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Training for a Hike

By stephdorworth

January 25, 2022

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Intro: Why hike?

I used to hate hiking. I had tried it a few times after moving to Arizona in 2012 and the entire I’d be thinking… what does anyone enjoy this? I feel so sweaty and dirty! My sneakers keep slipping on the rocks. This is in no way fun!

Fast forward to 2018 and I had committed to a white water rafting, hiking, and camping trip with my father in the Grand Canyon for an entire week. It was his dream to do that trip and something he had been saving up for for years, so I said I’d do it with him. This essentially forced me to practice hiking in order to prepare for that trip. I’ve very lucky that in Phoenix, AZ we have hundreds of trails to choose from. So I laced up my Nikes and got to work.

The more I hiked, the more my eyes were widened and brightened by the wonders of it. And over the course of that week deep in the Grand Canyon with no cell phone service and the most 360 degree miraculous views, I fell…in love.

If you’re reading this and you already love hiking, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. That feeling of power, strength, and not giving up. 

If you aren’t into hiking, then let me explain it to you in more detail. Here’s what hiking feels like. Each and every step up a mountain takes mental and physical strength. You’re not only getting in a great lower body workout, but you’re also challenging yourself mentally…telling yourself don’t give up, keep going, you’ve got this because it’s a challenge! It’s a sport that not everyone loves because it’s not easy. The rocks are uneven and possibly graveling, creating more of a challenge for you to stay stable and avoid falling. But once you get to the top and take a deep breath in - it is empowering. You did this. You hiked all the way up to the top! You conquered your fears, the challenges along the way, and you didn’t give up! You can feel the breeze in your hair and take a deep breath knowing you’re capable, strong, and powerful. You get to enjoy a few moments of peace up there, without cell phones ringing, the sound of cars driving by, or people being annoying. It’s just you, the mountain, and the gorgeous views it’s gifted you - the perspective. That’s why hikers love hiking.

Ever heard the phrase “runner’s high”? It’s an endorphin rush runners get. Well it’s the same for hikers. Hikers can get a high from hiking because of the persistence it took to get there.

If you already love hiking and you’re here to learn how to be a better hiker, well snaps to you! I’m so happy you’re here because I’ll teach you some hiking tid bits to take your hiking to the next level.

And if you haven’t yet fallen in love with hiking and are a beginner, well I encourage you to just keep going. Keep at it. The joy it will bring you once you fall in love is something unique and incomparable.

PS- Ever in Arizona? Checkout our travel blog all about our favorite hiking trails in Arizona for beginners.

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Setting a hiking goal

This section is split into two: beginners and advanced hikers. So read whichever applies to you.

Beginner hikers: start small. Small and realistic goals will be best to ease you into it.

Pull up the free All Trails app and filter hikes that are <3 miles and rated easy. Then choose hikes that are the most popular and highly rated. Why? In the beginning, you’ll want to do shorter hikes to build up endurance later, over time. You also want to choose hikes that are busier and have more people around in case of an emergency.

I suggest you set a goal of just one hike per week. Once you’re able to do that consistently for a month, increase to two per week. Once you’re able to do that consistently for a month, it’s time to stick to 2x/week but increase the challenge. So either choose a longer hike (4-6 miles) or a more challenging trail (rated moderate). The  longer trails will take more time and more endurance from your legs and lungs. The moderate trails will take more balance and stability, maybe be more rocky or include various terrain, and likely will have more elevation. So instead of a flat hike, expect more incline and decline.

Advanced hikers: you’re already hiking regularly so now it’s time to up the game. 

Program more variety into your hikes and become more independent!

To add more variety into your hikes, purposely choose hikes with various goals in mind.

For example, let’s say you hike 2x/week. Choose one hike per week that will improve your endurance (increased mileage) and one hike per week that will improve your stamina and challenge you (moderate-hard rating). 

Also, become more independent with hiking and consider choosing trails less traveled. Instead of those busy, popular trails venture to less popular ones. They will be less busy, so you’ll have less distractions and more solace. But you’ll have to be safe about it. Definitely wear a backpack so you can pack things in case of emergency (since there will be less people around). I’ll cover what you may need in a later section.

As a reminder, hiking should be fun. So if you don’t find “hard” trails fun (like me) then don’t do them. Stick to “easy” or “moderate” trails that maybe you find more enjoyable and less like torture.

Personally, I enjoy hiking more so for the views and time away from technology than for the “workout” per say. Do what brings you joy.

In the next three sections of this blog, I’ll now cover how to prepare for hikes: mentally, physically, and with equipment. Let’s go!

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How to Mentally Prepare for a Hike

Before you embark on a hike, take a moment in the car to prepare. Make sure you have all the equipment you need, including plenty of water. And then take a minute to prepare your mind. Close your eyes, take three deep breaths over the course of ten seconds in and out. Block out everything going on in your life, all negativity, all stressors, and center yourself. This hike is for you, so focus on yourself and nothing else. Tell yourself some positive affirmations to start the hike off in a good mood: like “I am strong, I am capable, and I am prepared for a great hike today.”

Then double check the weather one more time. And pull up the trail map on your All Trails app in case the trail is marked poorly or you get lost.

Then step out of your car and enjoy (don’t forget your warmup)! Pay attention to the trails, your surroundings, what you feel, what you hear, and what you smell. Enjoy every moment you have on that trails because you know once you’re done, it’s back to the hustle bustle of reality.

How to Physically Prepare for a Hike: Beginners

The mental preparation is quick and easy. The physical preparation is a bit more time consuming and requires a lot more dedication. Anyone off the street with no training experience can’t just decide to go on a hike - unequipped and ill prepared. They may finish the trails, they may not, but they surely won’t enjoy it.

Hiking is a very physical sport, especially the more advanced you become with it. It’s not easy and therefore, shouldn’t be taken lightly. Instead, you should prepare your body in advance.

If you’re a beginner and you desire to get into hiking, I first recommend you try out a routine like this:

  • Daily walking 7x/week
  • Lower body strength training >2x/week

The walking will prepare your heart and lungs for the cardiovascular activity. The strength training will prepare your leg’s muscles and joints for the inclines and declines.

Hiking primarily works these muscles:

  • Glutes (back of hips)
  • Hip flexors (front of hips)
  • Hamstrings (back of thighs)
  • Quadriceps (front of thighs)
  • Calves (back of lower legs)
  • Shins (front of lower legs)

And since you’re not jumping like a bunny up or down a mountain, you should focus a lot more on single-leg exercises. This is because you’re hiking with one step at a time, so you’re repetitively doing a single-leg step-up or step-down which requires more stability your of your ankles and knees!

So if you’ve never strength training at home or at the gym before, you’ll want to begin that before hiking to build up some muscle strength and joint stability first.

There are thousands of exercises to choose from, but I’ve put together a basic lower body strength training routine you can do with minimal equipment below as a starter workout for you to try. As said above, try this out 2x/week. Try to use more load (weight) each week and build up strength over time.

Lower Body Workout for Beginner Hikers:

  1. Dumbbell squat 
  2. Single-leg dumbbell hip thrust
  3. B-stance dumbbell Romanian deadlift
  4. Goblet dumbbell curtsy step-up
  5. Lateral step-up to hip abduction
  6. Dumbbell forward lunge 
  7. Side-lying band clamshell
  8. Knee-banded lateral walking
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How to Physically Prepare for a Hike: Advanced

If you’re an advanced hiker already and you desire to improve your hiking skills and reduce your injury risk, I recommend you try out a routine like this:

  • Hike 2-4x/week
  • Strength train lower body with more advanced exercises and techniques 2-3x/week

You likely already workout regularly, but are you going workouts geared toward hiking? If not, I’ve got some ideas for you. Exercise ideas that are more functional and replicate movements required while hiking. And techniques that are more advanced to work your muscles in various ranges of motion, with various contractions, and are more challenging single-leg variations. I’ll also include notes in parentheses as to why I am suggesting these exercises so you understand the why.

Lower Body Workout for Advanced Hikers:

1.Barbell back squat (back-loaded exercises since you’ll likely be wearing a backpack)

2. Single-leg knee-banded hip thrust (going downhill to prevent knee caving and engage glutes better)

3. Barbell b-stance good morning (back-loaded similar to going uphill to target hamstrings)

4. Goblet dumbbell curtsy step-up (load the legs from an angle to require you to balance even more in case uneven rocks throw you off)

5.Med ball pistol squat (much more advanced version of single-leg squat pattern work which is often required with steep inclines) or band-assisted pistol squat

6. Barbell walking lunge (more advanced than stationary; be sure to get down low to work a large range of motion and keep knees in line and not caving inward)

7. Side-lying knee-banded side raise with clamshell (more advanced clamshell to strength the glutes which helps with single-leg balance and stability)

8. Double-banded lateral walking (2 bands to better target glutes especially gluteus medius; be sure toes stay facing forward and not outward)

9.Bonus: BOSU squats or balance work (to improve stability on unstable surfaces)

10. Bonus: Side plank with leg lift (to improve core and glute strength)

The Best Hiking Equipment

Below is a list of what I recommend hikers carry on them for a day hike. Of course if you’re going out on a multi-day trip, you’ll need much more gear. This is for day hikes under four hours only.

Each item is linked to the brand I like on Amazon, most of which I personally own myself. These include affiliate links, so thank you for your support.

Hiking Equipment Necessities:

Tips: 

-Get good quality shoes meant for hiking and add inserts if you struggle with arch pain. -Wear tall socks or pants to cover your legs up and avoid scrapes and cuts as best possible. 

-Always keep your phone on you - with an external charger in case it dies.

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Common Injuries in Hikers

Next, I briefly want to cover some of the most common injuries in hikers. This way you’re aware of them and also know where to turn to if you encounter this injury and need some guidance.

The most common injuries in hikers:

-Foot blisters (often due to inappropriate or ill-fitting shoes)

-Cuts and scrapes (from bushes brushing up against your legs)

-Dehydration (from not bringing enough water)

-Hypothermia or Hyperthermia (from not being prepared for the weather)

-Sun burn (from not being covered up or wear sunscreen)

-Bug bites (from not being covered up or wearing bug spray)

-Ankle sprains (often due to poor ankle mobility and stability)

-Achilles tendonitis (often due to poor ankle mobility)

-Plantar fasciitis (often due to poor shoe support; consider shoe inserts)

-Knee strains and sprains

-Patellar tendinopathy/tendonitis or chondromalacia patella (due to the repetitive stress on the knees and often weak glutes)

-SI joint pain (often due to mis-steps)

Note: Click on the injuries above in color as those link to blogs I’ve written for you all about that particular injury and how to address it.

Of course, after any injury, it’s best to see your Doctor for an assessment. They may recommend Physical therapy for a customized plan of care.

To learn more about injury and how to best prevent it, I’ve got a FREE WEBINAR all about it for you! Grab a seat in this workshop below so you can do your best to avoid injury, but also be able to stay active despite it! Motion is lotion, so the worst thing you can do after an injury is stop moving and lay around for weeks on end.

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Mission: Mobilize, Modify, Move

It’s my mission with every blog post to share a few tips for how to move better.

So to start with: Mobilize. If you’re a hiker, you’ll want to warm-up before hiking just like you would warm-up before a sports game or a marathon. This should entail a ~5min dynamic mobility warm-up session.

I share many free mobility warm-ups on my Instagram here you can checkout. Or if you’re interested in learning more about mobility exercise and getting my hiking mobility workout, checkout Applied Mobility. It’s an online course with over five months worth of mobility warm-ups 5min each. Having good ankle, knee, and hip mobility is crucial for hikers especially hikers who want to avoid injury as best possible. I highly encourage you prioritize a few minutes to warm-up before each hike. 

Next, I want to share how to modify hiking if it’s too challenging or you’re battling an injury at the time:

  1. Consider using assistance like hiking sticks (1 or 2) as they take a lot of pressure off your knees especially when going downhill (around 25%)
  2. Choose “easy” and shorter hikes (as filtered in the AllTrails app)
  3. Go at a slower pace
  4. Consider doing just part of the trail; don’t be ashamed to turn around and do the distance that feels right for you

Finally, I want to remind you why you’re hiking. It’s to get in movement! Movement on a daily basis is so, so important for our overall health and happiness.

But you’re also human. If you ever wake up and aren’t feeling 100%, then modify your hike accordingly. Maybe you didn’t sleep well, stress is high, soreness is high, or you’re hungover - then reduce the intensity of your hike for the day or go on a walk instead.

Let’s wrap-up with a few final thoughts and tips I want to share:

  • If you plan to do long hikes with your backpack on, wear it more throughout the day or on the treadmill
  • If you plan to do a really long hike, take 1-2 days of rest before that to prepare
  • Never wear brand new shoes on a long hike; always slowly break them in
  • If you want to build up cardiovascular endurance even more, consider cross training. Meaning, do other forms of cardio on off days from hiking like swimming, cycling, walking, etc.
  • If you plan to hike at high altitude, give yourself a few days to adjust to it first and go slow

Well, that’s all for now! I’m sure I’ll write more about hiking in the future since I’m so in love with it. 2022 is the year of hiking for me, so follow me on Instagram to see some of my own hiking adventures!

Thank you for being here and as always, if you found this blog helpful please share it and comment below. Much love!

Thanks for reading!

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About Dr. Steph

Doctor of Physical therapy and Online Training & Nutrition Coach with a passion for teaching men and women how to train despite injury.

  • Thanks for sharing, Steph! I enjoyed your hiking tips, especially the piece for people battling injuries. As someone with terrible knees, I'd love to read more on that topic!

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