Thanks to Alex from Fitter Faster for this contribution.
In a recent stretch of my life I became the supreme ruler of my couch: the Sofa King. Outside my window were the mountain peaks that marked the edge of my domain, and only one thought passed through my mind: how do I get up there?
Ultimately that’s the question that lead you here, and ultimately the answer to my question was to get off my lazy behind and go hiking. Generally that’s not the worst advice in the world, but what I discovered on the mountain that day, is that it pays to prepare. If you want to go from the sofa to the summit quickly and enjoyably, there are really only 4 simple things you need to focus on:
Choosing a Hike
Start off with a critical step: picking the right hike. This is obvious, but also not to be overlooked when making sure you’re training for the right challenge. More importantly, this is where your imagination gets to run wild as you browse the web for hikes that resemble something out of Lord of the Rings.
Now it just so happens that mountain people have spent over a century pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into maps and info-packets for the casual hiker to ward off disaster. Just Google the national park you are visiting, and do 15 minutes of research; you’re bound to find descriptions and pictures of hikes that would lure even Gollum out of his cave.
What if you’re planning a trip to a National or State Park but are conflicted on what type of hiking you want to do? Simple: pick something your whole group can do and accept the fact that you can’t go wrong. The beauty of hiking is that you have the freedom to explore, and most mountain hikes have the nooks, crannies, and views to satisfy any adventurer.
Simple but Effective Training
Now let’s get down to business. You’ve got to condition your legs, but you should also focus on the essential but oft-overlooked aspect of mountain training: Core Strength.
You’re going to encounter roots, rocks, and other inanimate objects that hold a personal vendetta against you. You can rely on leg strength to pull your ankle back into alignment when you twist it on a root, but wouldn’t you rather effortlessly glide over every obstacle in the first place?
Controlling your weight distribution while moving is key for your ankles. But another reason that core strength is Mountain Secret #1 is that it protects your knees, hips, and upper and lower back. To keep it real simple without sacrificing strength, here are 3 simple exercises that will have you controlling your lower body movements with surgical precision: Mountain Climbers, Lunges, and Single Leg Deadlifts.
Core: Mountain Climbers
Mountain climbers you can do anywhere, and they target your front abs as well as your obliques, lower abs and hip flexors. All of these muscles are required to create force and stability, the same demands they’ll face on the trail. In addition to having a remarkably relevant name, they also improve the stamina in your legs and cardio. This article provides a great explanation on how to do mountain climbers in what I believe to be the most efficient way possible.
Lunges are a great exercise here because they call upon the glutes for strength while improving balance in the core, knees, and ankles. Plus, they closely mimic the demands on the knee during uphill and downhill strides. Focus on going through the whole range of motion. This will improve your comfort and flexibility on the trail. Check out the photo above for the form, and pay special attention to not lean forward or back as you lunge.
Glutes and Core: Single Leg Deadlifts
Single Leg Deadlifts are simple but challenging, and will train your glutes, legs, and core to control your weight while in motion. They also activate the stabilizing muscles of the knees and ankles. Focus on keeping your core activated at all times, and on keeping a neutral spine. If you want to make them harder, just add dumbbells. To make them easier, you can start with a bend your back leg, like in the picture below.
If you’re training for a short, steep hike, improve your recovery and stamina by performing these exercises every other day and increasing the number of 20-30 second sets you do as you progress. If the hike you chose is longer and more gradually sloped, improve your strength and endurance by doing two sets of each exercise every other day, and increasing the duration of the sets by 5-10 seconds every workout. Either way, in 2 weeks you’ll have conditioned your muscles for stability, strength, and stamina, and you’ll have gone a long way towards protecting your joints. Stretch for a couple of minutes after each workout and your flexibility will allow you to get the most out of your strength and balance!
Hydrating and Sustaining Energy
Being mountain-fit is being ready to handle the conditions, and not all about muscular strength and owning a windbreaker. To perform at our peak we need to have optimal electrolyte balance and body temperature. Water is critical for both of these functions, especially because elevation and volatile micro-climates can affect you without warning.
Luckily, you won’t have to worry at all as long as you follow the the 4 C’s of hydration: Conditioning, Climate, Conservation, and Constant sips.
Before your hike, work your way up to drinking at least 14 glasses of water a day. Small investment, big return:
- Train your tissues to hold more water and to function in a more hydrated state.
- Maximize the effectiveness of the exercise you do.
- Ensure that you’re fully hydrated before your ascent.
The mountains are really dry, and there’s much less atmosphere to protect you from the sun’s intense rays. This means that your sweat evaporates before you even realize you’re sweating! You can save yourself from becoming a raisin by stopping more frequently to hydrate. Also, remember to pack sunscreen.
On a hike of 4 or more hours, you’ll start to lose a critical amount of salts as well as water. With electrolyte balance in mind, you’ll want to improve your hydration by consuming salty foods or sweet drinks. I normally don’t condone gatorade in sports, but on long hikes it can sustain your energy better than water. There are also many brands that sell electrolyte powder that you can add to your water bottle, as well as take salt tablets if you’re not into the flavor of electrolytes.
Don’t gulp water! It can make you nauseous. If you find yourself needing that much water when you stop, just stop more frequently and enjoy the view. The body processes water slowly, so the faster you drink, the more you waste.
Be aware of the unmentionable consequences of altitude sickness that can dehydrate hikers in a hurry. As a general rule, I like to bring twice as much water as I anticipate needing for a walk of similar distance. There’s always a way to use water on a hike
Gear and Clothing
Ok so here’s where we get comfortable and trendy. But in all seriousness, you can save money and avoid diminishing returns by sticking with these three practical essentials:
- Hip-strap backpacks redistribute the weight onto your hips to protect your shoulders and back. Easy access pockets for rain gear or water are even better.
- Swaggy large-billed hats block the sun from your face and eyes, and might offer a landing spot to wildlife (I once carried a butterfly for an hour)!
- Broken in hiking boots keep you comfortable and confident on the trail. Discomfort saved is comfort earned. Don’t make the mistake of purchasing a new pair right before your trek. It can be painful!
Usually you’ll want to bring some long pants and a windbreaker, and depending on the weather you may want to consider a full Winter coat. You’re sure to find stranger things than snow in July on a hike in the mountains!
I’ve prepared you with everything you need to pick-a-peak-and-perform, but before I send you packing, here’s just one more principle you should ponder: individually, taking any of the four above actions will get you more ready than you already are; but doing them together will get you more mountain-fit than about 80% of hikers I encounter in Colorado. And if you’re anything like me you’ll want to keep these tips close…you never know what you might see from the top of a mountain.