“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”
– Jim Rohn
Before undertaking a multi-day hike it pays to be in reasonable shape. Why? The fitter you are the less you struggle, physically and mentally.
This particularly holds true during the first few days of a hike. By being in good shape, you are able to focus more on the beauty of your surroundings and less on the distraction of how exhausted you feel.
In addition, a good level of pre-hike conditioning minimizes the likelihood of stress/repetition related injuries such as knee and achilles ailments. There are three elements which go into being hiking fit: aerobic conditioning, strength and flexibility.
The best way of preparing for a long hike is…..wait for it…..to hike a lot.
Yep, groundbreaking stuff.
Hiking up and down mountains with a pack on your back is like any other physical activity; it uses specific muscle groups that need to be trained in order to perform at optimum efficiency. Therefore, any time you spend walking with a pack on your back, particularly on challenging, uneven terrain, will hold you in good stead once out on the trail.
If you live in a town or city and for some reason are embarrassed to be seen toting a big backpack around your neighbourhood streets, try filling up a daypack with heavy items such as water and food. Much less conspicuous, similar results.
For a general overview of what is needed to prepare for a multi-week hike, click on the following article, Physical Preparations for Long distance hiking, by thru-hiker Chris “Suge” Willett.
When hiking opportunities are few and far between, you will need to look for alternative means of aerobic conditioning. Activities such as running, cycling, swimming, snow shoeing, deep water running and rowing are all beneficial in helping to build an aerobic base. No hills in your area? No problem. Going up and down stairs, the more the better, is a good substitute.
In addition to aerobic fitness, a simple series of strengthening exercises will help you to hike more efficiently and minimize your chances of injury on the trail. All of these exercises, which emphasise both leg and core strength, can be done at home without the aid of equipment. For more detailed descriptions, simply click on the exercise in which you are interested.
- Wall Sit: Great for increasing quadricep strength; comes in handy during those long/steep descents. Especially beneficial for those with a history of knee problems.
- Calf Raises: Helps to increase ankle and calf strength. The stronger your ankles, the less likely you are to turn or twist them when walking over uneven terrain. Be sure to stretch your calves after finishing the exercise.
- Squats: All around leg strength. The “Daddy” of leg exercises. Note: if you have a history of knee problems, it is best to start with the wall sit and/or modified versions of the squat until you your leg strength improves.
- Crunches: Lower abdominals/core strength.
- Leg Raises: Upper abdominals/core strength. A good tip is to place your hands underneath your buttocks, palms facing down, thereby giving support to your lower back.
- Plank: All round core strength.
- Tree: A yoga asana (posture) beneficial for improving balance and ankle strength. As a bonus, it also helps your powers of concentration. To increase the difficulty factor, try closing your eyes.
If you are carrying a medium to heavyweight load, any experienced hiker will attest that it is not just your legs which are tired and sore by days end. Your shoulders and back also bear a significant proportion of the strain.
That being the case, upper body strengthening exercises such as pushups, chinups and dips are all excellent in rounding out your overall pre-hike strength programme. These three exercises are ideal in that they can also be done whilst out on the trail:
- Pushups – Can be done anywhere. Vary the width of your hand placement to work different muscles.
- Chin ups – It’s amazing the amount of appropriate tree limbs you can find if actually on the lookout. Sturdy beams in mountain huts are ideal. Once again, variety is best (eg. overhand – aka pull ups, underhand and varying widths).
- Dips – Flat sided rocks, hut benches or tables.
Tired and sore muscles are more prone to injury. Regular stretching is a means of minimizing the chances of injury occurring. I regularly stretch during breaks, and at day’s end I always try to do at least 10 to 15 minutes before calling it a night. For images and further details of the various stretches listed below, simply click on the stretch in which you are interested.
- Calves: Stand facing a solid object such as a tree, wall, post or boulder. With your feet positioned approximately 1.5m away from the object, lean forward and place both hands against it. Lift your right foot and tuck it behind your left calf. With your left foot firmly against the ground, bend your elbows, bringing your body closer to the object. Repeat with the other leg.
- Hamstrings: Sit up straight with your right leg stretched out in front of you. Bend the left knee and then place the sole of the left foot against the inside of the right thigh. Bend forward from the hips, keeping your back straight, and place both hands as far along your outstretched right leg as possible. Once you feel the stretch in your hamstring and back, hold the position for 20-30 seconds, then release. Repeat the stretch with your left leg out in front. Do three repetitions.
- Groin: In a sitting position, bend both knees and bring the soles of the feet together. Holding your ankles, use your elbows to gently push your knees towards the floor. Simultaneously bend slowly forward from the hips, keeping your back straight. Once you feel your groin stretching, hold the position for 20-30 seconds, then release. Repeat three times.
- Quads: Stand with your feet approximately 0.5m away from a solid object such as a tree, wall, post or boulder. Place your left hand against the object for balance. Lift your right foot behind you and grab it with your right hand. Bring your right heel up against your buttocks. Hold for 20 seconds. To increase the stretch, simply lean forward. Repeat with your other leg. Do three repetitions for both legs.
- Glutes: Sit up straight with your legs stretched out in front of you. Raise your left knee to your chest. Grab the outside of your left ankle with your right hand and the outside of your left knee with your left hand. Move your left foot across your body, simultaneously bringing the inside of your left knee closer to your chest. Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat with your other leg. Do three repetitions for both legs.
- Never stretch vigorously first thing in the morning. Your muscles will still be stiff from the evenings sleep. Gentle loosening stretches are fine, however, over-stretching tight or cold muscles is one of the most common ways in which strains and tears can occur.
- Don’t bounce during any of the stretches. All stretches should be done slowly and with control. Focus on breathing deeply. Breathe into the stretches.
- All stretches should be pain free. If you are feeling pain, then you are over-stretching and putting yourself at risk of injury.