For most of us, hiking is the ideal pastime, combining beautiful landscapes, a chance to escape the perpetual pull of technology, and that cleansing feeling of simply being out in nature.

If you’re a keen hiker, the world truly is your oyster. There are so many trails to choose from, you simply have to decide which one!

But what if you are not an experienced hiker? What if you aren’t particularly active? Or fit?

Can you still enjoy the wonders of hiking to some of these more challenging places?

Absolutely!

You just need to prepare properly.

Benefits of Physical Preparation for Hiking

Proper physical preparation is essential for hiking. Training for the trail can help you to tone up and lose weight in preparation for your trek, but it also has many other benefits:

1. Physical training opens up so many different adventures

With proper preparation, you don’t have to look at a trail and think ‘Will I be able to survive that”? Instead, you will be able to embark on any hike you like, with an added boost of confidence.

2. Training significantly reduces the risk of pain or injury ruining your hike

So many hikers (particularly when they are just coming off the couch) suffer from things like plantar fasciitis, shin splints, hikers knee and lower back pain. With the right training, you can significantly reduce the likelihood of these issues ruining your adventures (and your day to day life!).

3. Physical preparation allows you to fully enjoy your adventures

Sure, many people can use ‘mental toughness’ to will themselves through a tough day of hiking… but do you really only want to survive? If you truly want to be able to enjoy the wonders of the trail, to take in the amazing scenery, to appreciate the smells and really get the most out of this experience, you want to be MORE fit then you need to just survive a hike…

So what do you need to do to get fit for the trail?

The most common advice for beginner hikers is to get out onto the trail and start racking up the miles.
It’s certainly true that hiking is an excellent way to improve your trail fitness. However, there are some major drawbacks to doing all your training while hiking and walking.

These include:

  1. Hiking typically requires a big time commitment. In reality, very few of us have the luxury of heading out for long walks more than once a week (if that).
  2. If you are relatively inactive, suddenly starting an intense walking regime is a recipe for injury. Walking and hiking are not bad for you, but increasing your activity too quickly may result in. issues like plantar fasciitis, shin splints or hikers knee.
  3. Hiking and walking can be great for trail fitness. However, this isn’t the most effective way to address specific issues such as getting huffed and puffed on ascents, getting jelly legs on descents, preventing injury and improving balance on unstable terrain.

So what is the solution?

Well, it’s pretty simple.

Follow a structured strength and conditioning program.

This may sound a bit scary at first… but don’t worry!

It simply means a program which will apply training methods and practices which can get you fit, strong and resilient for hiking – without actually having to spend all your time hiking!

Couch to mountain top hiking in the winter
Couch to mountain top hiking in the winter

Essential Components of a Training Program for Hikers

In general, for hikers, these programs should include three things:

  1. Hiking training
  2. Strength training
  3. Hiking-specific conditioning

Hiking Training

Having said that, in order to properly prepare for a challenging hike, you do need to be spending some time on the trail. Nothing else can replicate the uneven, undulating and unpredictable nature of hiking outdoors.

If you have a big hiking adventure planned, I recommend taking the time to determine how many realistic opportunities you have to go out for a long hike.

For example, if your adventure is 12 weeks away, is it possible to go out hiking every week? Or every second week? Or even only every month? Identifying this early can make the preparation process much smoother.

Once you have figured this out, the next step is to pencil in some hiking distances, ensuring there is a slow and gradual build-up in distance and difficulty each hike you complete.

Doing too much, too soon, is one of the biggest causes of overuse injuries! Start off with distances that you are sure you can comfortably complete, and build from there. Slow and steady always wins the race.

For some, this might mean starting off on a 10km hike and slowly building up to 20km, whereas for others, this might mean starting off with 2km and building to 10km. There’s no right starting point – the distances you choose will depend entirely on your individual fitness level and final goal.

During weeks in which you cannot get out on the trail, it is important to try and substitute hiking with some other type of lower intensity, long duration cardio (e.g. walking, cycling, cross-trainer). While this may mean that you are not exercising for as long as you would on a hike(and it is definitely not as exciting!), it is important to ensure you are fitting in some lower intensity training each week.

Strength Training for Hikers

Strength training is the single most underutilised tool in the hiker’s training arsenal.

However, if done right, it can have phenomenal benefits for hikers:

  1. It is the single best thing you can do to help prevent injury
  2. It can be incredibly effective at preparing the body for elevation (both ascents and descents)
  3. It can significantly reduce the total exertion of your body during a full day’s hiking

If you are coming off the couch, there’s no need to make your strength training routine complicated. In fact, simple is usually better.

There are just a few rules you need to follow:

  1. You want to train the body in balance (i.e. for every exercise working the front of the body, you want to include an exercise working the back).
  2. You want to ensure you have a mix of both high repetition ‘endurance’ exercises and lower repetition ‘strength’ exercises (both types of strength training are incredibly beneficial for hikers).
  3. You need to ensure a gradual progression in your training over the weeks/months (i.e. constantly repeating the same workout for months on end will have limited benefits. The same goes for choosing a random workout every session).

By following these 3 simple rules, you will ensure that your strength training is effective, safe and balanced over the long term.

Creating your own strength training program requires a little thought, so for a complete guide, check out this handy article on
how to create your strength workout (for hikers).

Hiking-Specific Cardio training

As stated earlier, sometimes it simply isn’t practical to be hitting the trail multiple times a week. If this is the case, however, it is essential that you continue to work on your aerobic fitness during the week!

Aerobic fitness training can include things like swimming, cycling, or exercise classes. However, to get the best bang for your buck, you should focus on hiking-specific cardio.

This simply means focusing on types of cardiovascular exercise that:

  • Directly target certain aspects of trail fitness
  • Incorporate specific skills necessary while hiking
  • Are performed at a slightly higher intensity than normal hiking

Again, this doesn’t need to be too complicated.

Simply choose one of the types of training from the list below, complete it for 4 weeks and then choose another one.

Some good workout ideas:

  • Loaded pack walks (fill a backpack with a small amount of weight. Go for a walk around the neighbourhood. Each week, add a little extra weight).
  • Hill repeats/incline treadmill walking (find a relatively steep hill and climb to the top. Return to the bottom and repeat).
  • Stair sessions/step machine (climb a set of stairs and then return to the bottom. Repeat).
  • Sled pushing (put a small amount of weight on a sled in the gym and push it back and forth for a few minutes. Rest and repeat).
  • Higher intensity intervals on a bike, elliptical or in the pool (go moderately quick for 2+ minutes at a time, rest and repeat).
  • Walking (for those who are just off the couch, simply getting out and walking for 30-40 minutes can be pretty effective!).
Couch to mountain top-reaching the mountain top for amazing views
Couch to mountain top-reaching the mountain top for amazing views

Putting It All Together

So now you know the general outline of what a hiking training program should look like, how can you put it all together?

For someone who is coming off the couch and stepping up to a challenging day hike, they should aim for:

  • 1x longer walk a week (this can be hiking, walking around the neighbourhood or on the treadmill)
  • 1-2 strength training sessions per week (30-45 minutes)
  • 1-2 hiking specific conditioning sessions a week (30-60 minutes)

By fitting these into your week you can ensure you are ticking off all the necessary boxes for hiking preparation (without having to spend an outrageous number of hours each week walking!).

Couch to mountain top training for hikers is essential
Couch to mountain top training for hikers is essential

Your Free 12-Week Couch To Summit Training Program

Still a bit lost? Feeling a bit overwhelmed about how to put this all together? Well if this is the case, don’t worry!

For those who need a little extra direction, I have put together a free 12-week Couch To Summit Training Program for you to download.

The program includes strength training, hiking and cardio sessions. There is no gym required and only minimal equipment is necessary. It will give you everything you need to get fit, strong and resilient for the trail (in the absolute simplest way possible!).

You can download it here:

Download The Couch To Summit Program

Couch to mountain top-hiking training has a lot of benefits
Couch to mountain top-hiking training has a lot of benefits

Need extra help?

In all honesty, following a pre-made training program can have some drawbacks. Unfortunately, these training programs cannot account for you as an individual, or take into consideration any history of injury or pain you might suffer from. They cannot account for how much time you have available in the week, and they don’t offer much flexibility if you get sick, work gets busy or you go away.

If you find yourself in any of these situations, and you do need help preparing for your first significant hike, a more personalised service may be a better option.

If that’s the case, I strongly urge you to have a look through my online personal training service for hikers: The Online Summit Program.