You probably don’t want to imitate the picture above, but you can raise your sailing game if you learn to hike harder and smarter. Hiking takes effort, but by being fit and using proper technique you can get better results without injury and exhaustion. In this post, we compile the best tips about hiking.
Add 15% to Your Hiking Power
Proper hiking technique can allow the same effort to produce increased torque and thus additional righting moment onto a boat. John Loe and Val Smith in Sailing World.
John Loe and Val Smith, two high level sailors, measured the effectiveness of various hiking techniques in a Sailing World article. One slice of their data shows that with hard but sustainable hiking, including getting the buttocks outside of the rail, a sailor achieves about 15% more righting moment compared to relaxed hiking with buttocks on the rail. For a 175 lb. sailor, hiking hard (vs. relaxed) results in ~100 foot-pounds of additional righting moment, without adding any weight to the boat!
Hiking Techniques from Nick Thompson and Steve Cockerill
Laser sailors can teach us a lot about hiking. Nick Thompson, Laser World Champion, and Steve Cockerill, high level sailor and coach, have each produced videos showing techniques to hike harder and smarter. Key points in these videos include:
Adjust Hiking Straps
Hiking strap height should allow you hike with relatively straight legs, so that your calves and upper legs are in contact with the deck. This allows you to feel the boat and transmit your body movement to it. If the strap is too tight or too loose you will also tend toward bent leg hiking, which is less desirable as explained below. Adjust your straps before you go out.
You want a neutral ankle position. Too much flex makes you bend your knees. Too much extension puts load on the muscles around your shins.
Use your quadriceps to straighten your legs and minimize the gap between your knees and the deck. This raises your buttocks, reduces load on your legs at the rail, and also reduces the chance of long-term knee injury. Cockerill discusses the need to balance muscle development between the quadriceps and the lateral and oblique knee muscles to avoid pulling the knee cap out of line.
Lean Out, Flat Back
For more leverage and to maintain spine health, lean out with your back flat. Get your shoulders further out than your hips. Use your core to sustain this position. If your core is not strong enough, you will eventually slump, so strengthen it as discussed below.
Hike from the Toes?
The experts are somewhat divided on this. Thompson and Cockerill do not show toe hiking in their videos. However, Vaughan Harrison (International Sailing Academy) notes that you can get an extra inch or two of leverage with toe hiking. See the fitness section for conditioning tips for the ankles.
Fitness, warmup, and recovery all contribute to your ability to hike hard and prevent injuries.
Leg Extension Strength
We discussed the importance of leg extension strength in Three Fitness Measures of Winning Sailors. Since then, we found another study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showing leg extension strength and quadriceps isometric strength as the most important for hiking fitness.
In Top Sailing Fitness Principles and Exercises, we recommended the following exercises for leg extension strength:
- Leg extensions on a machine or squats with leg curls for muscle balance
- Hiking on a bench or ball
- Cycling or rowing
For overall core strength, 10-Step Guide to Core Fitness | Outside Online has our vote for the the best collection of core exercises.
A hiking bench is a great way to train. We found a great hiking bench article on Improper Course. This is worth reading, because it reinforces many of the points in this post, and also shows you how to build your own hiking bench.
Ankle Exercises for Toe Hiking
Sailing Scuttlebutt published an article on exercises for toe hiking. It suggests stretching the ankles, swimming with fins, and even (gulp) ballet to prepare for long periods of toe hiking.
Warmup and Recovery
We’ll cover warmup and recovery in more detail in a future post. To get you started here are the two best internet articles we’ve found so far.
Hiking pants with battens/pads or padded hiking shorts make it easier to hike for long periods. We suggest trying Rooster Sailing Hiking Pants, which contain battens, or Gill Sailing Shorts with optional pads.
Rooster Sailing has designed a hiking boot meant to reduce ankle stress while toe hiking.
Hiking downwind requires tighter hiking straps. It would be great to have hiking straps that you could easily adjust while sailing. Here’s a video from Rooster Sailing showing an “on-the-fly” adjustment system in a Laser, which is adaptable to other types of boats.