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Three myths about training for hiking trips

Posted: Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Arriving at a hiking trip that you're really not physically prepared for is no fun. But at the same time you don't want to unnecessarily talk yourself out of a hiking trip that you might love. Having a realistic assessment of the match between what a trip requires and whether we are or can be in that kind of shape is important, and equally important is making sure that we don't fall prey to these common self-defeating myths.

1. You don't have time to prepare. Many of us lead pretty busy lives and it can be difficult to find the time to carve out an hour every day to go to the gym, for a run, or whatever. The good news is that spending an hour a day devoted to exercise isn't essential for any but the most strenuous trips (i.e climbing Mt Kilimanjaro or Backpacking the Grand Canyon). Here are two ways to help with time management.

  • Do intervals. Intervals are short periods of more intense aerobic activity interspersed with less intense activity. The key to successful intervals is to really push yourself to the point of discomfort during each one, so you are almost gasping for breath. Research has shown that intervals increase your endurance as effectively as longer, slower exercise - and take much less time.

    Some examples: if you're a runner, run all out for 30 seconds followed by 1 minute of an easy jog; if you're a walker, find a hill and walk up it as quickly as possible and then walk down it; if you work out on machines (treadmill, elliptical etc), do the same thing. Gradually build up the length and number of intervals. The Mayo Clinic has a good summary article and there are other resources on the web.

  • Do lunges and squats while you're talking on the phone, waiting in line, brushing your teeth, or watching TV. Having strong muscles to protect your knees will keep you hiking pain-free, and these are 2 critical exercises you can do in a variety of circumstances.

2. You live in the flatlands and there aren't any hills for training. Not all of us are lucky enough to live where there are real hills, much less mountains. Fortunately we all live near stairs - stairs in buildings, stadiums, even our own house. Yes, definitely more boring than hiking in the mountains. But all you need is 12 stairs. If you're just starting to exercise, start with going up and down the stairs a step at a time. Then start going up faster, until it's definitely an aerobic exercise for you. Then start taking two stairs at a time on the way up, but still a step at a time on the way down. Go up and down for 5 minutes, then take a quick 2 minute walk on the flat. Gradually increase the number of repetitions of the stairs/flat cycle and also the lenth of time you do stairs. This exercise, done once or twice a week in conjunction with other kinds of aerobic exercise, will help you get ready for a hiking trip with hills. Using a stair master at a gym will also help. Aerobic exercise and strenth training alone can't completely prepare you for going uphill.

3. You have to already be in good shape to sign up for a challenging hiking trip. Actually I hate to call this a myth because it may well be true and requires you being honest with yourself. If you know from past experience that you get really enthusiastic about ideas and make big plans for how you're going to accomplish them, but then in a short period of time you lose enthusiasm and motivation, signing up for a challenging trip just isn't a good idea. A better approach is to sign up for a trip that has some options, maybe every day having a choice between longer and shorter hikes. That way whether or not you meet your fitness goal, you can still have a great trip (example: Autumn on the Superior Hiking Trail or Exploring the National Parks of Utah.

On the other hand, if you respond well to having a carrot in front of you - something you really want to do - then by all means, sign up for that challenging trip now. Most of us are not all one way or the other. I am never so regularly at the gym as when I have a challenging trip on my calendar in the next 3 months. But my coworkers can tell you about my various enthusiasms that have fallen by the wayside when they didn't work out quite as I hoped or were harder to implement than I had realized.

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