to quicker fatigue and compensatory patterns occurring to achieve the hip flexion movement. The videos below lend an explanation as well as an exercise tip to help create strength within this range. Remember, this is just one of many things that could be occurring, it’s important look at the big picture, and take everything into consideration. Enjoy!