Now that the hiking season is just around the corner, getting fit and staying fit are paramount for an enjoyable and injury free season. If you are like me and find that you can't really do full-time training outdoors, or even walk around with a heavy pack everywhere, you don't get as much training as you want. Add to this limited time availability with mixed weather and you got the perfect formula for not training.
I personally try my best to stay fit through the offseason, trying to get outdoors as much as possible to stay backpacking fit, but with backpacking trips so rare, I don't get to do that as much as I'd like.
Over the years I have taken aspects of training from a variety of schools of thought, making my own form of cross training that has established a well-balanced system for me to stay fit for fast hiking, thru-hiking and the occasional child carrying hiking. One thing I do want to make very clear: I have no time for full training programs, not anymore. Before having kids and a business I could find 30-60 minutes for some more focused training, but now that is not possible. I now make sure my training is part of my day, doing bite-sized activities with commute based activity.
My core training programs are:
Calisthenics training for core and upper body
I’ll start with the least expected part of my training as I think this the most often forgotten one – keeping the core and upper body strong. Core training is a must to increase ease of body movement and enable comfortable backpack carrying over long periods of time. A strong upper body is vital for using trekking poles (make sure you do it right!) and potential scramble/hand aids while moving fast over rock and talus. Due to my time constraints, I fit my calisthenics in throughout the day, a set or two at the time. Those include:
Push ups – standard normal pushups, sets of 30-60, depending on how my elbow feels (I have a problem with my left elbow). The great thing about push-ups is that they can be done anywhere, anytime and only depends on your energy levels. If you are not used to them aim for sets of 10 several times during the day. They can be done as you are on your way to the bathroom, between meetings, in the park on the way to or from things or in the fire escape of your office if you colleagues might give you looks.
Core headstand – a simple method to work on balance and core strength: elbows on the floor with hands behind your head, creating a stable triangle. Start with legs just walking up and put pressure on the neck and head, over time bring you legs up to an upside squat and eventually straighten your legs. I do 30-60 seconds every morning – you can find a minute in your morning, right?
Pull ups – do yourself a favor and get a door-frame-fitted pull-up bar and start practicing. With pull-ups, you just need to get on the bar, starting with one pull up and keep going up from there. I try and get to 50 per day in sets of 10, some in the morning, a set when I get home, etc. You can also use any bar you encounter on the way: found a branch that looks just right next to the office? do a quick set.
I live in a city, which means I need to travel to get outdoors, but also means I don’t need to use a car in my day to day. Over time I have learned that the fastest way to commute in a heavily trafficked place is cycling, giving two benefits: cycling as training and as a commute. I cycle for school runs, errands, delivering your orders to the post office and anything else. Cycling is great for outdoors enthusiasts as it works on the quads and back, developing another set of muscles for better performance when hiking and backpacking. Aim for at least a 5 km cycle to get enough distance and try and make it part of your commute – that way you don’t need dedicated cycling time, you get cheap commute and maximize training.
If your commute is very far (well, if it is too far you need some life changes to correct that), but up to 30 km (18 miles) can still be done in a normal cycle time of around an hour (hard cycling at that, but doable), still better than 50 minutes in the car and 30 minutes in the gym.
Teaching yourself to run well is probably one of the main parts of good training for fast hiking. Borrowing from ultra runners, the key here is developing the ability to get a good amount of distance covered while working on speed and good recovery. The idea is not just to be able to run fast and far, but actually to teach your body to recover easily to reduce the potential of injury on longer trips. Also, run with a pack to teach your body to use your core for balance and not just your legs – after all, you will be carrying a pack outdoors.
I try to run 3 times a week: usually replacing school drops with running while pushing two kids up a hill at a good speed and then doing a slightly longer run. On weeks with good weather, I will completely drop cycling and just run the kids to school every day to adjust to a high impact recovery process.
At this point, most will recommend hiking and backpacking as the best training, but if I’m outdoors all the things I wrote are irrelevant. What I do try and do is fit as much walking into my week as possible, urban walking with some form of a pack. Not much to say here but: make sure you walk. I have a daughter so I try to make sure to carry her when possible for some backpack training while also making sure it is not too much to get her used to it. Try both brisk walking (6-7 kph / 3.5-4 mph) and some more leisure walks and focus mainly on your gait and stride; these walks to the store and back are great to do some self-examination of walking form to prevent injury.
You can call it yoga, stretching, pain relief or whatever else you want, but in order to stay injury free (mainly with your joints) you need to stay limber and reduce stress points. Learn from the many (too many?) running sites on the web about post-run stretching and start implementing it on a daily basis. Those stretching methods should become so familiar that you can easily reach your camping spot while outdoors, set up your tent and do a good 5-10 minutes of stretching. Yes, this a practice to learn at home but you will also use it on the trail. I try and stretch daily, at the end of the day (I wish I remembered/had time in the morning too), focusing on all the parts of my legs: quads, glutes, IT band, hamstrings, and calves; lots of calf stretching for minimalist footwear users. I try to also do a quick round of upper body stretching to just reduce tension in the neck and shoulders, which are also good to use on the trail after a full day with a pack.
Another aspect of stretching is reducing the amino-acid build up in the muscle, what is more known as cramps. We all get those as we start to push it harder and there is another thing that happens: we break our muscle and create mini fractures in it. The best way (that I have found) to increase recovery from those is to use a foam roller properly. Foam rollers are those odd stiff foam tubes that you roll on, roll on yourself or half lay on for some deep tissue massage. Foam rollers are also excellent for breaking old scar tissue in the muscle – mine helped me restore my IT bands after a not so successful surgery 15 years ago, even though I only started using it 3-4 years ago. Make sure you use a few times a week for good recovery.
In this category fall all the things you don’t think of as training but that keep you active while being a better human being: walking your dog, playing with your children, helping a friend move, playing football/rugby/other sport on the weekend. All of these are excellent ways to get your body to try a less linear form of training, all you need to do is look at them more seriously:
- Walking the dog – walk faster, not just stumble behind your dog. Add stretches of carrying your dog a little (most of the dogs like it), do some short sprints and vary the route for some more challenging sections. It doesn’t have to be a long walk, but you should do something that increases your heart rate.
- Playing with children – the first step is getting down to their level; when you are at the unfamiliar level of younger kids you need to work harder to move, which is a great full body workout. Introduce some roughhousing, add squat running, be a horse on all fours or on two. If you go all in when playing with your kids, you will find yourself sweating in no time.
- Helping a friend move – push it harder, don’t just seek the easy things, set a goal of moving 3-4 items that are just at the edge of your carrying comfort zone, the kind that makes you huff and puff to get some good all-body workout. Who needs the gym or weights after this? Just make sure to do some good upper body stretching.
You get the drift, take any small activity and make it greater by looking at it a little more like training than just a chore of a favor for someone; you already doing it so might as well use it for your benefit.
Time management and conclusion
The best way I have found for training is to avoid giving it dedicated time and just incorporate it all the time, that way I don’t need to cut my time on anything else and it is harder to go through a day without doing any training at all. Find your weak spots and add some extra challenges for those: more upper body, an extra 30 seconds of core head stands in the evening, maybe another quick run in the week. The goal is to make training such an integral part of your life that you will stop thinking of it as training and just always be fit for the hills, mountains, and trails.
I’ll even give you a bonus: do the resting squat as much as you can for a full body stretch and leg strength; this is super easy and can be done absolutely anywhere, but you might get odd looks. Go out and train well, all day long.