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Learning how to train for a hike will give you so much confidence on the trail. But not all training is equal. When it comes to hiking, you want a program that’s going to build endurance and strengthen your body against the most common injuries on the trail… which means we need more than a handful of leg exercises. We’ll show you exactly what to do in this post. Let’s get started!
This post is in collaboration with Paul Longworth. Paul is an athletic trainer, hiker, and the owner of PR Health. His focus is on keeping athletes healthy and injury free on the trail. The tips here go beyond the typical advice of air squats and lunges.
Why should you train for a hike?
Have you ever gone out on a hike to get some fresh air, decompress, and enjoy nature only to get out there and trudge up a trail staring at your feet and wondering “What did I get myself into?” I know I have!
Hiking can be intense, and this is the exact reason why we should prepare our minds and body for the outdoors!
When we go out for a hike, we want it to be a relaxing, fun, and restorative time. Of course, it will still be a workout, but that workout can either be soul-crushing or soul-restoring depending on if we’re physically prepared or not.
What are the benefits of training for a hike?
The biggest benefit of training for a hike is knowing that you’re physically and mentally ready for the challenge. When you go on a hike trained and ready to go, you can fully enjoy what nature has to offer!
You can focus on the sights, sounds, and smells of the mountains instead of gasping for air wondering what the heck you’re doing up there.
The second, and arguably most important reason to train for hikes is to reduce the risk of injury on the trail.
The great outdoors is rugged and unpredictable. Changing surfaces from stone to sand, tree roots, mixed elevations, and loose rocks all become trip and slip hazards!
Compound that with the fact that we are significantly more likely to trip and get hurt while physically fatigued, and now you have a perfect recipe for ankle, knee, hip, and low back injuries.
With all that, you might be thinking – how do I prevent it? You guessed it! TRAINING FOR YOUR HIKES!
A good hiking program should have “Prehab” movements in it to strengthen your body against the most common injuries in the sport or activity that you’re doing! It’s not just a handful of leg exercises.
So with all this, let’s dive into how to train for a hike starting by assessing the actual hike you’re going on.
Where to Start: Assessing Your Upcoming Hike
Before you begin any hike, you want to research the hike and know some of the basics such as the distance, the type of terrain, elevation gain, and starting and ending elevations. This will give you a better idea of what intensity to expect and how difficult the hike will be for you.
It’s not enough to just know the distance of your hike. A flat 2-mile hike will be totally different than a 2-mile hike with 2,000 ft of elevation gain.
In addition, the elevation of your hike will make a big difference too. For example, a hike at sea level will be easier than the same hike at 10,000 feet.
In general, the longer and higher you climb, the more challenging the hike and the more you can benefit from proper training.
You also want to take into account your current fitness level. The more hikes you train for and go on, the better you’ll be able to assess a hike.
What makes a good training plan for hikers?
To really understand what you should focus on in your training, start by asking yourself these three questions:
1. What muscle groups are being used the most?
With hiking, we know the legs are being used a lot, but we tend to ignore the fact that due to carrying a backpack, our shoulders and core are being challenged way more than we would assume.
Another piece of the puzzle that’s usually overlooked is single-leg strength and hip stability drills.
If we only focus on the bigger muscles like the quads, glute max, and hamstrings, but ignore our stabilizers and deep muscles, we are setting ourselves up for injuries and early muscular fatigue on the trail.
Think about it like having a car with a lot of horsepower, but a weak chassis. It might look and sound great, but it’s going to break as soon as you really put it to the test!
Here are some great exercises for hikers to incorporate into your routine. We’ll dive into some of these movements in more detail below, so keep reading!
- Squat variations including split squats and single-leg squats
- Lunge variations including forward, back, and side lunges
- Single leg hinges
- Lateral banded work
- Weighted carries for the shoulders
- Overhead pressing for shoulders
- Upper back movements like bent-over rows and face pulls
- Core stabilizers like dead bugs and planks
When it comes to a good hiking training plan, the next question to consider is:
2. Which energy system are we using the most?
Our body runs off of three energy systems. Think of these energy systems as fuel to be used during a workout.
We can burn ATP (anaerobic), carbs (glycolytic), or fat (aerobic) depending on the intensity of the sport, activity, or workout:
- ATP is burned in quick bursts of strength. Think of a short sprint or a one-rep max lift.
- Fat is burned during slower sustained efforts like jogging or hiking.
- Carbs are burned in that in-between period where we’re pushing hard for short bouts, but it’s not sustainable; we’ll have to back off at some point!
In any training program, we want to focus the majority of our efforts on training the systems that we’ll be using the most.
For hiking, we’re looking at training the glycolytic and aerobic system the most, but still spending some of our time training anaerobically to build the muscles to make the work easier!
The last question to consider when choosing a training program is:
3. What fatigues you the fastest?
We all have that one muscle that gives up on us the quickest! Personally, I know my hamstrings are going to give out LONG before my quads ever will! And after a long hike, I can pretty much guarantee my calves are going to be feeling it!
This tells me that I need to find a program that supplements the areas I know are a little weaker for me.
Certain workouts, like hiking, will generally fatigue the same muscles on everyone, but it’s always nice to know where you personally need to put in a little extra effort and attention!
Now that we have an overview of what makes a good training program for hikers, let’s dive into some of the specific exercises that you can do to build strength, endurance, and prevent injury.
Exercises for Hiking to Build Strength
Strength training is an important part of training. Building muscle will support every area of life and make all those steep climbs up a mountain easier.
Note: We provide a range of sets and reps for each exercise. In general, for newer athletes, do less sets with higher reps. More experienced athletes do more sets with less reps.
Lower Body Exercises for Hikers
Here are my top 3 leg exercises for hikers to focus on:
1. Bulgarian Split Squats
Single-leg strength work is so important for hikers. These split squats will definitely get the legs burning!
How to do it:
- Stand about 2 feet in front of a bench with your feet hip-width apart. Step one foot behind and onto the bench. You can rest the top of the foot or the ball of the foot on the bench just make sure that your feet are still about hip-width apart.
- Keep your chest high with eyes looking forward as you bend the front knee letting the back knee bend naturally as you lower. Make sure your front knee remains over the center of your foot and does not cave inward or bow outward.
- Lower until your quad is about parallel to the ground and then press back into standing.
- Repeat for 3-5 sets of 10-15 reps on each side. Complete all the reps on one side before moving on to the other side.
- Note: It will take some trial and error to find the proper foot placement for your body. Always do a few warm up reps to get a feel for the movement and add dumbbells as you get stronger.
2. Back Squats
Squats are a classic for a reason!
How to do it:
- Place the barbell across the top of your traps and stand with your feet hip to shoulder-width apart and toes pointing slightly outward, core engaged.
- Start by pushing your hips back and lower into a squat position keeping your back straight, core tight, and the gaze forward.
- Squat your full range of motion without letting the chest fall forward.
- Drive through your heels pushing the floor away and engaging the glutes as you come back to standing. On the accent, don’t let the hips shoot back or the upper body fall forward.
- Repeat for 4-6 sets of 5-8 reps. Increase weight as you get stronger.
This last leg exercise for hikers is one of the most important for preventing injury on the trail. And don’t be fooled – this may look easy, but trust me, it’s not!
How to do it:
- Hold a light weight in one hand, 2.5 – 5 pounds is plenty. Lift your right leg up and back hinging at the hips to create a T-shape with the body. Let the arms hang under the shoulders. Keep a slight bend in the left leg. (Shown in the first image above.)
- With the weight in one hand, bring the arms out to your sides and then back down. This is one rep. When the hands come back down, switch the weight into the other hand and again bring the arms out the the sides.
- Complete 2-3 set of 15-20 reps on each side.
- Note: Try your best to keep your hips parallel to the ground and your back foot up high the entire time.
Upper Body and Core Exercises
When we think of hiking, we most often think of training our legs, but don’t underestimate the effect that carrying a heavy backpack for hours has on your back, shoulders, and hips!
Strengthening the upper body and core is also important.
Here are some great exercises to focus on:
1. Bent-over Rows
How to do it:
- Hinge at the hips to about a 45° angle.
- Pull the weights toward the belly button making sure the elbows don’t flair out to the sides.
- Complete 3 sets of 10-15 reps.
2. Shoulder Press
How to do it:
- Start standing with your feet shoulder-width apart holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- With your palms facing forward and your shoulders under your wrists, press the weights overhead.
- Lower them back down and repeat for 3 sets of 10-15 reps.
How to do it:
- Place your hands on the mat shoulder-width apart. Press them into the mat and straighten your legs back.
- Engage the core and press the shoulder blades apart. Hold for 30 seconds. Keep increasing the hold time as you get stronger!
Building Endurance for Hikers
Building strength for hikes is important, but all the muscles in the world won’t help you if you don’t have an engine!
Endurance is the ability to continue on with an exercise for hours to come, and this is a priority whether you’re day hiking or on a multi-day backpacking trip.
Fortunately, this is usually the part that’s more fun if you are a hiker. How do we train this? GO HIKE! Put on a backpack and get out there! It can be in the mountains, around the park, or even just down the street.
Building those “hours in the saddle” is vitally important, not only to build your lung capacity but also to train your shoulders and hips to support your backpack.
Improving Flexibility and Mobility
Mobility is often an overlooked part of training, but recovery sessions can be just as important as our actual training sessions.
Along with knowing which exercises to do, we also need a plan in place to recover. This includes mobility and active recovery like yoga, foam rolling, and other forms of self or assisted bodywork.
This is also a great time to work on stability, balance, and kinesthetic awareness to help us prevent injuries and continue to do the things we love for years to come!
Here are a few ways that you can incorporate more recovery into your routine:
- Make it a part of your routine to stretch and cool down after a workout instead of rushing right off to your next thing
- Instead of sitting on the couch and watching shows, use that time to stretch while you watch
- Try incorporating pliability (aka ROMWOD) into your routine a couple of days per week
- Yoga classes
Stretches for Hikers:
Below are some great stretches for hikers that you can incorporate into your workout cool-down or do while you’re watching TV.
This is a wonderful hip stretch that can be as deep as you want. There are several variations.
How to do it:
- Start seated on the ground with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground about hip-width apart.
- Cross your left foot over your right knee. The closer your feet are to your butt, the harder this stretch will be.
- Hold for a few breaths and repeat on the other side.
- This stretch can also be done on your back against the wall. (See photo above.)
2. seated forward fold
A simple seated forward fold is a great way to calm the mind and stretch the entire back side of the body from the feet to the neck.
How to do it:
- Start seated on your mat with your legs straight in front of you.
- Engage the soles of your feet and create a slight inner rotation through the legs.
- Inhale as you draw in your abdomen.
- Exhale lengthen your spine and then fold forward to grab your big toes or rest your hands by the sides of your legs.
- Keep pulling in the abdomen and folding deeper with each exhale.
- Hold for 5 breaths and then inhale as you sit back up.
3. world’s greatest stretch
It’s called the World’s Greatest Stretch for a reason!
How to do it:
- Step one foot forward into a low lunge and drop your back knee. Lift your arms up and inhale.
- On the exhale bring your hands to the floor about shoulder width apart and lift your back knee. You can stay here if this is a big enough stretch for you. If you want, bring your inside elbow down to the floor. Hold here for a couple of breaths.
- On an inhale, reach your inside hand up towards the ceiling and spread the arms wide. Hold here for a few breathes.
- Bring the hand back to the floor, reverse the movement and repeat on the other side.
How to find time for your training and fit it into your schedule?
The best program in the world won’t work if you don’t have time to do it! It’s important to be realistic about how much time you’ll have to spend on training.
Working out 3 days a week will get you some results if you are currently doing no training at all, but 5 days a week of a diverse program will get you to the top of the fitness mountain much quicker!
When should you start training for a hike?
You should start training for a hike or backpacking trip about 6 to 8 weeks in advance. This is plenty of time to make some real physiological adaptations, but also enough time to plan every important detail of your trip!
Big hikes generally aren’t a spur-of-the-moment decision and many hikes nowadays also require a permit, which usually needs to be secured in advance.
Ideally, plan and start training at least 6 to 8 weeks ahead of your trip.
Tips for High-Elevation Hikes
At higher elevations, the combination of decreasing oxygen levels and decreasing atmospheric pressures can cause high-altitude illnesses such as Acute Mountain Sickness, High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE).
Most cases of altitude sickness are seen at elevations above 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), but it has been observed at lower elevations.
Everyone is susceptible to altitude sickness, but it varies from person to person and to unpredictable degrees. Acclimatization does not preclude altitude sickness and it’s not related to a person’s fitness level.
Hydration, rest, nutrition, and ascending gradually are all really important in helping to prevent high-altitude illnesses.
Some signs and symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) are headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, and disturbed sleep. AMS can progress to the more severe HACE and HAPE which are life-threatening.
Pay attention to your symptoms and take extra caution when hiking at high elevations. If experiencing symptoms, descend in elevation!
Related >> Day Hiking Essential Gear (don’t hike without this!)
How to Optimize Performance with Nutrition and Hydration
1. Hydration and Nutrition Before the Hike
Nutrition for a big hike should start well before you hit the trail!
My rule of thumb is nutrition should start a day before you start the hike for each day you will be hiking. For example, if you’re going on a one-day hike, you start focusing on food and water loading one day before.
For a two-day hike, start two days before, up to three days. Any trips longer than that and we should stick to the three days.
At this time we need to be upping three important ingredients: water, electrolytes, and carbohydrates. We know that we sweat more during exercise, especially when we’re outside in the sun! This is why we need to make sure our water and electrolyte (salt) levels are nice and high before going out.
The day before a hike, I like to make sure that I’m drinking a gallon to 1.5 gallons of water a day. For smaller individuals, 0.75 gallons will do the trick! With this water, I also like to add some sort of electrolyte to it.
Here are some great electrolyte options:
- Redmond Re-Lyte – These are so salty! They come in individual trail packs and larger containers.
- LMNT – Super salty and delicious! Lots of fun flavors like Chocolate Salt and Lemon Habanero.
- Nuun – Tablet form, add to water and they fizz up. The least salty of all the options mentioned.
With the carbs, I like to add in 100-200g more carbs than I usually consume leading up to a hike. This helps to top off the stored carbs in our muscles called glycogen.
2. Hydration and Nutrition During the Hike
While on the hike, it’s important to stop regularly to eat and drink. I also pack electrolytes on the trail to make sure I’m staying hydrated.
Many of us get so excited while on the trail that we may forget to eat and drink until it’s too late. If you wait until you’re hungry or thirsty, you have already waited too long, and your output is going to start to decrease.
Stop regularly, take a bite and a swig of water, and give yourself a minute to take in your surroundings and how far you have come!
Remember that we go outside to enjoy the outdoors. Take time to notice what’s around you on the trail!
Great homemade snack ideas for hikers:
Mental Strength for Hikers
One of the best things about hiking is it pushes us physically, but it also pushes us mentally. Mental strength is just as important as our physical strength.
Mental toughness can help us overcome difficult situations in life.
When we commit to training for our hikes and pushing ourselves in the gym, we’re also building mental strength that carries over into every area of life, including on the trail.
One of the simplest ways to start to build mental strength is to do hard things every day. For example, take a cold shower, do a max-length breath hold, or get through a tough workout!
The type of struggle doesn’t matter, but getting through it builds confidence, strength, and it’s something to be proud of every day. You will be a better hiker because of it.
We hope you got a ton of actionable hiking tips out of this blog post!
Which exercises or tips will you be implementing first? Please comment below and let us know!