Dr. Jonathan Chang, a sports medicine specialist in South Pasadena, California, has seen his fair share of hiking injuries, from knee and ankle sprains to meniscal tears. A trail hound himself, Dr. Chang emphasizes that safe hiking requires an overall fitness plan to build both endurance and strength.
You may be thinking, "C'mon, train for hiking?" Hiking is essentially walking, and we know that walking is a great workout. But the uphill demand on your heart and the downhill demand on your muscles, connective tissues, and joints during hiking make it not only a great all–around workout but also a more intense one, says Darcy Norman, a performance therapist who works with high–level athletes at Athletes' Performance of Tempe, Arizona. Dr. Chang warns, "do too much before you're ready, and you risk injury."
Heart Healthy Hiking
Of course, it's best to stay in shape year round, but we know that not everyone manages to do so. Here is a simple three–step cardio plan that can help you catch up on fitness before heading out for a longer hike. Your heart will thank you.
1) Get in shape for hiking by… hiking. Have trouble sticking with a traditional workout? Julianne Abendroth–Smith, Ed.D., associate professor of biomechanics at Willamette University, recommends simply hitting the trail instead—no matter the season. If you enjoy it, hiking doesn't have to be reserved for vacations and camping trips. Find trails and nature walks in your area at /LocalHikes.com/. If that doesn't work for you, simply make walking around your neighborhood, or better yet, one with hills, part of your routine.
2) Take things one step at a time. Wherever you do it, the key is to get back into hiking gradually. "The most important thing in preventing injury is proper progression," says Dr Chang. If you're mostly sedentary now, he recommends starting with a 20– to 30–minute hike (a walk, jog or bike ride will work, too) one to three times a week and eventually progressing to a 45–minute workout, then an hour, then longer. You'll build what he calls tissue tolerance—strength in all your body's most vulnerable places (joints)—as well as cardiovascular fitness.
3) Take advantage of hidden workouts. "Never pass up an opportunity for exercise," Norman says. "Take the stairs every time you see an elevator or escalator." Walk your dog, clean your house, do yard work. Adding as many short spurts of activity throughout your day as you can will also help prep your heart for the cardiovascular challenge of tackling tougher trails.
Downhill From Here
We may feel like a hike is cake after we've reached the top of a trail, but most people actually get injured going downhill, not up. Norman explains by comparing the human body to a car. Your muscles are working like brakes all the way down to slow your momentum. By the bottom of a hill, car brakes sometimes start to smell like they're burning from all that hard work. In the body that can translate to injuries like knee pain or hip bursitis, Norman says.
Plus, our joints act like shock absorbers for the impact of every step we take, Dr. Chang adds. And strong muscles around joints help stabilize them. He recommends hikers build strength in both the legs and the back. He says that when legs get tired, they call on the spine to help out. Walking or running is a good start because both strengthen the back muscles—add a yoga–based strength–training plan and you'll have all your bases covered.
Norman uses dynamic yoga poses as a warm–up for cardio activity with his clients. And Margaret Burns–Vap, owner of Georgetown Yoga in Washington, D.C., thinks yoga complements hiking so well that she moved across the country to base a business plan on it, founding Big Sky Yoga Retreats (/bigskyyogaretreats.com/) in Bozeman, Montana. She offers yoga and hiking vacations in the spring and fall.
Strength In Yoga
Three to four times a week for two to four weeks at home, do all five of these moves suggested by Burns–Vap and Norman. Then before your hike, warm up with boat pose and yoga squats. Midway through, find a flat spot to stretch out your quads and lower back with dancer pose. And when you finish, cool down with a wide–legged forward bend for your tired hamstrings.
Move 1: The Boat.
Benefits: Strengthens core, which helps control movement. Sit with your legs straight in front of you. Bend your knees and lift your feet off the floor, keeping your legs together and bringing your shins parallel with the floor. Keep your lower back straight, while you balance on your sitting bones and tailbone. Place your hands under your knees for support or extend your arms straight out next to your shins. Keeping your abs engaged, work toward straightening your legs. Inhale and exhale slowly and deeply, holding the pose for five complete breaths. Repeat three to five times.
Move 2: Yoga squats.
Benefits: Strengthens glutes and quads; opens hips, which staves off post–hike soreness. Stand with your feet wide apart, toes turned out slightly. Lower your hips down as far as they will go (as your hips become more flexible, you'll be able to lower farther). Then, engage your quad and glute muscles to lift your hips and upper body as you reach your arms overhead as you inhale; return to the low squat as you exhale. Repeat 10 times with 10 deep breaths.
Move 3: Moving lunge.
Benefits: Improves balance; stretches the quads, hip flexors, and core; strengthens the hamstrings and glutes. Step forward with your right leg into a lunge position, keeping your front knee right above your ankle. Engage your left glute and reach your left arm up toward the sky, side crunching slightly to the right; hold for one breath. Lower the arm and step forward with the left leg, contracting the right glute, raising the right arm, and crunching sideways to the left. Repeat three to five times on each leg, alternating sides.
Move 4: The Dancer.
Benefits: Stretches quads, tight from hiking; improves balance, and releases lower back tension with slight backbend. Stand with your feet together and reach your left arm up. Turn your right palm out and reach for the arch of your right foot. Push your foot into your hand and send your leg up and back behind you (not out to the side). Keep your chest lifted and your left arm by your ear, reaching the left hand up toward the sky. Hold for three to five breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Move 5: Wide–legged forward bend.
Benefits: Strengthens the quads; stretches the hamstrings. Take your feet wide apart—if you outstretch your arms, your heels should be beneath your wrists. Turn your toes in slightly. Engage your quads, take your hands to your hips, and lean back as you inhale; as you exhale, fold forward. Line your fingers up with your toes so your elbows point back behind you. Let the crown of your head stretch down toward the floor. Hold for 5 to 10 long, deep breaths. Come up to standing on the inhale, with your hands on your hips.
There are a few more things to know before you head out for a hike. The right gear is just as important to injury prevention on the trail as strong muscles, good balance, and a fit heart.
Most important is footwear. Without the proper footwear for the terrain you're on, you risk ankle injury. For day hiking on established trails, trail shoes with good traction, sticky soles and support under and around the foot are perfect. If you happen to be prone to injury or less flexible, you may want a sturdier mid–cut boot. But some people like lighter more nimble trail shoes. For rougher cross–country hikes, though, more support is really necessary to prevent the ankle from rolling. And if you're carrying a heavy backpack, whether you're on a defined trail or rougher terrain, extra support is recommended. For more footwear recommendations go to /CampingLife.com/ and check out "More Hiking Health."
What you wear above the feet matters a lot too. Stay out of your cotton jeans and shirts for hiking. Outdoors experts emphasize the importance of wearing either synthetic materials, which wick moisture away from the skin and keep your body dry, or wool, which is slower to dry but is an even better temperature regulator. Cotton can trap moisture, sending the wearer toward hypothermia in cold weather.
Dressing in at least two layers for a hike is a good idea—no matter the season. The first: a lightweight sweat–wicking (either synthetic or wool) top and underwear next to the skin. Over that wear (or stash in a day pack) a slightly heavier mid–weight layer with long sleeves. And then it's always a good idea to bring along something waterproof in case you get rained on.
Abendroth–Smith is a firm believer in one last piece of gear that can prove quite handy. After extensively researching how trekking poles affect hiking impact on the body, she has found that they reduce the force on the back during uphill climbs—making the arms share the brunt. And on downhill slogs, they help men step lighter, reducing the impact on their joints, and help women balance, reducing the likelihood of injury from missteps or falls. Abendroth–Smith recommends finding a pole that feels good in your hand. She likes trekking poles with ergonomic handles.
So there you have it, your easy routine for hiking fitness and essential gear for better hiking adventures. A few simple cardio–building ideas, some stretching and muscle strengthening tips, and a few thoughts on the right kind of gear for the trail. Now put it all to work, and then go take a hike!
How to get fit and stay that way through hiking