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.
The shit’s about to get real!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
Here are some of my favorites for overall strengthening (heavy on the legs, for obvious reasons):
~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
~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:
~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.
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.
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.
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