Hiking can be surprisingly challenging, especially for those not used to the physical exertion. Add in the extreme heat this summer has brought to many parts of the country, and inexperienced hikers may find themselves sore and out of breath more quickly than anticipated.
An exhausted hiker may be at risk for dehydration, slipping, or falling — and the last thing you want is to get stranded on the mountain and not be able to climb back down.
Even if you’re only planning on easy or moderately difficult hikes, or going hiking when it’s cooler in the fall, you can still benefit from training for hiking. You’ll move better up and down the mountain, plus your muscles will feel less exhausted afterward.
Whether you have a big hike coming up or you plan on hitting the mountains to enjoy the fall foliage, we’ve included the best ways to train for hiking. Here are the three key fitness goals to focus on if you want to get better at hiking:
1. Build lower body strength
As you’d expect, your legs are the most important muscles to build and strengthen if you want to be a better hiker. Your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves are the main four muscle groups of the leg. When training your leg muscles, concentrate on compound exercises. Here are few of the best:
Compound exercises for legs
- leg press
Compound exercises are ideal because they work multiple muscles and tendon groups in one motion. Even better, they tend to mimic the actual movements you do while hiking, like lunging ahead with your leg or squatting down to avoid something. Even something as simple as a change in incline is better handled with stronger leg muscles, so this type of training is especially helpful if you’re hiking a steep course.
If you feel up to it, you can incorporate isolation exercises like leg extensions and kickbacks, but the three compound exercises above are really all you need to help build a powerful lower body — particularly squats. You can make squats more challenging by adding weight, such as a barbell that rests on your shoulders, which is called a back squat.
“Back squats are a fantastic way to increase overall leg strength [for hiking],” says Ally McKinney, district fitness manager at Gold’s Gym in Austin. “A back squat really forces our quad group and glute group to work and recruit all the muscle fibers. The trail is always going to bring surprises. If you are strong... you’ll be able to handle a lot of those surprises on the way up or on the way down.”
2. Improve cardiovascular endurance
A hike is a chance to mentally refresh and unwind from a hectic day-to-day while appreciating the great outdoors. But to our bodies, it’s a cardiovascular workout, just like swimming, dancing, playing volleyball, or walking your dog (also called aerobic activity).
If you want to get better at hiking — or any other cardio — you need to improve your endurance.
The American Heart Association recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week, or half an hour five days a week.
If you aren’t already at that level, work to scale up your fitness habits until you are. From there, slowly increase the amount of exercise you do by either extending the duration or upping the intensity.
For example, if your previous cardio workout was walking on a treadmill for 20 minutes, you could add an incline for the last 10 minutes, or simply walk for 25 minutes. Challenging yourself will push your limits and help you last longer on the trail.
Try to incorporate as much real hiking into your cardiovascular workouts as possible. This will help you gain experience and technical knowledge on trails, but hiking itself is also valuable as an endurance training tool.
A study published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership indicates that even leisurely trail hiking is enough to bring about physiological improvements in your cardiovascular system.
3. Stay flexible
Stretching isn’t only important for warming up the muscles before strenuous activity, but for improving recovery and maintaining muscle health. According to the Harvard Health Letter, flexibility maintains range of motion and keeps muscles long. Without adequate stretching, muscles become short and tight, which negatively affects performance and can lead to pain in the joints and muscle strains.
The best stretches for hikers are the ones that incorporate the muscles used most in hiking: legs and hips. Stretching is particularly important if you spend a lot of time sitting each day, as this can cause tightness in your glutes, hip flexors, and hamstring muscles.
Here are five of the best stretches for hiking:
- Start from either a standing position or lying flat on your back.
- Bend one leg, crossing it so your foot is resting on top of your knee on the other leg.
- Then gently pull that same knee back toward your chest by either pushing your hips back (if standing) or pulling it with your arms (if on the ground).
- Repeat for both knees.
Knee to chest
- While lying flat on your back, pull your knee up and diagonally across your chest until you feel a stretch in your glute and hip.
- Keep your lower back against the ground.
- Repeat for both legs.
- Starting from a standing position, keep your legs straight while pushing your rear end backward by bending over while hinging your hips.
- Continue bending over until you feel your hamstrings tighten.
Standing quad stretch
- While standing, bend one leg at the knee. Grab your foot with the opposite hand, and pull it toward your rear end until you feel pulling in your quadricep.
- Hold something with your other hand for stability if needed.
- Repeat for both feet.
- To keep your calves flexible, stand about a foot away from a wall, and put one leg backward.
- Keep both feet flat on the ground while you lean your body toward the wall until you feel the calf stretching.
- Use your hands to brace on the wall.
- Repeat with each leg.
Even novice hikes can be difficult. But walking around in nature is something that humans have been doing for millions of years — your body was built for it!
If you strengthen your leg muscles, work on your cardio, and make sure to stretch while consistently hitting the trails to practice your technique, you’ll find yourself quickly improving as a hiker.
Don’t forget to hydrate properly before your hike, and bring plenty of water and snacks along with you. Happy hiking!
Raj Chander is a consultant and freelance writer specializing in digital marketing, fitness, and sports. He helps businesses plan, create, and distribute content that generates leads. Raj lives in the Washington, D.C., area where he enjoys basketball and strength training in his free time. Follow him on Twitter.