This post from 2013 was edited and expanded in 2020. This is one out of a handful of our favorite articles on walking, including topics covering what various “walking parts” do as well as other whole-body considerations. Find the rest of them in the walking section of Our Favorite Feet, Footwear, and Walking Resources.
I get asked, a lot, about gait—specifically what to do if hiking or taking stairs hurts the knees. Gait is a blanket term for walking, but since the physics of walking change depending on the terrain, so do gait parameters.
There are the movements that get you over flat and level ground, and then there are movements that take you up and downhill, each with their own set of mechanical parameters. Here is a video on uphill and downhill about how to makeover your hiking to use your hips more and your knees less.
P.S. You can apply most of this to stair-walking. The only issue is the size of the stair forces you into a particular gait patten that might not match the best one for your body size and shape.
Going Upstairs: Maintain the vertical shin on the front leg. This uses the glutes of the front leg and calf of the back leg, instead of the quads (and knee cartilage) of the front leg.
Going Downstairs: Let the pelvis toggle to drop your foot closer to the step below. Don't force the knees to bend excessively to make up for pelvic immobility. Dig?
When hiking hurts
Just like all of you, I have body niggles that come and go. When they do come, my strategy is to first pay close attention to how I feel—if the sensation changes in various situations, if it's transient (comes and goes), or if it migrates (doesn't stay in the same spot but moves around). I also evaluate how I've been taking care of myself—what sort of movements I've been doing lately (what type and how much), anything new I've added, other stress sources, or if there are other issues going on in my life. What I rarely do is freak out or stop moving all together.
August is outdoor season extraordinaire so I wanted to keep logging miles. Still, how I was walking wasn't working. Rather than pushing through the pain (I don't ever recommend that) or adopting a wildly different way of walking, I played with the mobilities I knew could keep me moving well and take off some of the knee load. In short, I added more pelvic motion in a way that reduced the need for so much knee motion. In this video, meet my friend, the Pelvic List.
Finally, arm swing! Going downhill is different from walking on flat and level ground, and also different than going uphill, because during downhill walking gravity is pulling you and you have to sort of slow yourself down. In this case, the active direction of arm swing is forward (vs. backward, see Swing Forward? for more on that). If your upper body is stiff and not participating, your knees have to do more to slow you, so invite your arms on your next hike!
To practice: Find a downhill close to home you can take over and over again, and relax your arms to see how going uphill and downhill changes how you use your arms, naturally. Once your arms are going, check how using your arms changes the work at the knees.
Once you've made it up the mountain, find out how to get down here: Fix Your Downhill Knees