The trail to alpine lakes, summits, and over every mountain pass begins in the winter. Train, train, train. It's ideal never to loose your conditioning routine, but few of us can claim to last through the typically sedentary winter months. Fortunately most bodies can be finely tuned for the summer season in about 4 to 6 months, meaning right around when we set those new years resolutions happens to be a perfect opportunity to start working away on them.
The goals of maintained fitness are immeasurable and cover everything from living a longer life, to boosted confidence. In January and February summer seems eons away but conditioning is a time consuming process.
Hiking and Hiking with a Loaded Pack
The best way to train is the approximate the activity you're training for as closely as possible. So the best way to condition yourself for hiking is to hike and the best way to condition yourself for backpacking is to hike with a loaded pack. Other activities are valuable, but hiking is going to build the exact muscle groups you're going to need.
- Hiking for Fitness - A routine is key to success. Taking short 3-6 mile hikes 2 or 3 times a week is a very solid way to build strength. Endurance and longevity can be built with some longer 10+ mile hikes on the weekends.
- Simulated Backpacking - Day hiking and backpacking require different amounts of energy from different muscle groups so if your goal is the hike the Pacific Crest Trail, just hiking probably isn't going to cut it. Take 3-6 mile hikes with a loaded backpack during the week, and 10+ hikes on the weekend. Make sure to mix in a few local backpacking trips as well to test gear, and get a feel for spending long stretches on the trail.
Unfortunately hiking requires a considerable amount of time to gain solid conditioning gains from (this time is reduced when carrying a pack) so for those with busy work schedules it's not always an option. Additionally you never want your conditioning to feel like a chore, so let's explore some other ways to train.
The backbone of my personal training regimen, running is specifically helpful for those looking to do hikes at altitude because it builds lung capacity and cardiovascular fitness very quickly. Running demands more of the body so it requires less time. The odds of sustaining a sports injury are higher with running (shin splints, join aches, etc.) especially for street runners.
- Trail Running - Perhaps the most efficient way to train for hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering. In a short time you can closely approximate the muscle development of hiking, and receive the cardiovascular boost from a more intense workout. Not everyone has easy access to safe trails though, and other forms of running can be similarly effective.
- Gym Equipment - Treadmills reduce the risk of injury, and when set to an incline can also come close to matching the muscle development of hiking. The balance and agility gains from running on trails is lost but it can be done at any time of the day.
- Street Running - Street running can be hard on the knees and because it's mostly flat won't provide the same kind of strength gains trial running can however it is less exhausting the trail running and can therefor be done longer and is therefor better for cardiovascular fitness especially important to high altitude mountaineering.
Running can get tedious and is very physically demanding, hiking demands a considerable amount of time to see fitness gains, so there must be a middle ground. Enter cycling. Cycling is highly enjoyable and attainable for nearly any fitness level. Route choice is key (beginners should avoid hills, while veterans should seek them out) With a breeze to cool you, flying down the road on a bike hardly seems like exercise at all. Yet it provides fantastic strength and cardiovascular gains and it's not as time consuming as hiking.
Sample Training Plan
At the start I like to keep things easy. I personally mix my sports as much as I can partly so I don't get bored and partly so I get balanced gains from each. I don't do much each day, but I chip away at my goals.
- Monday-Friday - Alternate between 3k and 5k trail runs taking one day off to heal
- Saturday & Sunday - One 10-12 mile hike per weekend.
As my conditioning comes along I slowly increase my miles per week:
- Monday-Friday - Alternate between 4k and 5k trail runs taking one day off to heal
- Saturday & Sunday - One 10-12 mile hike with a loaded pack per weekend.
By the time summer comes around I have myself up to:
- Monday-Friday - 5+k every day or hiking 5 miles after work (in lieu of a rest day)
- Saturday & Sunday - Backpacking as often as possible or hiking 10+ with a loaded pack.