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Hitting the hiking trails prepared

Updated: Dec 19, 2021

As an avid hiker myself I enjoyed reading a recent article in one of my professional magazines about “PREPARE CLIENTS FOR THE HIKING TRAIL”. The author Alicia Filley, MS, PT provides tips for fitness professionals on designing a program that highlights endurance. I am sharing some of her information in this blog.

During the lockdown and isolation, many people moved their fitness routines outside, and some chose, including me, to hit the trails. Hiking for exercise isn’t new, of course, but some of you who enjoy the outdoors may picked up the healthy habit as a way to cope with quarantine restrictions. I, as well as numerous other people are hiking to keep active, and as health/fitness professional we can supported this activity by providing you with a targeted exercise program that takes into consideration the specific skills needed to progress to new heights while staying free from injury.

Hiking is effective exercise, is inclusive and accessible to all, and requires little equipment, training or cost. Besides having physical benefits, hiking improves mental health by fostering a relationship with nature (Mitten 2016). Spending time among trees and the great outdoors reduces blood pressure, lowers cortisol and adrenaline levels, and amps up the immune system (Mitten 2016). Hiking has the added benefit of feeling more like play than exercise, which means people may enjoy it more than “formal” training.

Alicia Filley explains in her article ( that while day hikes can be long and arduous, like climbing a 14er (a mountain with a summit higher than 14,000 feet), most American Hiking Society members participate in day hikes of less than 5 hours (American Hiking Society 2015). Usually, hikers find trails close to home and take advantage of what’s nearby before traveling afield. Therefore, if you live in an area near trails which we are in the Pacific NW, many of you may already hike on a regular basis. Lest you think of hiking as a passing pandemic phase, a 2011 USDA Forest Service Recreation Trends study predicts that by 2060, day hiking will demonstrate the most growth in adult participation of all outdoor activities (American Hiking Society 2015). When you are interested in hitting the trails this spring and summer now is the time to start preparing the body to make this an enjoyable activity.

Endurance, defined as how long one can maintain a selected rate of work, is limited by fatigue when the body can no longer supply energy to the muscles (House, Johnston & Jornet 2019). When fatigued, hikers experience reductions in speed, power and function; they should, therefore, train like endurance athletes. Large amounts of low- to moderate-intensity training help hikers increase their aerobic capacity (House, Johnston & Jornet 2019). Suggested modes of cardiovascular exercise to meet this requirement include walking, slow jogging, cycling, and rowing or paddling.

You can add high-intensity training, such as sprints and intervals, once hikers achieve a substantial cardio base, but avoid using HIIT unless a client’s aerobic capacity is well-established. Adaptations from high-intensity training happen quickly and can benefit hikers as they near the time for their desired trek.

Leg stability

Even though hikers are endurance athletes, they need strength to climb and carry loads. Pelvic girdle strength is essential for unilateral leg stability and balance, for example; therefore, it’s important to assess hip and leg strength by evaluating the client’s knee stability. If the knee waivers and fails to track over the toes, it’s a signal to stop and begin a progressive hip-strengthening program.

Upper-body strength is also critical, since it supports the use of hiking poles and assists with balance and momentum.

Shoulder stability

If you cannot keep the shoulder blades retracted with good form for the suggested number of repetitions during an exercise program, the next step is to program strengthening exercises at the appropriate level.

Core stability

Hikers may underestimate the importance of core strength, which is critical for carrying backpacks and helping with balance. The core also transfers energy from the upper body to the lower body, making the arms swing and increasing the effectiveness of using hiking poles (House, Johnston & Jornet 2019). A weak or tired core “leaks” energy from the body while hiking.

Lace up those hiking boots

Because of its recreational aspects, hiking may not feel like a sport. However, hiking requires more energy and burns more calories than walking on level surfaces (Fattorini et al. 2012). While the uneven terrain contributes to the higher metabolic expenditure, hiking boots also play a role. On a treadmill, walking in boots requires 6% more oxygen than walking in athletic shoes (Fattorini et al. 2012). The muscles surrounding the knee also fatigue more quickly when people are walking in hiking boots (Fattorini et al. 2012). In a study of mountain visitors on holiday, researchers found that those who were less physically fit suffered more cardiovascular incidents than those who were fit. Therefore, improved cardiovascular fitness may be the most important training need for aspiring hikers.

What you need to make your hiking an enjoyable activity

Several years ago after hiking the Dog Mountain Trail with my daughter on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge which has steep trail sections I realized that I was due for a new pair of hiking boots. Travel + Leisure magazine provides the following information about good hiking gear.

In the past, once chilly temperatures and snowy days started to arrive, hikers used to pack up until spring came along. But now that hiking gear is warmer and more weatherproof than ever, they can enjoy the Great Outdoors year-round. 

If you plan on immersing yourself in nature this season, there are a few items that you should invest in prior to hitting the trails. In addition to an ultra-warm coat and a pair of sturdy hiking poles, you’ll also need to have a top-notch pair of winter hiking boots on hand. The perfect pair will not only keep your feet warm and toasty, but they should also help protect them from the elements. 

Nothing can ruin a hike faster than the wrong shoes, so if you’re planning a route through an area that typically has a lot of snow on the ground this time of year, you should opt for a pair of hiking boots that are waterproof to stop the moisture from seeping into your shoe. Meanwhile, those walking through icy terrains should invest in a pair that offers ample traction. 

John Muir, “father of national parks” and noted environmental philosopher, is quoted as saying, “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” As your trainer we can help you prepare for their next chosen dirt path with a well-designed endurance program that also keeps in mind the supportive aspects of strength training.

Pictures shown have been taken on some of my day hikes in the beautiful Pacific NW, The paddlers are Monica and her sister..

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