A 4-Pronged Plan for Getting Myself (and My Sofa) Back in Shape before My Thru Hike

I’m 15 weeks out from stepping on the trail and getting serious about my training plan.

I’d been strapping on my pack and taking training hikes in the NC mountains until it got coldish and dark and I got busy with indoorsy things—researching gear, making freezer bag meals, bingeing on Goliath and Catastrophe.

And studiously avoiding anything that would prepare my physical self for a 2,000 mile hike.

I’m embarrassed by the butt-shaped indentation in my sofa.

I hate to admit it, but I haven’t taken a “real” hike in a month…you know, one that involves mountains, sweat and some kind of cured meat.

I’ve just been meandering in the rolling pine woods around Greenwood, South Carolina, where I’ve been working since October and where the highest point is an 841 foot monadnock known as Parson’s Mountain.  A bump on the horizon.

I power up that bump occasionally.  And climb the “stairway to nowhere” at the Y.  And stretch my hamstrings.

I’m not totally surgically attached to my sofa.

Still…

The shit’s about to get real!

nh-weather-warning

Minimizing the potential for Misery.

In three months I’ll be a thru-hiker.  Even though I know the best way to get your trail legs is to get on the trail, I also know there is so much more I can do to maximize my potential for success.

Or is that minimize my potential for misery?  And injury?

Or both?

Did I mention I’m an actual physical therapist? 

Time to practice what I preach!

I’ve gotten a plan together to get myself in the best possible shape before I get on the trail.  I know it works, and it works quickly when you commit. 

I know because I’ve amazed myself with my superpowers after training for a few months then tackling all manner of gnarliness in New Hampshire, Washington and California.

liberty-yes

Here’s my training plan for minimizing misery: 

I’ll be practicing what I preach until I head out on April 26.  

1.  Stairway to Nowhere and/or Actual Mountains, 3-4 times a week.

The Stairway to Nowhere at the Y is my go-to machine for cardio training when I don’t have easy access to mountains.  It’s a far distant cousin to actual mountains, mostly because it doesn’t give you practice at the thing most likely to cause injury—the downhill. 

We’ll get to the downhill issue in a minute.

But lots of the trail is exactly like climbing stairs, so you’re getting some functionally specific training.

I now carry a pack filled with weights on the never-ending stairway.  I’ll increase the weight in my pack over the next couple of months until my job ends and I go back home to climb actual mountains with my actual pack.

Primal Endurance

I’m following the cardio recommendations of Mark Sisson in his book Primal Endurance.  In a nutshell—build up your cardio base over a few months by keeping your heart rate low at 55-75% of your maximum heart rate. 

55-75% feels like nothing, like a stroll in the park.  It’s actually HARD to keep your heart rate that low.  And I’ll admit, the advice goes against conventional wisdom and could totally backfire. 

But I trust the source, so I’m all in on this. 

Killing yourself every day with a heartrate close to max—known as chronic cardio—is a recipe for burnout and injury.

Read the book for more information on chronic cardio and how humans aren’t really designed to work out at maximum cardiac output for hours every day.

We are designed ideally for long strolls in the park.  Or on the savannah.  Or along a 2,000 mile footpath that stretches up and down from Georgia to Maine.

tuckerman-up

2.  Speaking of strolls…take long, long walks.   At least one a week.  Two is better.

If you’re not in a place where you can climb mountains, and if you can only stand a half hour on the stairway to nowhere before going bonkers, get outside as much as possible and take LONG walks.

Like, several hours a couple times a week if you can.  Wear your pack.

One of the biggest challenges for me on any backpacking trip is just being up on my feet for hour after hour.  If I haven’t prepared for long days in perpetual motion, there comes a point where my body has just had enough.   I don’t feel tired or sore or like I’m bonking. 

I’m just done being up on my feet.

Taking long walks on whatever terrain you have handy gets your body ready to go the distance, so I’ll be out there at least once a week, hopefully twice when my job ends.

Luckily, this strategy combines nicely with strategy #1 (climb actual mountains where possible) for a good two-for-one bargain.

3.  Leg Strengthening…hit the irons, but (mostly) stay off the contraptions.

We go to New Hampshire every year and this is the key preparation that has saved many a White Mountain vacation.

It takes every ounce of motivation I have to get me to the gym.

I just don’t love it.

But I go.  (And there is something fun about being a 53 year old woman who turns her nose up at Zumba, pickle ball—whatever that is—and water aerobics and claims her spot at the squat rack.)

It’s bad ass!

I also know from experience that climbing mountains is easier when I’ve put my time in on their infernal contraptions.

Skip most of the contraptions, though. 

Skip ALL the machines where you sit down to work specific, isolated muscles like quads or biceps (looking at you, Nautilus).  The minute you sit down, your core switches off and the work you’re doing isn’t functional.

Instead, choose exercises that:

~work several muscle groups at a time;

~require your core to engage;

~are functionally specific movements like you’ll make while going up and down      mountains or  lifting a bear bag up to a hook;

~challenge your balance; and

~aren’t boring.

Here are some of my favorites for overall strengthening (heavy on the legs, for obvious reasons):

~squats

~one-legged squats

~Bulgarian split squats** (this one is great for strength and balance.  2 for 1!)

~single-legged Romanian dead lifts** (also challenges your balance)

~split squats on Smith machine

~planks

~pushups

~military presses (use your pack as a weight…you’re already a freak!)

~pull-ups (I can’t do a single one, but there’s a contraption for that)

I love the program that Rachel Cosgrove detailed in her book, The Female Body Breakthrough.  It is perfect in it’s simplicity and effectiveness.  Strong is another book by Alwyn Cosgrove, her husband, with a similar program.

4.  Stretching, Foam rolling, for the love of God, start now!  Every day, if possible!

IT band Syndrome.  Plantar fasciitis. 

Feel free to let those two concepts strike fear into your heart.

Preventing these evil twins from ending your hike is totally doable if you start stretching NOW! 

I implore you!

Start now and don’t stop until you reach Katadhin!

Take my excessive use of exclamation points and overly dramatic language to heart.  I’ve dealt with both of these issues and both of them suck.

Plantar fasciitis kept me from hiking for a year.  A year!!!!!

The pain in my knee from a tight IT band left me in tears on a once in a lifetime trip to California.  I could go up, but I could not hike down without excruciating pain on my outer knee. 

Going downhill is brutal and if your IT band is tight and yanking your kneecap off course, no amount of shock-absorbing trekking pole action will stop the misery.  (Though they help and I definitely recommend the poles).

Stretch like your hike depended on it.  Because it probably does.

Here’s what needs your attention:

~IT Band

~Hip flexors

~Quads

~Hamstrings

~Piriformis

~Adductors

~Calves (both Gastrocnemius and Soleus)

After you’ve stretched and foam rolled all the necessary hip, thigh and calf muscles, give yourself a foot massage.  Make yourself some essential-oil infused foot balm, then really get in there and knead the plantar fascia along the bottom of your foot.

It should hurt. 

It should hurt so good.

For tips on stretching and foam rolling, go to the Haka Fitness website and check out her free videos.

Remember, for all these recommendations—stretching, foam rolling, strengthening—YouTube is your friend.

One last thing….

Getting on the trail with your full pack and walking really is the best way to condition your body for a long distance hike.

It doesn’t get any more functionally specific than that.

But everyone I’ve talked to about thru-hiking has the exact same advice.

“Start slow.”

Ten miles a day tops for the first few days.  The first week even.

Experts agree, starting slow may be the best way to build strength, to cultivate endurance and to prevent a hike-stopping injury.

Good advice.

But I’ll still be that old lady crushing it on the squat rack at the local Y.

I’m hedging all the bets I can.


What are you doing to yourself in the best possible physical shape you can be in? 

Does it involve foam rollers? 

Or just cutting down on the Cheetos? 

Leave a comment below and share your good ideas for getting in shape for the trail.

strong-woman

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Comments 13

  • John Kruse : Jan 18th

    ‘I lost my left arm in a 2006 car crash; Consequently, I have been off-trail for 10 years sulking and woe is me’ing. I was a trekking pole hiker that loved having “four legs” to spider over the mountains. The loss f my left arm and my fourth leg were a real crush on me and I allowed myself to go from a Medium to a 3xl over a 10 year period. I had to quit my job for I was no longer able to commute safely, so I say. The real reason is… I had burnt out doing commercial loans for Citibank. My accident made me realize I should move away from my line of work as a commercial underwriter right away. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting and getting a condition called Lymph Edema under control. The lymph Edema had swollen my right leg to 27 cm at one point and made it hard to walk even two or three blocks. Since getting the Lymph Edema controlled (it never goes away) I’ve felt stronger and have been gathering together hiking stuff’s in anticipation of the spring thaw. I even went as far as to book an active vacation in Iceland in March to propel myself into action and force myself to get moving again. I just ordered a tent I’m going to learn how to pitch one handed and I need to get fitted for a red osprey backpacking pack so I can do overnighters at a minimum. My long distance eyes are on the AT. I’m going to take advice from you and look into stretching exercises. =)

    Reply
    • Deane Giordano : Jan 19th

      John, I am so rooting for you and applauding your first steps back to your Self–the tent, the pack, the trip to Iceland. You’ve totally got this. I know this because I can tell how much you want it, and in my PT practice, the people who want to get better are the ones who surprise the hell out of me by how much they achieve. Go, John!

      Reply
      • John Kruse : Jan 20th

        Thanks Deane, The encouragement from all around (except friends and family lol) is awesome !! I signed up for a couple classes at rei to better my understanding. Once those are completed in March, I’m off to use the new found knowledge to begin backpacking. One step up from my comfort zone. =) They say you have not lived until you step away from your comfort zone.

        Reply
        • Deane Giordano : Jan 21st

          Yes! Comfort zone, totally overrated! You’ve got this, John.

          Reply
  • Vince Piquet : Jan 18th

    The stair stepper is a great idea, however, nothing beats what you mentioned about putting your ruck on and hiking. With or without mountains. It’s all good. Repetitive stair climbing is also helpful to me. Injured my right knee, (tendon), this past year during my initial SOBO in Maine. Going back in June to continue on. Enjoy your posts and honest opinions. I’m on trailjournals.com under my first name, and the years 2016 and 2017 if your interested. Good luck in your journey, and may you have “Fair winds and Following Seas.
    Vince

    Reply
    • Deane Giordano : Jan 19th

      Thank you Vince! And thanks for reading. I’ll check out your trailjournal and I’ll keep my eyes out for you out on the trail. Hike Happy (and injury-free!!).

      Reply
  • Kate G : Jan 18th

    Thanks for posting this! I’ve been stuck deep in the winter blahs and not moving enough since the snow and ice make it hard to get out on the trail. Wisconsin lacks mountains, but I do have a fitness center right next door and have been thinking about sucking it up and doing some time on the dreaded stair stepper. I might hate it and never do it again, but I’m now inspired to at least give it a shot. I need to get serious about a training plan to get me through the winter in some sort of shape and hopefully still able to fit in my hiking pants. I’ve also been going to physical therapy for my shoulder (PT thinks it’s bursitis due to holding my shoulder blade at the wrong angle). I was pretty hopeful for the first week, but haven’t seen progress since then and it’s been getting me down. I have my second appointment today, so hopefully that will get me back on track.

    Reply
    • Deane Giordano : Jan 19th

      Hi, Kate…don’t even think you might like the stair stepper. You won’t. It sucks. That’s why God invented Ipods, books on tape and Radiohead. What gets me to the gym is habit and keeping my eyes on the prize. I just remind myself of what the stairway to nowhere is in service of. If all else fails, though, remember the advice that so many have offered…start slow. And maybe hike in stretchy pants until you get your trail legs. I’m cheering for you!

      Reply
      • Kate G : Jan 20th

        Ha! I will try to embrace the suck and remember what I’m doing it for. Thanks for the advice!

        Reply
        • Deane Giordano : Jan 21st

          Ha! “embrace the suck!” I feel a trail name coming on!

          Reply
  • Tracy : Jan 21st

    Thanks for this article; a nice mix of good advice and humor. But thanks, also, for being a middle-aged woman: it’s nice to know I’m not alone! I won’t be joining you this year on the AT, but I’m looking forward to following your adventures and I’ll be rooting for you!

    Reply
    • Deane Giordano : Jan 21st

      Thank you, Tracy! Thanks for reading and for rooting! Power to the (middle-aged) people (women). We rock!!!!!

      Reply
  • KC : Jan 22nd

    Great article. As soon as I finish my beer I’m going to write down some of your points and start tonight – no, (GO PATRIOTS!!) tomorrow.
    I love your enthusiasm and ‘style’ 🙂
    ~KC

    Reply

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