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The Outdoor Athlete Book by Courtenay and Doug Schurman



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Wilderness Sports > Wilderness Travel Conditioning

Basic Wilderness Travel Conditioning

By Courtenay Schurman, CSCS 3/25/02
Prepared originally for the Basic Wilderness Travel Seminar
offered through the Seattle Mountaineers

Once a new hiker has acquired the necessary gear and has a working understanding of how to use each of the 10-13 essentials, the next element to consider in wilderness travel is personal level of physical conditioning. The wonderful thing about hiking is that just about everyone, at any age level, can participate. Hikers will want to consider the following fitness categories as they relate to their own conditioning levels:

  • Sufficient cardiovascular training base to be adequately prepared for participation on hikes. In general, 2-3 aerobic workouts a week including 20-45 minutes of walking, hill or stair climbing, elliptical cross training, or other suitable aerobic exercise that works the muscles in the legs will help with hiking conditioning.
  • Adequate strengthening of any muscle groups important for hiking that are known to be particularly weak. That may be hips, lower back, shoulders, the large muscles around the knees, or perhaps smaller muscles in the feet, ankles and calves.
  • Knowledge of how to stretch muscles that get tight following activity. The muscles that tend to get tight after long hikes with a loaded pack are hips, lower back, calves, quads, glutes, hip flexors, shoulders, and hamstrings, all to varying degrees depending on individual body types.
  • Existence and correction of any pre-existing physical conditions that need to be addressed before going on any wilderness outings, such as lower back pain, bad ankles, a torn Achilles tendon, or weak knees. A sports medicine doctor, physical therapist, or qualified outdoor conditioning specialist can help address these issues.

In the conditioning lecture portion of the course, students will learn a few appropriate leg, hip, shoulder and core strengthening exercises as well as stretches for those muscle groups that get stressed most frequently during wilderness activities. Students will also have a better understanding of how to gradually ramp up physical training to prepare for a great summer of hiking without strains or injuries.

Training Guidelines for Proper Cardiovascular Preparation

The best way to train for a summer of hiking is to … hike, of course! But before you hit the trails, you may want to do some aerobic (read: heart and lungs) conditioning to get you prepared. How? Try walking around Green Lake or in Discovery Park (or your local hilly park) several times a week. If you have access to a treadmill, try adjusting the incline angle so that your body gets used to going uphill. Even better, find a steep hill near your home or a walking route that has several gradual hills and walk up and down the hills for anywhere between 20-45 minutes, depending on whether you are just starting your program or, later in the season, getting ready to go on a hike. Stair steps like those at Golden Gardens are also great for training for steeper hikes. If you happen to enjoy jogging, that’s another good option. However, remember that when you go out on a hike, you probably will be carrying a pack and traveling at a slower walking pace. To prepare your hips and legs for the added weight, once you can walk for 30-45 minutes at a sustained pace without a pack, start carrying a backpack one or two times a week. Try carrying 15# the first time and add 5# every other week until you’re at your target hiking weight.

Training Guidelines for Proper Strength Preparation

This part is a little harder to learn simply by reading about it, so the in-class practice with the exercises will be quite useful. Strength training can help make every outdoor activity feel much easier and hence a lot more enjoyable, can help prevent injury by allowing you to maintain appropriate muscle balance, and also is crucial for weight reduction, if that is of any concern to you. Check out Lunges, Reverse Step-Ups, Dirt Digger, and 1-Leg Deadlift, all of which are included on our web site. All of these exercises develop your balance, coordination, and require that you maintain good form throughout. All can be done standing, just as you’d need for hiking, and each will help you with a particular group of hiking muscles. Form will be discussed and practiced in the lecture. Try to remember that anytime you try a new exercise, your muscles are not used to them, so you may feel a bit of soreness 24-48 hours afterwards. That is normal. With practice, your body will get used to the exercises and the soreness will go away. However, if you experience something beyond soreness, and the affected body part is really painful, then you may have overdone it. It’s best to try with no weight first and gradually add.

If you have access to some gallon jugs filled with water, a backpack, or several dumbbells, you have all you need to strengthen your legs and core (abdominals and lower back muscles) for hiking. We highly recommend that you try to use free weights for your strength training, rather than machines, as machines support too much of your body and require very little integration of various large muscle groups together. For each exercise, a general rule of thumb is to start with a weight that is light enough to allow you to perform anywhere from 1 to 3 sets of 8-15 repetitions with perfect form, and gradually add sets, reps or weight as you increase your strength. Be sure to change your workouts every 4-6 weeks or so as your body adapts to the program, so that you continue to stay interested, make good progress, challenge your body, and have fun.

Training Guidelines for Proper Flexibility and Balance

If you know ahead of time that you are stiff in certain muscle groups, you may want to invest in a good stretching video or take a yoga class. A qualified exercise instructor can also help you develop a program that will address your needs. In general, stretching should always feel good, not painful. Be sure to warm up well before doing your stretching, and if that means putting your stretches at the end of the workout, that’s probably better than putting it first thing, before you’ve had a chance to warm up. Try holding your stretches for 20-30 seconds, and gradually increase the stretch as you ease into it, rather than going for maximum range the very first second to you into the stretch. Three that we’ll do in class are for the lower back (roadkill) and hips, hips and thighs (frog stretch), as well as the calves (step calf stretch).

Putting it all together

Once you understand the components you need to include for a well-balanced hiking conditioning program, the final step is to determine what your unique goals for the class will be. Would you like to attempt a few easy hikes that gain less than 1000 feet of elevation and are shorter than five miles in length, or do you aspire to eventually doing the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier with your family or friends? The conditioning program needed to attain the first goal will look considerably different from that necessary to attain the second goal. If your goal is to be able to get to the top of Mount Si (a popular hiking destination for many in the Puget Sound area, out near North Bend) then your program for the first two months might look something like this:

Weeks 1-2: Get moving! 3x/wk.
Cardio: 2x/wk. 20-30 min. each, 60-70% MHR. Choose walking, jogging, stairs, stairmaster, treadmill, Elliptical machine, or hill hiking to train appropriately
Activity Specific: Weekend hike (Tiger, little Si) w/10# pack, gain 800-1000’ elevation, gentle pace

Weeks 3-4: Develop a stronger fitness foundation 3-5x/wk.
Cardio: 2x/wk, 30-45 min., 65-70% MHR. Same choices as weeks 1-2.
Activity Specific: Weekend hike w/10-15# pack, gaining 1000-1200’ elevation.
Strength: 2x/wk, full body, 20 min. 2 sets of 12-15 reps, 6-8 major muscle group free-weight exercises specific to climbing/hiking/scrambling

Weeks 5-6: Build muscular strength 4-6x/wk.
Cardio: 3x/wk, 45 min., 65-75% MHR; one day city hill hike w/15-20# pack
Activity Specific: Weekend hike w/15-20# pack, gaining 1200-1500’ elevation
Strength: 2x/wk, 20-30 min, 2-3x8-10 reps, full body strength, added weight

Weeks 7-8: Increase muscular endurance 4-6x/wk.
Cardio: 3x/wk, 45-60 min, 60-75% MHR; 1 of 3: hill intervals or stairs w/20# pack
Activity Specific: Weekend hike w/20# pack; 1500-2000’ elevation gain
Strength: 2x/wk, 30-45 min, 2-3x12-15 reps, change exercises from wks. 3-6

As always, listen closely to your body. If you are brand new to exercise, it might be a good idea to have a complete physical before starting on any exercise program. If you are familiar with exercise, or already have some knowledge of training for hiking and have an aerobic base established already, you might be ready for more elevation gain earlier in the program. The best way to train is safely, gradually, and carefully. Happy hiking!



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