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Increasing Hiking Speed
By C. Schurman
Whether you are a dedicated backpacker, an aspiring climber, or a weekend day hiker, you probably have noticed a difference in people’s travel speed over varying terrain. What are some ways that you can go about increasing your hiking speed over the next 1-2 months?
First, please take a long, hard look at WHY you want to increase your speed – if it’s because you feel breathless when you’re hiking with your spouse, but honestly, you don’t do much training during the week, training to keep up may be a simple matter of increasing the number of aerobic workouts you do during the week. If you have a climb coming up with friends who are mountain goats over scramble terrain, you may want to choose a climbing trail that has a lot of heather, scree, talus, snow or ice, rooted terrain, or boulder fields and practice balance, agility and confidence on the specific type of terrain that slows you down. Go with someone who is really good on that terrain who can give you pointers on how to save energy. If you need to cover a significant amount of terrain in a record amount of time (say, a one-day speed climb of Rainier, Adams, or Baker) and you already have a solid training base, fine-tuning your training approach to include intervals and speed drills might do more than adding an increasing number of hikes and climbs to an already full training schedule. Determine specifically what it is that you’d like to improve, and then pick the appropriate way to train.
Once you have the aerobic stamina or training base necessary to get out and start your hikes, the best and easiest way to measure an increase in your raw speed is to choose a climbing, hiking, or backpacking trail that you enjoy and wouldn’t mind doing several times a month. Remember, if you’re just starting into the season, start with a light 10-15 pound (5-7 kg) daypack at first and each time you hike, either decrease your time or maintain the same time with an added 3-5 pounds (2-3 kg). Be sure to ease into training initially by doing only as much of the route as you feel comfortable doing, and include some hiking-specific stretches at the end of the hike to help restore flexibility to taxed muscles including the lower back, quadriceps, and calves (see www.bodyresults.com/s2bwthiking.asp for a sample “getting started” program).
Once you have chosen your pacing hike, try doing it (or something comparable) 2-4 times a month and keep track of your pace to desired mile markers or known landmarks along the trail. If you don’t have access to long, sustained slopes with significant elevation gain, it’s perfectly fine to repeat a shorter loop several times if you’re training for a more sustained climb or backpacking trip. If you have a long hill or set of stairs in town that you walk several times a week, you can do the same thing and try increasing your speed (i.e. shorter time to complete) each time. As you increase your aerobic capacity and leg strength endurance, your time should drop while your comfort increases.
Take a watch or stopwatch with you and time your travel from the trailhead to your destination, and then each time you return to the same trail, try to decrease your total travel time including breaks. It might also be useful to take your heart rate monitor (if you use one) with you to make sure you’re in your aerobic training zone for the bulk of your hiking. If your goal includes being able to carry a specific pack weight for a certain amount of time or elevation gain, then add 5 pounds (2 kg) each trip to allow your body to gradually adapt to the heavier weight. Hiking with 20 pounds (10 kg) for a few hours as training for a climb that requires that you carry 45 pounds (22 kg) for two or more days simply will NOT be sufficient. You need to get ready for the specific pack weight you’ll have to carry, OR figure out ways to reduce the load you’ll be carrying if you won’t be able to train with that weight. Allow yourself at least 1-2 months of conditioning to prepare for any outing that will require more than 3000 feet (1000m) of elevation gain, more than 30 pounds (15kg) of weight, or more than 4 hours/10 miles (15km) of continuous movement. Furthermore, if you’re planning an outing above an altitude of about 8,000 feet (2500m) plan to tack on another month of conditioning effort.
LEG TURNOVER RATE
When you’re approaching a steep part of the trail, rather than slowing down, try powering up it. I think of the long, somewhat flat approach to Kennedy Hot Springs and Glacier Peak for this one – where the trail gains 300-400’ only to drop you back down to the river’s elevation, not once, but THREE times. Coming out from a climb it’s tempting to slow down, but one way to get it over with more quickly is just to push to the top as hard as you can and relax on the way down to catch your breath. When doing your pacing hikes, choose a ¼ or ½ mile segment mid-way through the outing and push yourself to 90% of effort. The remainder of the hike at your base pace will feel easier in comparison, and you will have decreased your total time.
Another way to increase your speed is to do faster-than-hiking-speed hilly walks or stair climbs in town, with and without a pack. The more comfortable you are pushing yourself up steep hills or stairs, the better that sort of training translates into uphill travel. For more on how to do this type of interval workout, please check out our previous articles at http://www.bodyresults.com/E2FartlekIntervals.asp and www.bodyresults.com/E2intervals.asp.
Three popular training trails in close proximity to Seattle are the Mt. Si and Little Si trails in North Bend, and the Tiger Mountain trails system a little closer to the city. Si gains 3,200-3,400’ of elevation in 8 miles round trip. Little Si gains 1,200’; trails up Tiger gain 2,000-2,100’. A logical early season progression would be to begin with hikes up Little Si, then move to trying one of the trails up Tiger (finishing up with the powerline trail, the steepest of them all) and then once you have a solid foundation, move to Si or one of the many other hikes along the I-90 Corridor at www.bodyresults.com/s2i90hikes.asp.
Below, other strenuous hikes with elevation gain (from 55 Hikes Around Snoqualmie Pass, Manning and Spring, Mountaineers Books.)
Camp Muir, Rainier
S. Bessemer Mountain
Dirty Harry’s Peak
Once you’ve mastered all the above and would like to “travel fast and light” in the words of Marc Twight, try linking together several hikes back to back in much the same way that you’ve already done, as you’ve built to being able to comfortably gain 4000’ of elevation in a day. Travel as light as possible (www.ProMountainSports.com is our favorite place for ultralight gear) so the weight won’t limit you in any way. Hone your climbing techniques through taking advanced mountaineering, hiking, or backpacking classes. Learn from those who do what you’d most like to be able to do. Always be sure you’re including strength training for the core, shoulders and legs. Push yourself to find and expand your own limits, setting goals beyond what you know you can comfortably do – you’d be surprised what you can accomplish!
If you are extremely sore the day or two after a strenuous outing, get up and go for a short 20-minute walk or flat bike ride in the very low end of your training zone, followed by a few minutes of yoga or static stretching. This is known as active recovery, and it helps the stiff muscles limber up while allowing you to return to activity more quickly. The worst thing you can do is wait 4-7 days until the soreness passes, as that will set you back in your conditioning efforts by an entire week! By getting back to training more quickly, your body will be able to handle increased work loads with less recovery time, meaning your fitness levels will improve that much faster. Recovery workouts ARE NOT geared toward increasing aerobic capacity, so keep them in the range of 50-60% of your MHR (maximum heart rate) but DO let yourself move, and see what a difference it makes.