Fitness Tips for Hikers

The question of how fit do you need to be for hiking comes up a lot. There are those people who believe “it’s just walking”, no need to do any training. And others who believe that the better you train, the more you’ll enjoy your hike.

​Am I fit enough?

Fitness is all about adaptation: in the context of hiking, this is cardiovascular adaptation, and strength adaptation. Whilst hiking is theoretically “just walking”, there is a big difference between a half-hour walk to the shops and a 7-hour hike over rough terrain.

​Look at it this way:

  • Uneven terrain requires balance (core strength)
  • Long hours on the trail requires muscular endurance
  • Carrying your pack requires upper-body strength
  • Tackling hills and mountains requires leg strength & cardiovascular endurance

So if you are planning a multi-day (or even single day) long hike, you will probably need to assess your fitness and possibly do some training.

​Unless your commute to work is a three-hour walk up hill and down dale!

​When I go hiking, I like to enjoy the experience of nature, and enjoy the exertion if I’m hiking up a mountain. What I don’t like is the feeling of being tired, sore and bad-tempered in the last couple of hours.

​I also don’t like waking up the following morning to muscles that feel as though they’ve been hit with a sledgehammer!

​We’ve all had the experience of feeling stiff and sore the day after a hike or an unaccustomed exercise class - known as “delayed onset muscle soreness” - this is part of the adaptation process. The muscles will only continue to adapt to that particular stimulus, if it is repeated.

​So if you get up and go to work the next day and don’t exercise again until the next weekend, the muscle has little potential to adapt. The same principle applies to cardiovascular fitness. If you go running once a week, your body will adapt much slower, if at all, to the running and the chances are, you won’t get faster or be able to run a longer distance.

​Getting fit enough to really enjoy your hiking doesn’t need to be an arduous process. It just takes a little consistency. Which, once you see how much easier your hikes become and how much better you feel, will make it all worthwhile.

​What kind of Hiker are you?

​Obviously there is a difference between training for a multi-day hike at altitude, such as Kilimanjaro, and training for a day-hike at the weekend.

​But the principles are the same. The intensity and frequency varies.

​Let’s face it: most of us don’t have loads of free hours in the week to spend training. Work, family and our social life all can get in the way. Which is why the idea of “just hiking” as the way to train for a hike is simply wrong.

​Unless we are lucky enough to have a spare three hours a day to hit the trail and hike up and down steep hills with our backpack on, we are likely to need to do something that takes less time.

​Let’s look at those adaptations again:

Cardiovascular fitness

This one is relatively easy to do. And it all depends on your current fitness level. If walking up a flight of stairs leaves you breathless, you need to start slowly. You might start by walking half an hour a day, and gradually increasing the pace. Until you can jog for that half an hour. This is ‘steady-state’ cardio.

If your fitness levels are good, then I highly recommend interval training. Interval training is where you go ‘hard’ for a set amount of time, and then rest for little time - and repeat. This is one of the best ways to get cardiovascular adaptation. Without taking hours per day.

An example of this for beginners would be to run as hard as you can for one minute, then walk for one minute - for total of 20 minutes. There are a lot of different protocols that you can follow, but that’s the basic principle: your heart-rate goes way up and then comes down when you rest.

For more advanced trainees, Tabata workouts can be an excellent choice, or circuit/plyometric training.

Leg Strength/Endurance

It’s quite true that if you are doing some solid interval training (not on the reclining bike) using running, Tabata, or circuits that you would be also building leg strength and endurance. Of course it will depend on how often and how intensely you workout.

If you’re training a combination of steady-state cardio and intervals a few times a week and your goal is weekend hiking, then you are off to a great start.

If you want to take it a step further, to a multi-day hike, then adding in some specific strength training can really reap rewards. For beginners, some body-weight squats and lunges can be the perfect way to start. See how many walking-lunges you can do!

For more advanced trainees: stay away from the machines in the gym! They do not build the kind of strength you want, as they ‘isolate’ the muscles too much. Some good multi-joint exercises such as deadlifts, squats, split-squats, hip-thrusters and weighted walking lunges will help to build the strength you will need for a hike up a big mountain.

Core Strength & Upper Body Strength

No you don’t need to do loads of sit-ups! If you are already doing circuit training (with or without weights), plyometric-type training or some solid multi-joint lifts (deadlift, squat, walking lunges) then your core strength will be worked at the same time. Your gluteal muscles (butt-muscles) make up part of your ‘core’ as does your hip-flexor and abdominals.

Core strength will develop your balance and reduce the risk of injury on the trail.

Specific upper-body strength should focus on your upper back - as you will be carrying a backpack for many hours at a time.

So how do you figure out if you are fit enough for the hike you are planning?

Assuming you are going on a full-day hike (7-9 hours):

A simple way is to load up your backpack and head out for a half-day hike. Assess how you feel during the day:

  • Are you out of breath?
  • Do you need frequent rest-stops?
  • Is the weight of your pack bothering you?
  • Are your legs tired/sore?

Then see how you feel the next morning. If you feel sore or tired, then you’ll need to get some training in before your full-day hike.

​You can never be “too fit”

​Putting in some time to train between hikes is a great way to enhance your enjoyment of the day out. Getting fit will also open up those hikes that in the past you thought were out of your league! You don’t need to be spending hours in the gym everyday, but incorporating some specific strength and interval protocols will ensure that you are always top of your game on the trail.

Clare Groom

About the Author: Clare is an avid high-altitude trekker, and writes about her passion: Kilimanjaro. You can see Clare’s high-altitude musings on her blog at Altitude Treks or on Facebook.