Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb
By Michael Lanza
When three friends and I decided to attempt to thru-hike the John Muir Trail—221 miles through California’s High Sierra, with numerous mountain passes ranging from 11,000 to over 13,000 feet in elevation—in just one week (backpackers traditionally take three weeks)—the plan seemed like a wild dream. Hike 31 miles a day for seven straight days through some of the biggest mountains in the Lower 48? It was an agenda for lunatics. So we started training. Seriously training.
Although it would prove to be one of the physically hardest things any of us had ever done—and one of the most rewarding—three of us made it, and the fourth member of our team was fit enough to finish, but had to bail out because of severe blisters. (Read my story about that crazy adventure.)
Since then, with a small group of very fit and experienced friends, I’ve hiked very long days from the Grand Canyon (including a one-day, 44-mile and 11,000-foot, rim-to-rim-to-rim hike) to the White Mountains, the Tetons and Wind River Range, and a 50-mile dayhike across Zion National Park. And I’ve climbed numerous peaks via technical and non-technical routes, most recently the Mountaineers Route on 14,505-foot Mount Whitney in California’s Sequoia National Park with my 15-year-old son.
If you’re planning to climb a big mountain or take a challenging backpacking trip or long dayhike, you may be wondering how to train properly for it—especially if, like many people, you don’t live in a place with easy access to the mountains and don’t have the freedom to spend endless hours training on trails.
So for regular people with normal lives who aspire to occasionally elevate life, here’s an everyman’s (and woman’s) guide to getting yourself physically ready for the mountains of your dreams.
Start training at least three months before your climb or hike, ideally from a good base of fitness developed through maintaining some level of regular exercise program year-round, which helps you get where you want to be more quickly and enjoyably and avoid injury. If you haven’t been exercising regularly, start training four to six months before your big climb or hike.
Google any of the exercises mentioned in this article and you’ll find instructional videos.
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Core and Balance Exercises
Core fitness in your abdominal and back muscles creates a foundation of strength, endurance, balance, and stability—all critical to accomplishing a big climb or hike, as well as to any outdoor or athletic activity. A strong core helps your body carry a pack over a long distance—even a light hydration or daypack—conserving energy in the large muscles of your legs. And you can train your core in small blocks of time right in your home.
Five to seven days a week, do five to 15 minutes of abdominal and back exercises. I mix up the following, doing as many reps as I can:
• Slow bicycle crunches—In the crunch position, hold each elbow to the opposite knee for a second.
• Planks—Try to build up to three minutes.
• Body roll-ups—Lie on your back, arms extended overhead, roll up into a ball, touching your feet, extend again, repeat.
• Supermans—Stomach-down on the floor or on an ABS ball or other stability ball.
Twice a week, incorporate balance exercises to train your body for uneven terrain. Some suggestions:
• Standing on one leg on a BOSU or similar balance trainer for 30 seconds; try to extend your raised leg straight out in front of you, and then bend your torso forward and extend your leg out behind you. Repeat on the other leg.
• Standing on one leg on a BOSU, with its flat side up, holding light dumbbells in your hands, pump your arms forward and backward as if running. Do 50 or more reps (25 on each arm) if you can. Repeat on the other leg.
• Stand on a bongo board and slide side to side or drop into a squat and rise back up.
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Resistance exercise—lifting weights or doing body-weight exercises like squats, pushups, dips, and pull-ups—strengthens muscles by overworking them, and makes bones stronger. It gives you endurance, power, and strength for climbing and descending hills with a pack on.
Do resistance exercises two or three times a week for an hour, developing a routine that targets all of the major muscles. Try to do at least half of your exercises in a way that engages the core muscles. For example:
Instead of doing standard one-arm rows with a dumbbell while bent over leaning on a bench, to engage your core, balance on one foot with a dumbbell in each hand. Then tilt your torso 90 degrees forward and extend your raised leg straight out behind you, so your torso and legs form a T, with your arms extended downward holding the dumbbells. Keep the knee of the “post” leg slightly bent to avoid injury. Alternate rowing with each arm, using dumbbell weight that allows you to do 20 to 30 reps (10 to 15 with each arm); after a minute’s rest, perform a second set balancing on the other leg. Start with lighter dumbbells than you’re inclined to use—balancing on one leg while rowing with your arms greatly increases the difficulty.
Need gear for a mountain climb? See my review of the gear we used on Mount Whitney’s Mountaineers Route.
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5 Key Exercises
An exceptional exercise to strengthen muscles and joints from the lower back and hips through the legs, especially quads and hamstrings, it can be done using just body weight or by holding a barbell behind your neck. With feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart, slowing bend to a comfortable squatting position (no farther than knees at 90 degrees), keeping your knees directly above your feet. Do two or three sets of 30 seconds each.
Lunges also work the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Standing with feet shoulder-width apart, step forward with one foot far enough that your knee remains directly above the same foot, then repeat with the other leg. Hold dumbbells in your hands to increase the intensity. Lunge down a gentle hill or ramp to build strength and endurance.
Got a trip coming up? See my reviews of the best gear duffles and luggage and 6 favorite daypacks.
#3 Leg Blasters
Leg Blasters combine four body-weight leg exercises in rapid succession without pausing: Think of them as lunges for masochists. Besides building strength and power, a set will briefly push you to your anaerobic threshold. Do 20 squats, 20 lunges (alternating legs, 10 on each side), 20 jumping lunges (also alternating legs), and 10 standing jumps. Do one or two sets.
#4 Step Ups and Step Downs
We’ve all had the experience of a long downhill hike that leaves our quads completely worked and stiff for hours or days. It’s counter-intuitive, but research shows that walking downhill is harder on our legs than walking uphill—especially when you put a heavy pack on your back for descending that big hill. This is due to a muscular reaction called eccentric contraction, where you lengthen your quad muscles at the same time you contract them. Plus, knee pain is often caused by a weak vastus medialis muscle failing to hold the patella (kneecap) in proper alignment, which irritates the patellar tendon, causing pain below the kneecap.
Still, we also need strong quads for hauling a heavy pack on long ascents. Step ups strengthen quads and hamstrings, and step downs focus on quads and the vastus medialis. Both are great for hikers and you can combine them in one exercise.
Use a sturdy box (like you find in gyms) or a stable bench or a porch 10 to 12 inches high—or even a normal-height stair. Step up and down moving forward, backward, and to each side to develop your leg muscles for all the directional forces you’ll encounter when hiking. Do it wearing a 10- to 20-pound pack or weight vest or with dumbbells weighing five, 10, or 20 pounds in each hand to increase the intensity. Build up to three sets of 15 to 25 reps. You can replicate this exercise on stadium steps or a multi-story building stairway. Ideally, if you live near hilly trails, hike or run routes that include plenty of hills.
If you only had time for one exercise, this body-weight move is arguably the best because it builds overall strength and provides a brief aerobic workout. With feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart, bend your knees deeply (like a squat) and place your palms on the floor. Throw your legs simultaneously straight back to full extension and drop into a pushup. Bring both legs simultaneously back to the starting position, stand up, and do one standing jump straight up. Do one to two sets of 10-15 reps. To increase the intensity, do burpees with dumbbells in your hands, and add a rowing motion with each arm after the pushup, while the legs are still extended.
Cardio workouts can entail a variety of activities that accelerate your heart rate for a sustained period of time: trail running, vigorous walking, bicycling, Nordic skiing, and using cardio machines in the gym. Do any of these outdoor activities on hills to amplify the intensity. Mixing up activities helps avoid boredom and overuse injuries associated with doing one activity a lot.
Three basic cardio guidelines:
• Do four to five cardio workouts of 20 to 60 minutes each per week, but try to make one of your weekly runs, bike rides, or hikes at least two hours and optimally several hours.
• Trail running is good training for hiking or mountain climbing—and because it’s intense, it’s ideal when your time’s limited. Besides building cardio-vascular conditioning and endurance, running on trails strengthens bones and your muscles, feet, ankles, and knees for hiking, and trains your body to manage uneven terrain, reducing the chances of an ankle sprain or similar injury when hiking.
• On training runs or hikes, practice moving at a stronger pace, quickening your stride walking or running; it will help you move faster on a long hike or mountain climb.
I always hike with poles. Read why in my “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.”
Training Without Mountains
To prep for a big hike or climb a mountain, there’s no better training than doing that very activity. Unfortunately, most people do not live in a place where they have easy access to the mountains. Find activities that you can do regularly where you live, whether it’s hiking in a park wearing a pack, trail running, cycling, swimming, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, running or hiking stadium or building stairs, or using an aerobic machine at the gym. Cross-train—doing a variety of activities—to develop all-around fitness and help avoid injury.
Training For Endurance
To climb a big mountain, you need aerobic endurance—the stamina to keep going for a long period of time at a steady but moderate pace. Build it by training at low intensity for long periods of time—anywhere from an hour to several hours on days when you have the time—at well below your maximum output. You should sustain a heart rate between roughly 100 and 125 beats per minute, which is a pace at which you’re breathing is somewhat elevated, but you can easily carry on a conversation.
Build endurance, as well as strength and flexibility, through “bonus” training time: Walk, run, or bike local errands. Do lunges, crunches, planks, or stretch when you get up in the morning, before bed, or while watching TV. Take stairs instead of elevators and escalators. Doing these things regularly can earn you a couple hours or more of “bonus,” low-intensity exercise time every week.
Work Hard, Then Work Easy
Elite athletes have long benefitted from periodization, which basically means following a workout schedule that increases in intensity from week to week, then tapers off. I’ve long trained on a four-week schedule.
Week one is the easiest: four workouts, no more than one of them hard enough to leave me feeling exhausted, the others just at an intensity that feels moderately rigorous but leaves me with plenty of energy to spare. Weeks two and three consist of five workouts that steadily increase the total intensity, pushing myself hard on two or three of those days. One week four, I’ll exercise five to six days, and try to push myself as hard as possible on at least three of those days.
Besides having proven fitness, health, strength, and endurance benefits, I find periodization helps with the psychological rigors of regular training: It breaks up the monotony of exercise, making it a little easier to push yourself harder because you’re also allowing yourself easier days and an easy week every month.
Yea, no one likes doing this—until they start doing it. Truth is, a simple, 10- to 15-minute stretching routine after exercise or as a solitary activity can become habit forming because it just feels good. It also helps avoid injuries to key muscles like hip flexors—which can get very tight when hiking with a heavy pack, causing a chain reaction of problems—and regular stretching lends more power to your stride.
I’m a big believer in daily stretching or yoga to avoid injury and not only give your muscles greater range of motion, but give them more strength throughout their full range of motion. I’m sure that some falls I’ve taken over the years—whether skiing, hiking, or climbing—could easily have resulted in injury if I were less limber. Plus, daily stretching or yoga just makes me feel better.
Three key stretches:
1. Calves—Stand upright with your hands on a wall in front of you, stepping backward with one leg and keeping your heel on the floor or ground as you bend the forward leg slightly. Alternate legs, holding each calf stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. As you get better, take it up a notch by stretching your calves with the ball of your foot on a step (and your forward foot on a higher step), allowing you to drop that heel lower than your forefoot; or by bending the knee slightly on the leg whose calf you’re stretching, which gives a deeper stretch.
2. Hamstrings—Stand with your feet together, knees straight, and bending forward to reach your hands to the floor (or as far as you can reach; you’ll get more limber with time and practice). Accentuate this stretch by reaching both arms behind your head and grabbing your elbows, feeling the weight of your arms pull your upper body toward the floor. As you get more limber, try crossing one foot behind the other as you bend forward, repeating with the other leg.
3. Hips—Take a yoga class or go online to learn some basic yoga moves like the Warrior II pose, which opens up the hips.
Get Some Sleep
Take good care of yourself. Especially in the days leading up to the big hike or mountain climb, make sure you eat well, get enough sleep, and try to avoid contact with sick people. Your upcoming climb is a good excuse to eat a lot for a day or two before it, to let your body store some extra energy in reserve.
Avoid falling into the trap of sleep deprivation because you’re working long hours right up to your departure. Plan a travel itinerary that gets you to your destination early enough to get a good night’s sleep before your climb.
Make It Fun
Lastly, remember: This is supposed to be fun. Experiment and find exercises, routines, a schedule, and outdoor activities that you actually enjoy and look forward to—which is the real key to sticking with any fitness program. It shouldn’t be a chore; it should reinvigorate you. Set goals that are consistent with whatever achievement is truly important to you, but also with your lifestyle and how you want to spend your time.
See also my stories:
“Cranking Out Big Days: How to Ramp Up Your Hikes and Trail Runs”
“7 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters”
“The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking’s: Less Weight = More Fun”
“10 Tips For Getting Outside More”
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