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Your Starting Material Matters
Natural or lifelong athletes can knock-out events like the Grand Canyon’s Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim without much specific training but those of us at the other end of the spectrum, the ‘barely making it’ athletes, must be very strategic in their preparation.

We are among those marginal athletes that can do big events only by being very methodical and deliberate in our preparation. I however believe that being technically elderly when we started hiking seriously and then becoming amateur endurance hikers, wasn’t much of an issue except perhaps, for healing and recovery time. Our challenges were much more about the lack of a lifetime of a high level of conditioning than age. On some levels, we were starting from scratch but also with fewer old injuries than real athletes.

Durability Training
We spent a year training for our first round trip Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim with only a one night layover in 2018, which is about 46 miles and 11,000’ of gain in 2 days. We felt so good afterwards that we actually were inspired to do the whole thing again, the round trip event, just over a week later. Doing Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim didn’t turn many heads but doing it twice in a little over a week did.

I attributed our unexpected success to our emphasis on “durability” training. We habituated our bodies to the various stresses by doing two 20 mile hikes 2 days in a row once a month and did a 20 miler once a week for almost 6 months. When put to the test in the Grand Canyon, we clearly achieved our goal of developing our durability and maintaining our resilience with that level of conditioning. Of course, we are clueless as to whether we had done just enough durability training or more than was needed, but it worked and that was all that mattered to us.

I can’t really describe what our ‘durability training’ was doing but I applied a rule we’d learned decades earlier when training for our first marathon, which was that it takes about 6 months for soft tissues to adapt to a new sport. Six months was also the minimum time for the mind-body to adapt to something new, like a foreign language which requires neuromuscular patterning, so 6 months became my arbitrary minimum for durability. Perhaps it was right for the wrong reason, but we didn’t hurt ourselves and unexpectedly could repeat the event just over a week later. After both pairs of events, we felt fine: we didn’t have any injuries, and weren’t particularly weary.

Surprisingly, the hardest phase of our conditioning was bumping our miles up from 15 per hike to 20. For months, we collapsed on the floor of our trailer after a 15 miler, seemingly without progress. But eventually we achieved whatever ‘filling-in’ that our bodies needed at that level of output. In hindsight, we concluded it was a metabolic issue, rather than a musculoskeletal or strength issue, though its difficult to be specific about what that really means: perhaps “It just took time”.

The first time we made the single crossing from the North Rim to the South in 2016, there was a flood of hikers and runners on what was the last weekend of the summer season in mid-October. It was a festive mood on the trail and I used it as an opportunity to chat with anyone I could. It quickly be came clear that the make-or-break issues for most people were their feet, their knees, and their backs.


Back in 2016, I spoke with one man in the moving party in the Canyon who was clearly tense from pain and I assumed he had buttock muscle spasms which I thought I might be able to help him with. When I inquired, he said “Five blisters on my feet. I trained in one pair of shoes, am hiking in another, and that was a big mistake.” I had a similar experience years ago doing urban walking in sandals made for the city but that I only had used on the trail: I ended the 10 mile day with 5 blisters, including under a toe nail and on the ball of my foot. Urban walking created a repetitive use injury for my skin that I had avoided in the same footwear on uneven trail terrain. The obvious lesson learned by him was “Do your high mileage hikes in your event shoes” and I would add “on the same kind of surfaces”. Also, your skin’s tolerance to abuse can be quite different in the last 10 miles than in the first 10.

We have a huge bias towards minimalist trail runners or sport sandals and we never hike in boots because of the decreased ankle mobility. When I’m willing to suffer carrying the extra 2 pounds for a second pair of footwear, I’m happiest when I descent from the Rim in shoes and traverse the valley and make the ascent in sandals.

Plantar Flexion
The shoe selection issue is in the trail lore but the extreme range of motion (ROM) needed by your feet and ankles on the S Kaibab Trail can be impeded by your footwear. The steepness is legendary but how to prepare for it isn’t discussed much. We believe that there are 3 ways to diminish the stresses of descending the S Kaibab Trail, which are using a pair of trekking poles (not just one), wearing minimalist shoes for maximum ankle flexibility, and stretching the tops of your feet months before the hike.

The extra stability of poles allow one to push their speed a bit and decrease the “g’s” through the feet and knees with every step. Minimalist shoes have flexible soles, which permit the more pointed-toe foot plant of plantar flexion. Landing on your forefoot instead of your heel on a descent effectively decreases the height of the step that your hips must accommodate, decreasing the accumulated forces on your feet and entire body. Stretching the tops of your feet allows you to capitalize on the ankle mobility afforded by minimalist shoes.

I am clueless as to why, but I know that my leg muscles involved in toe-pointing tend to get short. Every Rim-2-Rim season, I resume a stretching program for them. In 2021, I finally found a dynamite stretch that also created the opportunity to improve the similarity between the shape of my feet. An ankle sprain in my 20’s resulted in my left ankle never being quite right and the deformity was more pronounced in my new stretch.
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”Dolphin Feet”

Descending the very steep Kaibab trail, North or South, is vastly faster and easier if you maximize the plantar flexion of your feet (think of a ballerina in toe shoes). I have no training, no credentials, so proceed at your own risk with my method, knowing that this worked for me and may not be at all appropriate for you.

Start months in advance. It is important to work slowly so as to not destabilize your feet or legs by over-stretching, which can be permanent if you overstretch the ligaments. Begin by being able to comfortably kneel on the floor with your feet flat and your butt on your heels for several minutes. Do not endure knee pain. If and when this is easy, start stretching in this position with your heels farther and farther out to the sides, eventually comfortably sitting with your butt on the floor and your lower legs and feet along side your thighs. DO NOT endure pain! Work it slowly. Perhaps this pose isn’t appropriate for you at all. If it is painful and you want to pursue it, seek professional guidance to help troubleshoot this pose for you.

This kneeling pose has been a part of my regular flexibility routine for decades, but I clearly needed a more advanced stretch for descending on the Kaibab Trail. I read online about swimmers who specialized in the dolphin stroke putting weights on the tops of their feet while sitting on the floor with outstretched legs and feet. For several years, I did just that with 10 pound soft ankle weights in the fall before heading to the Grand Canyon. It helped but wasn’t satisfying. Finally, I learned to use available furniture to effectively put my feet in a vise and create the greater plantar flexion I longed for.

Bookshelves with a little overhang at the bottom just work for my short toes. Alternatively, the accompanying photo is of my feet in a perfect little cubby hole in our trailer. I stuff my toes into the cut-out area next to the bed making sure that my feet are straight and very symmetrical. I start with my legs long and my knees bent a bit. I slowly straighten my knees, putting more and more downward pressure on the toe end of the tops of my feet to increase my toe-pointing, my plantar flexion. When that is going well, I press my calves down hard to increase the stretch; maybe weeks later, I lower my upper body down to increase the force on my feet further.

This is NOT ‘no pain, no gain’. Respect the pain and don’t go there. You want to be able to walk. It never hurts when I do my “dolphin feet” even though I significantly increased my range of motion over a period of months. Now, I test them in the same ‘vice’ every week or two, and there no longer is any reduction in mobility.

Pay special attention to having a “matched pair”. Having symmetrical feet will decrease the strain on your entire body with each foot strike; don’t let one or both feet ‘sickle’ or curve. Consider enlisting the help of a massage therapist to improve the mobility in your feet and ankles and the symmetry between them.

Ankle Stability
We love minimalist shoes and forefoot striking on descents for the enhanced nimbleness it has given us, especially on steep, prolonged descents like the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail, but Bill eventually got into trouble with his natural, excessive mobility; one practitioner strongly recommended boots. We were appalled at the thought: we’d seen too many hikers on the South Kaibab side-stepping and doing other awkward maneuvers to navigate the descent with restricted ankle mobility of boots to the detriment of their speed and stability. We were sure the gyrations were being felt in their knees, hips, and backs by the end of the day.

Bill discovered the middle ground, a way to stabilize his ankles without compromising his mobility in boots, which was wearing ankle splints. With the splints, he gets mechanical support to prevent his ankle rolling to the outside but without constricting his plantar, or front, flexion. He sometimes uses a sports medicine taping technic to prevent ankle sprains when he needs a break from the splints. He can forefoot strike and plantar flex in minimalist trail running shoes with all of the ankle stability he needs while wearing the splints.

Below is the splint Bill likes; note that you buy a left and right splint separately:

Oh, those precious knees! We always use a pair of trekking poles on the South Kaibab so we can speed along with less impact on our knees with every footstep. Improving the plantar flexion of the feet and landing on the ball of the foot also spares the knees. The foot actually has 2 arches in it and they act like springs to absorb some of the impact of landing when in minimalist shoes, reducing the stressful ripples up into the rest of the body.

The short gait of forefoot striking keeps your knees more under your center of gravity instead of out in front of it as happens with a bigger stride, which also reduces the strain on the knees. I have very vulnerable knees and I am also pristine about landing with my knees in line with my feet instead of twisting a bit at the knee; that often requires an extra step, but it quickly became an effortless habit.

Myofascial release work on the quads was magic for my knee health. I began it in 2016 and my knees are the best they’ve been in my lifetime. It was a huge investment in both pain and time; I estimated I spent about 500 hours that first year primarily releasing the over-tensioning by soft tissues in my quads. For most of my adult life, I had chronically swollen knees and now I frequently coo about their delightful, boney look, even after a Rim-2-Rim crossing.

For me, aggressive, deep, myofascial release work in the thicket of quad and hamstring attachments above my knees on the lateral, or outside, of my knees also diminishes the ratchety quality to their movement on descents. In a pinch, the hooked end of a trekking pole handle is an effective tool to separate the tissues, though a companion’s help may be needed to obtain the best angle for applying the needed pressure.

A quick way for me to monitor my knee readiness for hard descents is to walk down steep steps. Even the last step of 3 on our trailer is enough of a challenge for me to assess my knee health. The step is often about 18” off of the ground, which is enough of a drop to stress my right knee. If I detect the familiar strain, I increase my myofascial release work. It may take days of focused work, perhaps for 30 minutes or more per day, to tune it up for a hard hike.

Working up to doing lunges and squats is also good strengthening for the muscle surrounding the knee joints, helps condition your body for big steps, and improves core strength.

A summary of how I have tackled my knee problems can be found in:

Treating Neck Pain

Good posture, including good neck position, can make or break your endurance event in the Canyon. Poor alignment is fatiguing because less capable muscles get recruited to hold you up, tiring them and you, prematurely.

The steepness of the trails will exaggerate your poor form so it’s best to anchor good alignment during your training. A winning strategy all of the time for your neck is to ditch looking down by bending forward at the waist and extending the forward curving at your neck. Instead, re-pattern that impulse and replace it with stabilizing your low back, pulling your head backwards so it is balanced over your spine, bringing you chin backwards like closing a drawer, and then pivoting your head down to see your feet.

This video has great exercises to help you find a neutral upper spine and strengthen the needed muscles to support your perfected neck position. Some of the exercises can be done on the trail while moving. Be sure to hit “Skip Ads”. We do these almost every day: quick, easy, and effective.

Here are more ideas about refining your posture to be your best on steep trails:

I believe that Superman is a superior strengthening exercise for the back and core muscles of hikers and backpackers. Below is a neat, clear description of how to do it and why. Do however turn your sights to doing reps for a few minutes, not seconds. Of course, seconds is a grand way to start but set your long term goals much, much higher: you are trying to be ‘super person’ after all!

Vertical Climbers: Maxi Climber
These budget climbers are the best substitute we have found for actually getting out on the trails to condition. We can squeeze ours under the back seat of our F-150 truck by permanently removing the little side handles that help you mount the foot pedals. Unlike the inspiring ads, we don’t pound away on this piece of equipment like we are being chased by a cheetah. Maybe someday….

I set the removable moving bars at their maximum height even though I am short and use it to carefully lengthen each side of my torso, studying my side to side differences as I go. I often take the pedals to the bottom for maximum stretch but don’t bang them—that’s beyond design specs for the climber.

Once I start using it again after a long break, I gradually increase from 10 minute to 30 minute workouts because the motion can irritate my knees. I may take some one minute breaks for the benefit of my knees. I keep focusing on creating length on each side of my body and achieving a nice sense of symmetry and balance throughout. Only after a number of sessions in which I focus on form do I start pushing for strength and CV.

In October of 2021 after Bill was recovering from yet another episode of back pain, we started using the Climber as soon as we came off of the trail at Flagstaff and then at the Grand Canyon. It was challenging to hop right on the Climber, Bill for 5 minutes and me for 10, but it only took doing so twice to become convinced that our bodies hugely benefited from the tension release in our backs from hiking. The emphasis was on form, noting asymmetries and tension that had crept into our bodies while walking. The few minutes spent on the Climber were disproportionately refreshing to our bodies and sense of wellbeing. Bill hadn’t ever bonded with the Climber but suddenly he had a new regard for it in his self care program, especially for his recurrently troublesome back.

Set up the climber outside because even at a somewhat leisurely pace, 45° F air temperature can feel about right after 10 minutes. I also find it incredible boring, so I position it for the best view possible and listen to a book if I am using the Climber for more than 10-12 minutes. I don’t use it many times a year but always come back to it when I can’t get on a trail.

Hamstring Stretch in a Doorway
Short hamstrings, especially if they are different lengths from side-to-side, can injure the back because of their constant tugging, which pulls your pelvis down, compromising the natural curve in your low back. By far the best hamstring stretch, especially for folks who have short hamstrings, is to set-up in a doorway. The link below provides a nice, simple description of how to do it:

If you are more flexible than what is shown in the drawing, keep scooting your butt towards the door jam until you get the needed stretch. You can even use this position to go a bit past 90 degrees with the raised leg. Once you have become accustomed to this stretch and have confirmed that you can still walk after doing it, increase the minutes held. I agree with the author: perform the stretch at least twice on each leg to make rewarding progress with recalcitrant hamstrings. I prefer stretching each leg several minutes.

The back support provided in this position is excellent as well: you aren’t pitting your massively strong, tight, hamstring muscles against your more delicate back muscles. This position directs the stretch into the hamstrings, not the back, which is much safer and more inviting to do than sitting positions.

Have a great, pain-free, trip into the Inner Canyon, whatever adventure you choose!