A Phased Approach to Training For A Thru Hike
Most folks attempting to hike the entire Appalachian Trail will fall into two camps: Those hiking themselves into shape, and those who have already hiked themselves into shape. Its often said that nothing can truly prepare you for a thru hike. Some take this, and figure they might as well not prepare. They use Georgia as their training ground. Others figure they should do their best to imitate the coming challenge by hiking a lot. I am not taking either approach.
Why I’m Different
I have cerebral palsy. It’s a theme I’ll reference often in my hiking related musings because, simply put, it makes hiking harder. Cerebral Palsy is the most common physical disability in children, mainly because it’s got such a broad scope or symptoms and severities, all effecting the muscles and caused by pre- or post-natal brain trauma. Read more about CP from the CDC here.
I’ve got the most common symptom: very tight leg muscles. Try flexing your entire leg, from the calf all the way up to the glutes, as hard as you can. Your toes probably pointed, your knees may have locked, or turned inward. Severe spastic cerebral palsy has a similar effect and leaves those effected walking with a scissor-like gait and pointed toes. Thanks to extensive therapy I’ve managed to remedy many of CP’s effects, but it does still make hiking, and training to hike, a challenge.
For most people overdoing it by a few miles means waking up the next day sore and stiff. For me, sore and stiff is a baseline, and my legs are always in some degree of pain. So basically, I’m super hardcore. And I injure myself more easily, something I learned on my failed 2021 AT Thru Hike attempt.
The Glorious House of Gains
Failing really sucked, so I’ve decided I’ve got to train differently this time around. Jacksonville Florida, where I live, has a maximum elevation of 92 feet, which all but rules out the possibility of simply hiking for preparation. Instead, I turned to a place many hikers dread: the gym.
This particular palace of punishment is Diesel Strength and Conditioning, run by Greg Cosentino, his wife Ally and their son Case.
Diesel hosts athletes from the high school to professional level and is home to several national level Weightlifting competitors. Coach Greg holds a Masters degree in Exercise Science and is studying for a PhD in Health and Human Performance and has taught Exercise Physiology at the University of North Florida. With his help I put together a program. We took my March 25 start date and worked backwards.
I had eight months to train, so we drew up a rough training schedule. I was traveling all of August so we scheduled bodyweight cross training. I’ll expound on this type of training a little later, but for now all you need to know is that I didn’t do much of it, but its in the program so it merited including.
The rest of the programming centers on just three days a week in the gym, with another 2-3 days (depending one how well I’m recovering) of cardio and mobility training at home. Eight months is ample preparation time so my training phases are pretty long, but the essential methodology is to start out with more general strength and slowly narrow in on more trail-specific training as I go.
Anyone wanting to imitate a similar program on a shorter time schedule can shorten the phases, and may want to make the transition from cross-training to cardio-based training much quicker, although I do recommend the doing a few sets of the heavy lifts once a week to maintain strength. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.
Strength and Lactate Threshold Training
From September to November, I got to go back into a strength cycle. The goal here was to build a base level of strength so that when I hit the trail my body, and more specifically my legs, would be well equipped to carry a heavy load. It also allowed me to use heavier weights in following training phases. As a typical meathead I’ve always enjoyed this kind of training much more than cardio, so I pushed really hard during these three months.
For anyone interested in building a solid strength base a good step for beginners would be the Stronglifts 5×5 program, which focuses on the main compound lifts (lifts that use multiple muscle groups): overhead press, squat, barbell row, deadlift, bench press. These exercises are done for 5 sets of 5 repetitions at heavy weight. The lifts in this program are very common and there are tons of video walkthroughs on proper technique.
My program modified rep ranges and intensity week to week, but a basic 5×5 is highly effective. How long you run this depends on how much time you have to prepare, but six to eight weeks can improve strength significantly, especially if you don’t normally train this way.
Lactate Threshold Training
On off days I was told to do lactate threshold training. The lactate threshold is the point when exercise becomes so intense that the body produces lactate in the blood faster than it can remove it. This excess lactate leads to that dreaded muscle burn you feel during intense exercise. The way Coach Cosentino explained it to me, below lactate threshold, endurance is high. You can sustain that amount of effort for a long time. Above lactate threshold that endurance tanks. The higher lactate threshold, the harder you can go, for longer. This threshold is usually measured by heartrate or with running speed.
To increase lactate threshold, you work for short intervals above it. In my case this is done via a series of 90 second sprints followed by 90-180 seconds of rest or light jogging. I hate these so much, and 90 seconds of sprinting feels like forever, but it should, in theory, raise my lactate threshold and make climbing mountains a lot easier. If you want to find your lactate threshold check out this article from Runners World.
Cross Training, LT and Aerobic
At the time of writing this article I’m back into a cross training phase, which means much less heavy lifting and significantly more cardio. There’s lots of box jumps and burpees and other unpleasantries. Coach Greg has also added aerobic cardio on top of my lactic threshold training. This means long runs and walking with my pack. I intend to start walking some of the city’s bridges on weekends since I can’t find any hills.
Programming cross training can be difficult given the sheer variety of exercises and formats available. Many cross training workouts involve completing a set of exercises in order as fast as possible, or completing as many sets of an exercise or exercises as possible in a given time frame. My workouts are programed by knowledgeable coaches, but beginners can find tons of examples online. One great resource I’ve used in the past is WOD Generator. The mobile app and the website both allow you to put in what kind of equipment you have, if any, and it generates a workout for you to follow.
Make sure when doing cross training to keep form intact. Yes, you want to go as fast as you can, but cheating on your form at best cheats you of results, and at worst can lead to injury. This often times means using lighter weights, and slowing down to focus on solid form for difficult exercises. If possible stick to familiar movements, as form breakdown is less likely due to muscle memory. When adding new exercises lower intensity, go light, and stop as soon as form begins to break down. There’s no use in getting hurt before the adventure begins.
Just before the hike my training will be mostly long duration cardio. What little strength training I do will focus more specifically on single leg exercises to even out any imbalances while helping to improve my balance. Sprinkle in a little upper and mid back work to keep posture in check, and the rest of my time will be spent boring myself to death going up and down bridges. I’ll take it easy for a week or two before I go, and if all goes right I’ll be well prepared to walk to Maine.
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