How to Start Training for Hiking
Before we dive into how to start training for hiking, remember, we all started somewhere!
This is a long blog post, so here are the topics I will cover:
Finding your motivation
4 Week Training Plan
Give yourself time
Breaking down training myths
What equipment you need to start
Finding your motivation
What dream hike is on your list? Half Dome? Everest Base Camp? Patagonia? Mt. Whitney? Havasupai? The John Muir Trail? These bucket list hikes may seem like an impossible dream or something you might do “one day,” but they’re not an impossible dream!
With training you can get into hiking shape to be able to backpack the 10 miles one way down to Havasu Falls and see the beautiful turquoise waters. Or hike the 22 miles round trip to Mt. Whitney and see the sunrise from the highest point in the continental US.
Maybe you just want to be in better overall shape. Or just not feel out of breath on your local trails. There is no right or wrong reason to hike or to even want to train for hiking. Your reason is entirely yours and personal. Just know we all started somewhere.
That goal will help fuel your motivation for working out, especially on those chilly mornings when staying in bed sounds a lot better than a spin class.
I was introduced to hiking early on in college, and that was also my first (and failed) Mt. Whitney attempt. After that attempt, I was hooked on the mountains and hiking. I wanted nothing more than to summit Whitney. Every time I’d drive on the 395 to Mammoth to snowboard, my soul would cry out to finally finish that hike. But finding time in college to train was difficult. I was taking 18 units my sophomore and senior years, taking summer classes, and working 24 hours a week at my internships. When I graduated college, I was finally able to workout! So, came February, I submitted my application for the Whitney Lottery and trained every day for it. Even after a 12 hour workday, that motivation to summit Whitney kept me going to the gym.
Give yourself time
Fitness does not happen overnight, so give yourself time for your body to adapt to the physical stress of the training that you’re doing.
If you’re just starting out, you’ll see huge gains fairly quickly if you stick with it. By fairly quickly, I mean over the next few months.
Over the next few months, you’ll notice you can hike for longer, you don’t feel out of breath as quickly as before, you start being able to lift more, do more push ups, and just feel better in your own skin.
Working out does so many wonders for our bodies.
Also, give yourself time to adapt to a new routine with fitness. If you’re used to sleeping in and trying to hit the gym in the morning, it’ll be hard learning to go to bed earlier and get up at 6 am and get to your workout.
I personally prefer to work out in the mornings. It gives me energy for the rest of the day, it wakes me up, and I get it over with so when things come up throughout the day, I don’t have to push my workout aside. But work out when it works for you. If you can only go in the evenings when the kids go to bed, then that’s when you work out. If you can only go for 45 minutes during your 60 minute lunch break, then that’s when you work out. Create a schedule that works for you so fitness becomes a lifestyle and something you look forward to instead of a chore.
Let’s break down training myths
You don’t need to be training all day every day. Not even 7 days per week. 1 hour, 4 to 5 times per week will get you there. If you’re not there to be able to work out 4 to 5 times per week, that’s fine! Start with 2 to 3 times per week and add in days as you progress.
You should be moving 7 days per week if you can. Active recovery is more effective than passive recovery, meaning that doing some exercise even if it’s a walk around the block or a less vigorous yoga class. For more info on active recovery, read this blog post.
When you’re just starting, we’ll take it slow. It’s easy to overdo it, especially when your pumped and ready to go. But overdoing it to a point where you can’t walk the next day isn’t helping your training efforts.
Let’s break down that myth. We’ve been taught that being so sore you can’t move is a great feeling and it means you did your workout right. First of all, that feeling sucks. Second, it means you overdid your workout, which forces your body to take longer to recover which negatively affects your training efforts and can easily lead to injury.
Feeling some soreness is great! Some, not a lot. But you should feel energized after a workout. Even if you don’t feel sore, doesn’t mean your workout was bad or not effective.
What equipment do you need
First, you need to build a foundation. Start small, and focus on developing a foundation of strength. Then once you have that foundation, you can build on it by adding more weight, more reps, and even faster reps.
You don’t need anything special to start. If you’re new to fitness, bodyweight or lightweight workouts build a great foundation.
Ideally, have the following to start. All of these are very inexpensive investments. If you’re a gym member, you can find all of these things at the gym.
Additional equipment but not required:
You know your own fitness level. Below I’m going to break it down into phases, but it’s up to you to decide at which phase to start.
A quick break down of what training for hikes looks like:
Increase strength in the muscles that hikers rely on. It’s not just about leg strength. You need a strong core, strong glutes, strong back, and a strong upper body. Hiking is a full body exercise.
Increase endurance so you can cover 10 miles in a day without losing steam. In addition to strength training, also focus on cardio to increase your aerobic threshold. That will keep you from getting winded on an uphill climb.
Improve your balance so you can handle uneven terrain.
Before beginning any training plan, check with your doctor. Especially if you have a pre-existing condition or injury.
Stop training a few days before your big hike and focus on active recovery instead. It will give your body time to rest so you have the physical strength to hike. Overtraining doesn’t help you. It’s better to be a little undertrained for your hike than overtrained. When your body is rested, it’s able to pull enough energy for the hike iInstead of being overtrained and struggling through because you’re body is exhausted.
If an exercise hurts, modify it to fit your needs. This does not mean skip planks because you feel the burn in your abs. That’s a good thing. That means if your neck hurts, it’s OK to skip or modify upper body workouts that day so you don’t injure yourself.
Take 5 to 10 minutes at the start of every workout to warm up your body. Even if you’re on a time crunch, don’t skip this step.
In reality, you should be warming up before hiking too. This prevents injury.
Training your Cardio
Cardio training maximizes your ability to use oxygen. It also means that when you have an uphill climb, you won’t be out of breath in the first few minutes.
If you’re just starting, it will take time for your body to adapt and for you to be able to do cardio for longer. Just know it’s OK (and preferred) to start slow, build the foundation, and let your body adapt so you’re not risking injury or burning yourself out. It’s recommended to at least start with 30 minutes per day, but if that’s too hard for you, start with 15 minutes, then build up to 20 minutes, then to 30 minutes, then to 45 minutes and so forth.
Types of Cardio
Cardio does not only mean running, but it can, if that’s what you enjoy doing. Great forms of cardio are: running outdoors, running on a treadmill, indoor cycling classes, swimming, elliptical, rowing, or the stairmaster.
If you have trouble with your joints, choose a low impact form of cardio, like indoor cycling classes (my personal go-to), the elliptical, or the most low impact one, swimming.
High Intensity Interval Training
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is also a fantastic way to improve the maximum amount of oxygen your body can absorb, transport, and use during exercise. You can use HIIT style workout during cardio sessions and strength training sessions.
For strength training sessions, get comfortable with your form and the exercise before incorporating it into a HIIT workout. Since HIIT workouts are fast paces, we don’t want you throwing out your back because you’re squatting incorrectly while doing it quickly. Form is more important than speed or reps.
Training in Heart Rate Zones
You need to challenge yourself. If it’s too easy or not challenging, your physical fitness won’t improve. Challenge yourself slightly more than your body’s current capabilities. Yes, you will need to accept responsibility for pushing yourself. It’s a lot harder when you’re holding yourself accountable. But keep that eye on the mountain you want to climb. When you challenge yourself slightly more than your current capabilities and build on that, your body adapts and is prepared for the next time that demand is placed on your body.
With this in mind, understand that cardio training is more than just jogging at a moderate pace for an extended period of time. PUSH YOURSELF.
You need to be training in the aerobic and anaerobic zones which will help you maximize performance when you get to your dream hike.
There are a lot of formulas and charts online that show you what your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) and the different heart rate zones. They’re OK for general understanding, but your heart rate is unique to you and there are a lot of factors like age, genetics, fitness level, medication, blood pressure, stress, and even hydration that influence your MHR.
You can use the formula below to get a general idea of your MHR:
220 - age = Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)
Here are other formulas that have become popular too:
Gellish2: 191.5 - .007 x age^2 = MHR
Fairburn: 201 - .63 x age for women = MHR OR 208 - .80 x age for men = MHR
Gellish: 206.9 - (o.67 x age) = MHR
Tanaka: 208 - (0.7 x age) = MHR
These all will give you a good understanding of it. But just remember, these formulas are just estimates based on the general population. And your MHR can change as your fitness level improves (or if you become deconditioned). You may need to adjust the zones you train in over time based on how you feel and each cardio session feels.
Here are the different heart rate training zones:
Zone 1 (Healthy): 50% to 66% of MHR - This is a very comfortable effort used for warmup and cooldown.
Zone 2 (Fitness): 60% to 70% of MHR - Used for the bulk of training, this relaxed effort allows you to hold a conversation.
Zone 3 (Aerobic): 70% to 80% of MHR - This is a comfortably hard effort during which you can only say short, broken sentences.
Zone 4 (Anaerobic): 80% to 90% of MHR - This is a very hard effort that’s sustainable, but only lets you speak a few words at a time.
Zone 5 (Red-Line) of MHR - 90% to 100%
Ok, so I just threw a bunch of formulas out at you and you’re wondering what does all of this mean.
Working out in Zone 1 is great for reducing body fat, blood pressure, and cholesterol. But this zone will not get you to the cardio and endurance fitness level that you’re after. If you’re just starting and are not physically active, this will be where you start.
Working out in Zone 2 you’ll burn more calories than in Zone 1. This is typically also the zone you’ll be working out in when you do strength training. You’ll get similar health benefits from this zone as Zone 1. It’s a great starting point, but will not get you to your fitness goals.
Working out in Zone 3 is one of the zones you want to use to train for endurance. Zone 3 and Zone 4 are what I train in specifically when doing cardio training. Your body adapts to the workload and it will help you increase your aerobic threshold (heart and lung capacity), meaning you’re not panting on an uphill climb. It’s challenging but doable! Imagine how great that will feel. Aim to do at least 20 to 60 minutes in this zone. Remember, if you’re starting, you might have to work up to this zone.
Working out in Zone 4 will help your body improve the amount of oxygen you can consume. Which is great for hiking at an altitude! This exertion level is also where your body starts producing lactic acid (take ice baths and do active recovery, it helps). Athletes use this zone to build up their endurance even further. Once you build up your aerobic threshold, train in this zone for 10 to 20 minutes during your cardio workout. You’ll also burn more calories throughout the day after working out in this zone.
Working out in Zone 5 can only be done for a few minutes if you’re at the top level of athletic fitness. For hiking training, training in this zone is not necessary. Consult your doctor before you do any training in Zone 5.
The phases above broke down how you should be training and the timeline of how to increase your fitness and endurance for hiking.
Below are a variety of different exercises that will help get you there. Make sure your form is correct when working out. A few things to keep in mind:
When you’re squatting:
Hinge from the hips.
Keep your knees inline with your toes.
Keep the weight in your heels.
Keep your toes forward.
Chest up, don’t slouch.
Don’t buckle your knees inward, keep them inline with the outside of your feet.
Keep your back straight.
When you’re planking:
Butt down! You need to be a straight line from your head to your feet.
Don’t arch your back, remember straight line.
When you’re doing upper body with weights:
Use the muscles in your back and shoulders not your neck.
Tighten and feel the muscles you’re using.
It’s easy to use too heavy of weights and over compensate by using your neck. You won’t be able to turn your head the next day.
If the weights are too heavy, drop them down. Correct form is more important.
Chest press with dumbbells
Shoulder press with dumbbells
Bent row with kettlebell (or dumbbells)
Plank shoulder tap
Side plank hold
Rotating plank dips
Russian twists (do it with a dumbbell or kettlebell for an added challenge)
Dead bug (add stability ball to make it harder)
Bicycle crunches (go as fast as you can for as long as you can to make it harder)
Squats with resistance band
Glute bridges with resistance band
Crab walks with resistance band
Monster walk with resistance band
Fire hydrant with resistance band
Donkey kicks with resistance band
Clams with resistance band
Clam hold with resistance band
Side lunges (to make it harder, add a resistance band)
Seated abductor with resistance band
Always stretch after a workout. Even if it’s for a few minutes. Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds.
Here are a couple stretches to get you started:
Standing toe touch
Lunge with spinal twist
Knee to chest
Sumo squat hip stretch
Figure four hip stretch
Phase 1 - Create a foundation
If you’re new to fitness or coming back from an extended break, this is your starting line! During this phase, you will develop a baseline for your aerobic and strength fitness.
Start with 30 minutes of cardio, 2 to 3 days per week. If you can’t do 30 minutes of cardio, reduce that to what you can do.
Follow that by 15 minutes (or as much as you can do) of bodyweight strength training, such as squats, planks, pushups (modified on your knees, if you need to). You don’t need to do high reps. 5 to 10 works. If you feel comfortable with that, you can increase it as needed.
When doing cardio, train in Zone 1 or Zone 2, if you feel you can handle it. Scroll up to read about training in heart rate zones. This is a safe intensity that will help you with your foundation. Also, scroll up for exercises.
Once you feel comfortable with 30 minutes of cardio 2 to 3 times per week, increase that to 30 minutes of cardio 3 to 4 times per week. Keep doing that with the strength training. Once it feels comfortable and you’re doing it consistently, you’re ready for phase 2.
The hardest part about this phase is establishing consistency and holding yourself accountable.
Phase 2 - Develop your fitness
Continue working out 3 to 4 times per week. As you progress, you’ll increase that to 4 to 5 times per day. During your days off, do active recovery. Click here to read the blog on active recovery.
During this phase, you’ll increase your cardio exercise to Zone 3. You’ll still work out in Zone 2, but you’ll be doing more in Zone 3. During your cardio workouts, try to stay in Zone 3 for as long as possible. This will increase your aerobic threshold and allow your heart and lungs to handle a harder workout while delivering more oxygen to your body.
Increase your cardio workouts to 45 minutes and start to add weights to your strength training.
As you develop your strength from weighted and bodyweight strength training exercises, continue to increase the reps and the weight you use. Progress accordingly. Remember not to overdo it. Challenge yourself where it feels uncomfortable, then build off that.
Once you feel comfortable doing cardio for 45 minutes, 4 to 5 times per week in Zone 3, and you’re feeling stronger from the strength training, you’re ready to move onto the next phase!
Phase 3 - Increase your endurance
In this phase, increase your cardio time to 45 to 90 minutes, 4 to 5 times per week. You’ll also be doing 45 minutes of strength training.
If you’re short on time, you can do cardio and strength on different days.
When you’re doing cardio, you will primarily be in Zone 3. But during this phase, you’ll also start doing HIIT workouts during cardio. This will be fun!
Here’s how you do HIIT during cardio:
Say you’re running on the treadmill. Jog for 45 to 60 seconds, keeping your heart rate in Zone 3. Then run as fast as you can for 45 to 60 seconds at an incline, increasing your heart rate to Zone 4. This is just one example. You can have fun with it. You can jog for 2 minutes and run for 60 seconds. When you increase intensity for that brief moment, you can also play with resistance. Start with what feels comfortable and play with it.
I do this with cycling. I typically time my intervals around music, making it more fun. I listen to a variety of hip hop, EDM, pop, and dance music. Think nightclub but on a bike. So the way I do it on the bike is I will increase the speed when the music speed increases. Different songs have different slower and faster points. I also increase the resistance to the music too. I had a fantastic indoor cycling instructor at Equinox when I started biking. She told us to increase the resistance so you can paddle to the beat of the music. So the road feels sticky, if you’re going too fast for the beat, increase resistance and if you’re going too slow for the beat and reduce resistance. Stay in Zone 3 and when you increase your speed, bump up your heart rate to Zone 4.
For strength training, increase the number of reps that you do and the weight. Depending on your comfort level and fitness goals, even 15 to 20 pound dumbbells are enough. You’ll look leaner, feel stronger, and start to see definition in your arms and such. But adding extra weight to your workouts will not make you look all “bulky,” if you’re worried about that. Bodybuilders specifically train to look that way.
Phase 4 - Fine tune and keep building
Continue doing what you started in Phase 3, but now fine-tune it based on where your fitness level is and what you need to improve.
Take it outside, go on a training hike, and assess your fitness level. From there, tweak as needed. Did you feel your legs needed more strength training? Did you feel you needed to improve cardio?
Do what feels right for your body so you can keep improving.