It’s not too early to begin getting your body ready for a hike in May. Generally, three months are required to build up to an “event,” like a big hike or race or match, but more time means you can spread out and slow down the training—a good thing, especially for beginners.
So make a plan for yourself. Start now. Whatever kind of training you decide to do, block out time for it on your calendar, like an appointment. Putting something on the calendar and saving the time for it is the surest way to make it happen.
For hiking, you need strength—particularly in your legs—and breath. Going up the mountain will work your cardiovascular system (heart and lungs); coming down will test your quadriceps muscles, the four sets of long muscles in your thighs, and your knees. Having a strong core, i.e., muscles in your abdomen and back, helps you carry the weight of your pack.
There are lots of ways to build up your ability to breathe when being active. You can bicycle, run, walk fast, climb stairs, use a Nordic Track machine, walk on a treadmill with a steep incline, or wor
k out on the elliptical machine. What works best for me has been going up and down long sets of actual stairs, like in the subway or in a stadium. Overall, I’d say that’s the best training for a hike I’ve found.
In the last few years, however, due to knee injuries and my knee caps wearing down, I’ve decided to save that kind of wear-and-tear for actual hikes. To go easier on my knees in training, I’ve turned to the elliptical machine.
Start Easy and Build Up
When I started using the Nordic Track years ago for my cardio workout, I stayed on it for three minutes only at first, got off and stretched for 30 seconds, got back on for 3 minutes, stretched for 30 seconds and was done. I built up by adding several minutes each week, still chunking the workout into time on the machine and time off for stretching. I built up to a good workout of 30-45 minutes with no breaks, three times a week. Ideally, you want to do a cardio activity for 30-60 minutes three times a week, thought it may take you quite a while to get there. Another reason to start now for that spring hike!
Overdoing the length or difficulty or a
workout can lead to injuries or so much discomfort with sore muscles that you get discouraged and quit. So don’t be impatient. Many small steps will still get you to your goal, with a lot less risk and pain. Be gentle with yourself and, most important of all, listen to what your body is telling you even if the person next to you in the gym is going twice as fast or as long as you are. Forget them! If you start to feel pain anywhere, slow down, ease up. If the pain doesn’t go away, stop and stretch. Take a five-minute break; walk around. Try again, slowly, but if the pain is still there, quit the workout altogether. Go home and ice the area and rest.
Whatever you do for cardio exercise, spend some of the time doing it backward. Be safe, of course. Make sure there are no obstacles in your path and go slowly if you’re not on a machine. But be sure to do as much as you can backwards. This builds up your hamstrings, a group of three long muscles in the backs of your legs, those tight long critters that burn from the back of your ankle up to your butt when they’re not stretched out. They help bend your knee and move your thighs, crucial actions in hiking, so you need to balance your strength building both front and back.
On the elliptical, for example, I break up my workout into chunks of time, one chunk forward, one chunk backward, another forward, another backward and so on so that by the end I’ve spent an equal amount of time going forward and backwards.
Going backwards has an added benefit: it works your proprioceptive system. Basically, this system helps us sense things inside our bodies and, for example, where our bodies are in the space around us.
Walking backwards, I find, helps me gain a better sense of when I’m about to run into something. It also has improved my balance quite a bit. Even better, if one of my knees or hips feels tight or a bit sore, walking backwards “resets” my muscles in such a way that when I turn around and walk forward again, any pain or tightness has eased.
All of the things I’ve mentioned above for cardio workouts also build up your quadriceps and hamstrings. There are specific weight machines or hand weights you can use to build strength, too. If you have limited time to work on strength training, focus on your legs.
Naturally, it’s great to also build your core, or torso, strength. One way to do this is by wearing a backpack filled with water bottles or cans of food as you do your cardio training, thereby getting a two-for-one workout. The same principles I mentioned earlier apply. Start slowly! Add weight to the backpack gradually as you become comfortable and build up to what your filled backpack will weigh on the hike, a weight you determine by loading the pack up with everythi
ng you plan to take and setting it on a scale.
If you can, take a Pilates class. It’s the best thing I’ve found for building not only abdominal strength but back strength. I’ve got scoliosis (a curved spine) so I have to be extra-protective of my back. Nothing takes care of the back better than strong abs and a slow, gradual building of back strength. Again, don’t overdo. Take your time. Hiking is an endurance sport; you don’t need to rush through the hike, nor the training for it.
It’s the Vision Thing
If working out is not your favorite pastime, remind yourself you’re doing this so you can enjoy that first beautiful spring hike out in the woods or mountains, breathing crystalline air and surrounded by beauty. It helps to focus on the goal when you’re tired and would prefer to collapse in front of the television or sit down with a book instead of do your work out.
Take pride in the progress you make. Give yourself small rewards at the end of each workout, or the end of the week if you’ve done everything you planned to do. Some people set aside a dollar for every work out, building up to a massage. Others eat a piece of chocolate when they’re done or take along bath with candles. Whatever turns you on, reward yourself with it for your hard work. (Rewards also train the unconscious to expect something pleasant, so eventually going to work out becomes easier.)
In the months between now and May, you’ll become more fit in the service of getting ready to do something you’ll really enjoy. Look forward. Anticipation is half the fun. Picture yourself there on that first hike feeling strong and comfortable in the body you’ve thoughtfully prepared to have a great time.