How do you get in shape for hiking?

I get asked that question a lot — more frequently as I get older and people wonder how I continue to push my body and tote my pack up and over mountains.

As a youth, I was never much of a gym rat, although I swam or ran almost every day I was in high school. I never had a swimmer’s or runner’s body. (I am stocky, not lithe.) But the one thing I’ve always had is an athlete’s mind — a hard wired desire to push myself to do more. It was this more than anything that allowed me to take a body that was in reasonable shape out for weekend or week-long hikes for decades. I just kept walking, getting stronger by the day.

As much as I wanted to keep the effects of age at bay, they finally arrived

Something changed when I passed the 53-year mark. Getting in shape on the trail took longer, as did my recovery from each hike. I came to the realization that regular aerobic exercise when I was off the trail would give me an edge when I headed back into the woods. Thus, I increased the frequency of my walking and cycling regimen from one or two times per week to four times per week or more.

Aerobic workouts between trips are important

Hiking is hard on the joints. Knees and ankles take a particular beating, especially on trails that are loaded with roots and rocks. In the gym, there’s really no way to emulate the ways your knees and ankles have to twist and turn all day to accommodate trail terrain — even if you could, I’m not sure you’d want to. And while I’ve seen people training for climbs with loaded packs on their back (on a stair climber for example), I’ve never understood the draw.

Instead, I try to keep my body aerobically active enough to keep my heart and lungs healthy and my weight down without becoming obsessive about it. I don’t want to break my body down before I lift a 50 pound pack and hike a mountain range for a week or two. But I do want to make sure my muscles and lungs are capable of getting me off to a strong start.

Out on the Trail

When I’m out on the trail, I have a few tricks that help keep me healthy all the way through each trip.

1. Use hiking poles. I started using them thirty years ago and I’m absolutely convinced they’ve added decades to my hiking ability. My doctor recently told me that I have the knee cartilage of someone half my age. I attribute this to the fact that the poles took stress off my knees on steep descents. Poles also come in handy during stream crossings because they give you extra points of contact with the stream bed. You can scoot right across without stopping.

2. Challenge yourself. One way I gauge how in or out of shape I am is how I handle hills. The earlier in the day I have to stop and rest on an ascent, the more out of shape I am. When I’m feeling strong, I can go miles and miles without stopping. If I stopped every time my mind or body yipped at me, I’d never make any progress. Only you can know whether you really need to stop for a rest or to eat or drink. My personal preference is to try to make the top of a hill rather than to stop, let my muscles cool down, hoist the pack again and immediately tackle a hill as my “reward”.

Every day on the trail, I try to go longer into the morning without taking a break. This is where my old habit of pushing myself comes in handy. It’s like being in a gym, but a lot more fun.

3. Oxygenate. I concentrate on breathing deeply, pulling oxygen way down into my diaphragm. Deep breathing keeps your blood oxygenated and your muscles going strong.  When I get to the top of a hill, I can feel my leg muscles shift from my calves doing the work to my quads doing the work. If the summit doesn’t call for a stop to enjoy the view, I can keep going until I find a spot worthy of a break.

4. Recover. When I’m out on the trail, I pay a lot of attention to recovery time. Stopping early to eat well, rehydrate and get a good night’s sleep is essential. On long trips, I factor in longer recovery times for the first few days. Once you’ve been out a while, you can generally hike longer into the day because you are in better shape and your pack is lighter.

5. Stretch. In the morning, I try to remember to stretch at the campsite before I put my pack on. This has been a hard habit for me to pick up, but I’m getting better at it. My legs are pretty good at reminding me when I don’t.

The overall lesson for me is clear. The older you get, the harder it is to coax a reasonably fit body back into shape by throwing it headlong toward mountain summits. It’s like anything in life. If you take good care of things, they take care of you.

Note: This blog is Part 2 of a multi-post series. Part 1 covers trip planning and may be of particular interest to section hikers (those tackling the AT one piece at a time).