Training for Hiking: How to get in shape for the season!

As the weather cools off here in Arizona, we often start to think about activities we could be doing outside. Over the last few weeks, the family and I have returned to some of the classic in-town hiking trails we often do every year. We happen to be spoiled here in Arizona by all the local trails and jaunts. Camelback, Piestewa, Four Peaks, South Mountain, and the Superstition Mountains are all within quick driving distance of the Valley.

Hiking is a fantastic and fun form of exercise, and a great way to work towards fulfilling the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. At Petersen, sometimes we get asked how to get in shape for hiking – what exercises to do, and how to avoid injury.

Training for hiking involves building two essential systems: the cardiovascular system and the muscular system. The best way to accomplish this is by using a basic resistance training approach using exercises focusing on the muscle groups of the lower body, while concurrently building stamina on hills, walks, or runs.

Here are our best tips for getting in shape for hiking:

Exercises for Hiking

Getting in shape to hike should involve two main components: muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness, and it’s a great way to motivate ourselves to continue to maintain our fitness into our 40’s and beyond.

Below are some hiking specific exercises we would recommend incorporating into your routine if you are interested in working towards a larger hike. If you don’t currently have a program you’re following, we’ll include a sample program at the end of the article.

Exercise #1: Walking Lunges or Step-Ups

The primary function of the quadriceps is to extend the knee. Having good strength and endurance in the quadriceps will make your life much easier on ascents and descents for steep hills. In particular, these unilateral (one-sided) exercises are great for building the supportive structures around the knees (tendons and ligaments). Many nagging injuries from hiking or similar activities happen because of the undue stress placed on the knee joints during tough descents, especially if you’re fatigued!

As an aside, unilateral exercises such as walking lunges and step ups do a good job of building your adductors, an often neglected group of muscles along the inner thigh that is a common culprit for groin pain and injury.

While you could opt to do both exercises in one session, it likely makes more sense to pick one and stick with it for a certain workout. We’ll discuss programming considerations later in this article.

Walking Lunges

If you’re not having flashbacks to high school gym class, you will be as soon as you start your first set of walking lunges. The fact remains that this humble exercise is a fantastic way to build the whole leg. It’s also known for improving knee stability and balance over time.

Step Ups

Step ups are perhaps the most specific exercise to the activity of ascending and descending during a hike.

Both walking lunges and step ups are fantastic choices for hikers because they adhere to the principle of specificity in exercise, which states that the exercises we choose will have the greatest carry over to our chosen activity when the exercises themselves mimic the activity more closely. Both lunges and step ups are exercises that mimic walking, with a single leg supporting our entire weight at a time.

Note: if you’re advanced, or would simply like an added challenge, the rear-foot elevated split squat (otherwise known as the Bulgarian split squat) is a great option to fill this slot as well:

Bulgarian Split Squats

Rear foot elevated split squats are quite a bit more challenging than the other two exercises listed above, and should only be selected once we’re proficient at lunges and step ups first. This exercise will be useful if building strength in the legs is a goal of yours, in addition to building hiking-specific endurance.

Exercise #2: Good Mornings or Dead Walks

Just as with our quad-focused exercise above, we’ve got two different hamstring-focused exercises listed for inclusion.

The hamstrings are the muscles along the backs of your legs and they make up a significant portion of your posterior chain – the chain of muscles along the back of the leg and spine that assist in walking, running, jumping, and picking things up off the ground.

While you’ll feel your quads burn on long ascents or descents, your hamstrings will be working hard to propel you onward and upward. Having stronger hamstrings will make a big difference in your hiking experience!

Good Mornings

The good morning is a great way to build the entire posterior chain, as well as to learn to feel your hamstrings as they contract. Keep you back straight and only go down until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings, then ascend back to the top.

Dead Walks

Dead walks are a sort of “walking lunge” for the posterior chain, and they take their name from their similarity to their bigger brother, the deadlift. This exercise is more advanced, and we’d recommend that if you’re just starting out, you opt for the easier good morning exercise for now.

Glute Bridges or Single-Leg Bridges

Glute bridges, both bilateral and single-leg, are a fantastic way to build strength and stability in the hips, as well as torch your glutes after all the leg work you’ve just completed.

All glute bridge variations target (of course) the gluteus maximus, but they also do a good job of simultaneously targeting the smaller gluteus medius, a muscle that is particularly helpful for balance and stability when standing on one leg.

Glute Bridges

Single-Leg Bridges

Upper Body Superset

While hiking doesn’t necessarily involve the upper body per se, we’d be remiss if we didn’t include some sort of upper body work in this session. Having a strong upper back, in particular, can be useful if you’re planning to lug a day pack around all day, or if you’ll be needing to hold on to objects as you scramble over objects on the trail.

A great way to include some upper body work would be to include a simple upper body push-pull superset, such as the one described in our upper body micro-workout article. This superset of pushups with banded rows is easy because it can be done anywhere, but you could just as easily substitute pressing and pulling exercises of your choice.

Cardiovascular Fitness

At it’s core, hiking is a cardiovascular event. Sure, leg and core strength are important, especially if we’re lugging heavy-ish packs or water bottles up the side of a mountain all day.

The good news is, you don’t need to be a marathon runner to enjoy a hike. The cardiovascular demands of hiking vary from trail to trail, but in general, it’s just a couple notches above basic walking. Regularly getting your heart rate up to build a cardiovascular base will be helpful in your endeavors to enjoy yourself on the trail.

If you’re already engaged in some sort of walking or running exercise routine, great! You’ve got a leg up (pun intended). If not, don’t feel too much intimidation about starting. The point here is that hiking is an activity done on our feet, and therefore the majority of our training should be done on our feet.

Walking, running, and hill / stair work will all work here. With a walking or running program, the goal should be to build cardiovascular endurance and aerobic capacity.

If you’re starting a running program, for example, you might start by walking or jogging for 20 minutes every other day. Once that feels easy, increase your walking time to 30 minutes, and then add a few brief running intervals. As you get stronger, keep adding time and distance until you’re able to run for the entire 30 minutes.

Don’t go crazy – if you just want to crush basic afternoon hikes like Piestewa Peak or South Mountain, a couple days per week of walking or running should suffice (and a weekend hike!)

If you’re unsure of how much to shoot for, use the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans as a guide:

  • 150-300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity OR
  • 75-150 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity

What About Core Strength?

Many articles and pieces of advice on the topic of hiking fitness will mention core strength training. In a hiking context, the function of a strong core will be to improve our ability to maintain a rigid spine and transfer force into the ground with each step. That is to say, the purpose of the core in hiking is to resist movement.

The truth is, if we’re engaging in all the exercises listed above (posterior chain exercises, leg exercises, glute exercises, and upper body exercises like pushups and rows), our core musculature will be taxed to a certain degree in every exercise we do. It’s often the case that people who engage in compound exercises such as these develop a very strong core without doing any extra core work whatsoever.

It’s for this reason that we’ll leave the core work up to you. Some people will find it extremely beneficial, and others won’t. Likely, it depends on how much effort you’re putting into your other exercises.

To develop a very strong and stable core, we recommend a basic regimen of planks and side planks. These exercises are fantastic at developing anti-lateral flexion for endurance activities (the ability to resist movement side-to-side).

For a basic routine, check out core micro workout article. After all the exercises listed above, this should be all the extra core work you need.

Hiking Training Plan: Putting it all together

Of course, no article on training for hiking would be complete without a plan! If you’re already exercising regularly, you can incorporate the above movements into your existing training routine by substituting your existing exercises for these ones. If not, here’s a no-frills plan that you could easily use to build the strength and endurance to tackle your hiking season:

Strength Workout A

  • Walking Lunges: As many reps as possible in 1:00 / Pushups: As many reps as possible, stopping 2-3 reps shy of failure (Repeat 3x as a super-set)
  • Good mornings: As many reps as possible in 1:00 / Banded rows: As many reps as possible, stopping 2-3 reps shy of failure (Repeat 3x as a super-set)
  • Optional: Core micro workout

Strength Workout B

  • Step ups: As many reps as possible in 1:00 / Pushups: As many reps as possible, stopping 2-3 reps shy of failure (Repeat 3x as a super-set)
  • Dead walks: As many reps as possible in 1:00 / Banded rows: As many reps as possible, stopping 2-3 reps shy of failure (Repeat 3x as a super-set)
  • Optional: Core micro workout

Progress the 1:00 timer to a 2-minute timer by adding 5-10 seconds to the timer each time you repeat the session. Once you hit 2 minutes on the timer per exercise, add volume by repeating the supersets four times, and then five times.

The sky is the limit when it comes to progression – just remember to take it slow and that the process is what makes the plan work. Nobody gets fit by smashing their body repeatedly.

Cardio Workout A

Jog, run, or speed walk for 20 minutes. Over time, progress to 30 minutes per session by adding 1-2 minutes to the workout each week.

Cardio Workout B

Walk or run hills or stairs for 20 minutes. Over time, progress to 30 minutes per session by adding 1-2 minutes to the workout each week.

Workout Schedule

Since these sessions are short, it should be fairly easy to fit all four of them into a weekly plan. Here’s a few ideas of how to schedule your week:

Option A – Weekdays onlyOption C – Every other dayOption C – Same day sessions
Monday – Strength A Tuesday – Cardio A Wednesday – Rest Thursday – Strength B Friday – Cardio B Saturday – Rest Sunday – RestMonday – Strength A Tuesday – Rest Wednesday – Cardio A Thursday – Rest Friday – Strength B Saturday – Cardio B Sunday – RestMonday – Strength A / Cardio A Tuesday – Rest Wednesday – Rest Thursday – Strength B / Cardio B Friday – Rest Saturday – Rest Sunday – Rest

Advanced version

If you’ve got the time, it is recommended to increase the frequency after a while. In the example above, we’re repeating each workout once per week, whereas in the example below, we’re using a classic ABA/BAB style workout schedule, where we repeat each workout three times every two weeks:

Week 1Week 2
Monday – Strength Workout A Tuesday – Cardio Workout A Wednesday – Strength Workout B Thursday – Cardio Workout B Friday – Strength Workout A Saturday – Cardio Workout A SundayMonday – Strength Workout B Tuesday – Cardio Workout B Wednesday – Strength Workout A Thursday – Cardio WorkoutA Friday – Strength Workout B Saturday – Cardio Workout B Sunday

It’s recommended that if you’re planning anything longer than regular afternoon day hikes, such as a backpacking trip or an extremely long hike, you work up to this advanced version.

Good luck with your hikes!

Using the plan above, we’re convinced that you’ll find hiking easier, more enjoyable, and you’ll zoom up the trails in no time! Regardless of your fitness level, the key is to just start training. As a side benefit, you’ll notice that you’re generally stronger and more fit in your life in general. Be sure to let us know how it goes. Happy hiking!

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