How To Train For A Long Hiking Trip
A few of you may know that I'll be hiking the John Muir Trail this summer. It's a roughly 220 mile trail through California's Sierra mountains and is said to be one of the most scenic wilderness hikes of all time. Most people take anywhere from one and half to a little over three months to complete the trail. This video gives a little taste of what it looks like:
If you're interesting in a long hiking trip, how should you train for something like that? Here're my thoughts, and the process I've been following to get ready, with some helpful video examples.
1. Ensure a Strong Structure
First of all, when training for a long hike, you want to make sure you're injury free and have a good general level of strength and fitness. As a starting point, you should have no trouble passing these basic assessments [see video]. If you can't, you have some remedial work to do!
2. Adapt to the Volume of Work
Hiking isn't very intensive (if you only had to do it for 5-mins, it would be easy), but it can be grueling and wear you down over time. Consider that it takes roughly 2000 steps to walk one mile. I'll be averaging about 15-miles per day, which equates to 30,000 steps every day for about 17 days straight. That's all on uneven terrain, plenty of elevation change, and under the load of my pack.
The first step is to ensure that the body is capable of handling the sheer volume of (all be it light to moderate) stress and loading. If an eager new runner went from sitting on the couch to doing 5-mile runs every day, you'd expect them to be sore, stiff, and likely to injure themselves. Hiking is similar, although if you have a good level of general fitness and pace yourself, you should be able to manage.
The best way to get used to the demands of hiking is to hike. To be on the safe side, do progressively longer practice hikes one or two days a week as you build up to your trip. Twice a week, spread through the week (i.e. Wednesday and Saturday is good vs Saturday and Sunday which isn't as good), is better if you can fit it in. Build up the point where you are roughly matching the distances you plan on covering during your hiking trip in training.
3. Eccentric Loading
One of the big factors that's often overlooked in a hiking training program is eccentric loading. In any movement there are two main phases. The concentric phase, which is the active phase, and the eccentric phase, which is the yielding phase. In a step-up, the concentric is the way up. The eccentric is the way down. When we absorb force/impact (from hitting the ground after jumping or running, for example), or lower ourselves under control, these are all examples of eccentric loading. Hiking (thousands of steps of walking under load, plus stepping up and down under control) is full of eccentric loading.
Eccentric and concentric strength have different characteristics. You want to build eccentric training into your program, which many programs neglect.
If you're practicing step-ups to a box, you'll want to control the lowering phase with roughly a 3-second tempo instead of letting gravity pull you down without working through it. Using controlled tempos during the lowering component of lower body exercises.
4. Train For Muscle Stamina
Our muscles have different strength qualities [not all are super related to hiking, but if you want a sense of some of those qualities, check out this video]. Speed, absolute strength, and endurance are three. For hiking, stamina or endurance (I'm using those terms interchangeably) is key. To train that quality, sets should generally last between 60-90sec with 45-90sec rest between sets. For an exercise that takes 5-seconds to complete (if you're using a controlled lowering phase), that means sets of 12-18reps.
I recommend giving yourself a minimum of 6-weeks of training to develop muscle stamina in your lower body prior to the hike. I'm a huge fan of weighted step-ups for this purpose. I'll usually build up to 5 sets of 20 per side in a workout to roughly a 16" box. High rep squats are good, although you should absolutely be training single leg exercises also.
5. CORE TRAINING
I'd also recommend adding in some core training into each workout. You need sufficient postural endurance to maintain a good position while walking with a pack for hours. The load from the pack will challenge your core and if you're not strong enough or enduring enough, it's easy to default to a bad posture. When that happens, you're more likely for your back and hips to get sore/stiff.
For specifics on how to put together an effective core training program, check out this separate article where I walk you through it.