On January 8, I received an email saying I had won the lottery…literally! I was one of the 2% who applied who was granted a southbound permit to hike the John Muir Trail! With 168 days to go, it’s time to start training!
Want to increase your chances of success and enjoyment on a long-distance hike where your legs will carry you up and over 45,000 feet of elevation increases? Waiting until the first day of your hike to expect your core and legs to carry 30 pounds up and over the largest humps on our planet for 8-10 hours per day is not the best strategy. Your risk of injury and failure is greater, and enjoyment is certainly diminished. So start training early! The moment you decide to undertake a long hike is the moment to start training.
If you’re fortunate enough to live near mountains, load your pack with the gear you plan to carry and go hike them! Several times per week will help build your trail legs prior to beginning your nomadic life as a wilderness wanderer. However, if you’re like most of us, a mountain does not sit in your backyard. For us, we have to get creative with our training routine.
First, we have to consider which muscles will be pushed to new limits. What will those muscles be expected to do? Most obviously are our legs. They will climb, climb, climb and descend, descend, descend. Quadriceps, the muscles just above the kneecap on the front of the thigh, are heavily used in hiking. Supporting muscles such as calves (the back of your leg below your knee), hamstrings (the rear upper thigh muscles), and glutes (your booty) not only engage in pulling your weight up steep inclines, but they help to slow gravity’s pull on the downhills, all this while carrying your body weight plus the weight of the items in your pack. Strength training is paramount to build the capacity of these muscles. Begin doing squats, lunges, deadlifts, and calf raises. Start slow, using your own body weight, and eventually build up to add weight to represent your pack during your exercise sets. Incorporate a legs strengthening session two times per week.
Your body’s core needs to be strengthened to manage carrying the weight of your pack. Your core includes abdominal, back, and chest muscles. Planks are incredibly beneficial in toning and strengthening your abs. They are harder than they look! Leg raises, crunches, chin-ups, bench press, and simply spending a few hours wearing your pack each day are other relevant exercise ideas. Incorporate a core strengthening session two times per week.
Now for the fun part! Don’t forget the amazing cardio workout you’ll receive during your hike. Our heart is our most important muscle. Here’s a way to get the heart pumping while simultaneously strengthening your legs and core. While wearing your loaded backpack, spend 4-5 sessions per week on a treadmill utilizing the incline feature or on a Stairmaster. It’s hard, yes. You’ll sweat as if you’re standing in a monsoon. It sucks, but hiking itself will suck at times, so better to learn to physically and mentally embrace the suck before you hit the trail. But y’all, at the end of your cardio session when you have just climbed multiple flights of stairs while wearing 30-pounds on your back, you feel invincible! It’s exhilarating! As backwards as it sounds, exercise helps us relax. Your body’s stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol are reduced. And your mood is enhanced due to endorphins released by a sweaty, heart-pumping workout. Besides the chemical factors at work in your body during a cardio workout, you mentally internalize one of the most important lessons to get you through the tough parts of your hike…mind over matter! Your legs are burning, your heart is strengthening, and when you take your first steps on the trail, your body will be ready. Fitness at Five, located in Athens, Georgia, is my home base for training. Joining a gym is a worthwhile consideration during your training period.
So there you have it! It’s never too early to start training and strengthening your body for the massive task ahead. Mimic the sport of backpacking as closely as you can in your environment and do it regularly!