Getting Physically Prepared to Thru-Hike in 2022
Happy new year! I’m filled with excitement as the first day of 2022—the year of my planned thru-hike—has arrived! As I’ve shared my hiking plans with friends and family, many have inquired about my workout routine. So what better time than early January (when too many of us make and break a new fitness pledge) to offer some insight into my physical preparation for the Appalachian Trail?
Keeping It Simple—And No props, Please!
First of all, my exercise philosophy has always been to keep it simple. A crucial corollary to this (yes, I’m a geometry nerd at heart) is that exercise should not involve props. I mean, who wants to have their morning workout devolve into Carrot Top standup shtick? The last thing that I want to do at 7:00 a.m. is to roll out a big wooden box of weights, mats, compression bands, and other gadgets. Another rule of thumb is that I’m not relying on a gym or fitness club as my place of exercise. If I can’t accomplish a meaningful workout when I’m traveling, then I don’t want it as part of my routine.
So this is the implementation of keeping it simple without props:
- 1st day: Run 5k / foundation training for back and glutes
- 2nd day: Planking and upper body / foundation training for back and glutes
- 3rd day: Run 5k / foundation training for back and glutes
- 4th day: Mountain climbers / foundation training for back and glutes
- 5th day (and beyond): Add a longer run and repeat!
Running Every Other Day is My Base Exercise
I started my regular routine of morning running in May 2011 in my mid-forties. A couple of stark realities hit me square in the jaw at this point in my life:
- My great-grandfather and grandfather had both died at 47 years of age due to heart conditions
- My father had his first heart attack at 53, and ultimately passed away at 62 due to heart failure
- I was embarking on a new job search after nine years and was physically out of shape
And so I resolved to start running on a regular basis. I had already learned in my college years that my body couldn’t take running every day: I’d suffered shin splints numerous times as a daily runner. So I ran every other day. The early days were challenging and painful, but after six months or so, I had settled into a nice rhythm of 5k on the weekdays and a longer run of 5-9 miles on the weekend.
Yes, at times I’d wake up to a nasty ice storm and put my running day on hold, but generally, I’ve been able to maintain this schedule (outside of illness and injury) for most of the last ten years. It’s the load-bearing beam in my exercise foundation.
Cutting to the Core
My core exercise routine only came into being about three years ago, at the urging of my daughter Christina. Not only is she a wonderful daughter, she’s a professionally trained dancer. So when it comes to muscle training, achieving balance, and anatomical strength, I’ve been blessed with an expert advisor in the family. At her urging, I added a simple five-minute plank routine that involves straight and side planks. I also do two sets of 15 pushups and some basic arm tension curls that use Charles Atlas principles.
The difference in my running ability due to this exercise was immediate and permanent. I felt that I could hold my entire body higher and more freely for my morning runs.
I recently added mountain climbers as a regular core exercise alternating with the basic plank routine. This challenging exercise has been noted as one of the best exercises for men over 40 years of age. I find it to be an excellent complement to static planks, as it is a bit more aerobic.
Foundation Training: The Missing Piece to My Exercise Puzzle
So in 2020, as I found myself with a well-established routine of running and core exercise, all was great—right? Well, YES and NO. On one hand, I was very comfortable with my routine keeping me feeling strong, fit, and healthy. But on the other hand, I’d been experiencing excruciating back and leg pain with each morning run. The problems extended into my sleeping hours as well: I often awoke limping with extreme sciatic nerve pain. How was I ever going to navigate a 2000-mile hike like this?
I started by getting MRIs of my lower and upper back—and thankfully all was good with my spine. My doctor didn’t seem to have any further suggestions after that point. But the pain still flared. In an act of desperation, I googled “sciatica relief” for a couple of days and stumbled upon this Foundation Training video by Dr. Eric Goodman. This exercise regimen has been nothing short of a godsend for me.
You’ll note above that I do this 12-minute exercise on a daily basis. If you peruse the YouTube comments, you’ll see that many peoples’ lives have been changed by this video. Although this routine is brutal for the first several weeks, it is incredibly effective. It has transformed the strength in my lower back and glutes beyond imagination. I can’t recommend a better training regimen for a backpacker.
In Conclusion (and Let’s Talk Beer, Because I Love Beer)
So this is how I’m physically preparing each day as my thru-hike start date approaches. Of course, other than my very successful seven-day shakedown hike in Vermont, I have no proof that this formula works. I will say that I have found that hiking is a VERY different activity than other physical efforts, even running.
As others have said, possibly the best preparation for hiking is hiking. I’ll also say that your results may vary. At a very early age, I discovered that my body was not fit for pullups, long jumps, or basketball—but I could hike for hours and not feel any strain. Your body could be very different from mine.
And because you don’t want to turn into some workout robot, I’d also recommend adding beer into your training mix. Not any old beer, but good quality craft beer from an honest local brewery. Here in my New England locale, I’m truly spoiled by the likes of Tree House, Trillium, Tilted Barn, Fiddlehead, and my local favorite: Spyglass Brewing of Nashua, New Hampshire.
I’m typically having a beer or two each night—and honestly, I think the carbs help that morning run! In fact, that may be my biggest trail fear: it’s not the bears, it’s the beers! (Or the lack of great ones, thereof!) Support your local craft brewer, my fellow hikers!
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