Runs N’ Poses – Training for My 2023 AT Thru-hike
Howdy y’all! As a newbie to thru-hiking, I do not have the experience to know how to best train for this endeavor. From what I have researched, it seems like as long as you have a baseline level of fitness and take it slow in the beginning, you will eventually build up your trail legs. Being somewhat of an athlete (if beer league counts), this absolutely makes sense. Case in point: In order to prepare for a marathon, you do not just go out and run the whole thing. You spend months gradually adding miles each week and building up your pace.
My Reasons For Training Before My Thru-Hike
So if the best way to get better at thru-hiking is to thru-hike, why am I sweating it now? Couldn’t I just go out and gradually build up my miles? I absolutely could! But I want to make sure that I am starting off in such a way that gives me the best chance of success. Growing up in scouts, I was always taught to “Be Prepared,” which I believe is pretty good advice for life in general. But as a result of this, I tend to always make a concerted effort to go into important endeavors as prepared as possible.
The next main reason I decided to train for my upcoming thru-hike is because I wanted to lower my body weight. It felt kind of silly to spend so much time sweating over grams and blowing money on gear, when I could easily burn pounds off of my body weight for free! Since first committing to my thru-hike, I have dropped roughly 40lbs, which is more than my total pack weight! That should make the miles significantly easier. A final note on dropping weight before my hike is that it ensures my clothes will fit correctly, thus saving more weight and money.
Lastly, and this is the main reason I decided to get in shape before my hike, is injury prevention. One of my greatest fears surrounding my hike is having some sort of preventable, hike-ending injury. I am already a bit prone to lower back, foot, and knee injuries, so I wanted to make sure I was doing all I could to prevent any of these from becoming a problem. As an example, last spring I pulled a muscle in my back during a half marathon. I ended up finishing the race somehow, but I was hardly able to move for weeks after, and I had to complete months of PT. If I had properly cross trained and strengthened my back more, I could have prevented that injury entirely.
So without further rambling, here are the main activities I did to prepare:
In my unqualified opinion, walking is the best exercise you can do, period. Even if you are not training for anything specific, just going outside and cranking out a few miles is fantastic physical activity. I typically bring along my fully loaded pack to get my body used to carrying it, and to get used to having a healthy posture while wearing it. Not only does daily walking strengthen your legs, but it also has the added benefit of hardening your feet, and testing the fit of your gear!
If you have a busy schedule, you can always incorporate smaller walks throughout your day as well. Lastly, once you start walking more you will discover awesome new places around the area you live in! When you finish reading this, you should absolutely go for a walk.
Physical therapy was the next most important training exercise I did to prepare for my hike. As previously mentioned, I have had to go to PT several times throughout my life for various sports related injuries. I honestly had not considered this as a way to specialize my training for hiking, until I injured my knee last fall. I could hardly walk for a few days each time I ran, so I acquiesced and saw a physical therapist.
During my intake interview, I mentioned that I was hiking the Appalachian Trail in the spring, and his face lit up with interest. Since then we specialized my exercises to not only correct the dysfunction in my knee/leg, but to also strengthen specific muscles to better prepare me for months of backpacking. These are all movements that I would have never thought to do, such as strengthening my feet and hip flexors. Another key thing I learned was proper form for going downhill to reduce my chances of injury. If you have the means and the time, I strongly recommend at least having a consultation with a physical therapist!
I recently got into yoga at the recommendation of my PT to help with rehab, and then I ended up absolutely fell in love with it! Yoga is fantastic because it strengthens and stretches your whole body, which we could all benefit from more of. I typically go to classes 3 times a week at my local climbing gym, where they offer daily classes. By going through my climbing gym, classes are significantly more affordable than they would be if I paid per class. I personally prefer in-person classes because a professional guides the session, who can make sure my form is correct. Lastly, if you opt for in-person you do not need to worry about having a mat and props, or space at home in order to practice!
Cycling is an incredibly fun exercise to strengthen ones legs! Even more so on days where I feel like exploring Austin or if I am feeling too stiff to run. As an added bonus, it is a fairly low impact exercise, so it’s perfect for recovery after a strenuous day. Cycling does however require that you own a bike, and that you live in an area that is safe to ride in. This unfortunately makes it less accessible compared to some of the other activities I have listed. But if you have the means, it is an excellent way to strengthen your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, and more. After your ride, you could then add on some yoga to stretch everything out!
Last but not least is running! I actually have a love-hate relationship with this sport, even though it is my favorite. It has the highest likelihood of injury of every activity I do, but nothing else challenges me quite as much. I love running for a variety of reasons, mainly due to how transferable the skills and fitness are to other sports, how much it kicks my butt, and how fantastic the community is!
Very few things feel quite as amazing as the energy and spectacle of a large race! From the starting corral all the way to the finish line, thousands of strangers cheer you on. Whole city blocks are closed just for you, and nothing else matters except making it to the end!
The benefits of running are also numerous, such as massively increased cardiovascular fitness and lowering your blood pressure. Both of which will greatly benefit you in thru-hiking. Lastly, the running community is amazing! They will encourage you to do your best, and support you through some of your toughest challenges!
Just do Something!
If you have taken anything away from my rambling on pre-hike training, it is to just get active and do something! I strongly recommend joining local classes, clubs, and teams. That way you can more easily build exercise into your life as a regular routine and be held accountable. As an added perk, you can also connect socially with others who have similar interests, and who can help support you in achieving your goals. It is also a ton of fun!
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