5 Benefits of Training Before the Trail

Thru hiking the Appalachian Trail is kind of like menopause…

Both trials are, in some way, physiological equalizers among men and women.

No matter what your starting shape is, after a while, (almost) everyone  is doing similar mileage and is in shape.

I have read tales of people who train for years but do not end up completing a thru hike. Then there’s the opposing group saying they were relatively inactive prior to staring the trail and that heavy training is not necessary.

On account of my degree being in exercise science, I have to disagree with the second group of people (or else my professors will hunt me down and beat me with text books).
While I do agree that there is no work out that will specifically prepare you for the rigors of hiking up and down mountains all day every day with your house on your back;  there are plenty of options for training prior to the trail that can help you acclimate your body for the physically taxing journey ahead .

Training before the big hike will :

1.)  Mimic the physiological changes in your body like the ones you will experience while hiking.

With consistent endurance training there are respiratory, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal adaptations.

  • Respiratory – Decreased submax respiratory rate and pulmonary ventilation.
  • Cardiovascular– Increased cardiac output and reduced submax heart rate.
  • Musculoskeletal- Increased mitochondrial size and density, myoglobin, and capillarization.

This is a shortened, not all inclusive list. No one wants to read all the fitness jargon. If you do I would be happy to nerd out and discuss physiological adaptations via email. What this all means is that your body adapts to the increased load placed on these body systems making aerobic activity more efficient.

Your body will not be as shocked by the intense cardiovascular, muscular, and respiratory demands that accompany thru hiking.  You’ll still have a hard time transitioning into the hiking life style, but your body will thank you for the prior training.

2.)  Help prevent initial overuse injuries.

For example, I have Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome and I know my right knee will give me crap from the start. So, I am going to brace it before it has time to flare up.  If after working out you notice your ankle is weak, bring along an ankle brace or plan to send yourself one ahead of time. Push yourself in the comforts of your hometown gym and figure out how to respond to the aches and pains.  Also, building strength will take the pressure off of joints that, if injured, could take you off the trail early.

3.)  Give you a better understanding of your body.

With a training program, you can figure out your limits. How long can you walk without being in crippling pain the next day?  What are your physical limits? Training will allow you to get in touch with your body, in turn giving you a reference when physical issues arise. You’ll have better judgement when it comes to the decision of resting, pushing forward, or going to see a doctor.

4.) Increase the chance of finding hot spots for blisters & clothing faults.

I feel like this is pretty self-explanatory and everyone advises this.

Training hikes. Do em’.

5.) Make you an unstoppable hiking machine. (Not guaranteed. No refunds or exchanges.)

I’m really concerned about the influx of thru hikers over the last few years. I don’t want to be stuck in the initial bubble with tons of people. I’m an introvert and people are to be feared in mass quantities. So, having a mountain goat bod’ before the trail will give me that push to get past the new hikers.

Even if you feel in the end that prior training wasn’t necessary, regular exercise is always good for you. 🙂

Information regarding aerobic adaptations was taken from this wonderful book : Baechle, T. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

I’ll be posting training plans soon!

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Comments 3

  • Shawn Hudson : Jul 26th

    When I hiked it the first time, I was young enough to get away with it. When I hiked it seven years later, my body wanted to give up the ghost. I won’t make that same mistake the next time!

  • Matthew Riley : Aug 31st

    Several years ago I put hiking the AT on my bucket list but never followed through with it and many other items. The other day I remembered it when I read an article about the AT (guess bc a new movie is coming out). I really want to do it and set a hike date in my head for March. Wish you the best I will be keeping up with your training progress. Maybe see you out on the trail.


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