Counting Calories Part II: Training for the Trail

*Strength & Conditioning

709This is the season of resolutions. The season where we look at our lives and see room for growth. Maybe your goal is to finally hike a long-distance trail like the ones of which you’ve read. It’s also the season for the renewal of gym passes. This IS the year you will start training and start hiking.

Here’s one way to approach both your fitness resolution and your goal of completing a long-distance hike.

One of the most important lessons I learned  from hiking the Appalachian Trail was the importance of physical training. My adventure could have started much stronger if I had thought to exert my body in smaller bouts before beginning such a physical trial. My first day was only two miles beyond the waterfall staircase of Amicalola Falls State Park. I even bear-crawled a few of the steps in embarrassment.

I began writing this article with the intent to create a basic one-size-fits-most workout routine for aspiring thru-hikers. Instead, I’ve learned valuable, overarching principles that can be applied to practically any workout we have already started. Rob Shaul with Mountain Tactical Institute suggests focusing on general fitness until 4-12 weeks out from your event. This is where you drop out of general fitness and into a “sport-specific” training cycle. For thru-hiking, this specific training includes hiking under a loaded pack, plus combining core and leg workouts so your body begins to use its new muscles in tandem.

Before the Hike

1) There are such things as “Mobility” and “Stability” workout circuits.

Many times prospective hikers come to me for a backpack fitting and are most worried about a shoulder or a knee injury they’ve had in the past. These types of workouts can improve strength and stability in those areas of the body and can make you less prone to injury. As physiotherapist Cassie Dionne describes, the combination of these types of workouts help your body learn how to protect itself in ranges of motion. For my general training, I’ve been targeting my hip flexors. So I found a youtube channel I liked and continue to follow his advice. Keep your own limitations in mind: when to push and when to ease off.

2) A muscle is only as strong as it’s antagonistic muscle.

cross-trainHere lies the importance of cross-training. Find another active task- swimming, rock climbing, or biking. All of these use additional muscles and motions to hiking and as Men’s Fitness claims, can help with injury prevention by giving your training-specific muscles a rest while still strengthening you as a hiker.The idea of hiking a long-distance trail is to get outdoors and experience more, and cross-training can open up a whole new way to get active in your current lifestyle while still having fun preparing.

3) Metabolic Conditioning 


Decrease your rest times between exercise intervals. When you decrease your rest times between reps or sets, you are helping your body to build a broader pathway for the immediate energy (cellular ATP) your body produces. This is called Metabolic Conditioning. This will have a huge impact on how much immediate energy you can access on your way up Blood Mountain…or any mountain. It’s the ability for your body—and your mind—to push onward.

As badass hiker and Rock the Park host, Colton Smith said to me, “You always train the hardest when you have an objective and in this case, you have one!”  For example, try doing sets of sprints instead of one long run. Weight lifting is another great way to get a jump start on muscles. Choose weights that are just heavy enough the last rep feels difficult but not so heavy you can’t do the last rep and then do them in a series of repetitions with decreasing rest times.

4) Increase duration.

A mixed approach always yields better results, right? Maybe yesterday you followed #3 and did sprints, today you’ll try a longer run. Another way to look at this is the “mental failure” aspect. As Colton Smith also suggests, run hard, and when you get to the point where you don’t think you can run any more, set your watch for five more minutes. Live in this headspace. Five more minutes at your body’s max can help you develop the internal dialogue to push through discomfort you may encounter when hiking.

TheTrek founder, Zach Davis emphasizes this in his book, Appalachian Trials time and again, it’s a mental game! You can practice that mental game just as much in your workouts.

5) Speed recovery.

Any muscle brought to the point of failure requires 48 hours before another workout. The key to working to the point of muscle failure is balance. Only at the last set of repetitions should this point be reached, and even then, not every workout should have muscle failure. This will allow you to embrace diversity in your training. Remember cross-training? That can help with a faster recovery. Men’s Fitness suggests that swimming or other low-impact cross-training is a great way to boost blood flow and nutrients to recovering muscle tissues at a faster rate than resting.

During the Hike


1) Breathe Deeply

Where is your energy coming from: aerobic or anaerobic? Aerobic energy uses oxygen; you exhale out what you do not need (CO2 and H2O). Anaerobic exercise burns energy without oxygen which leads to a higher build-up of lactic acid—that burning sensation in your legs. Deeper breathing will help your body burn fats and expel by-products much more efficiently than anaerobic energy production. Open up your chest, suck in oxygen, let your body have what it needs: fresh, mountain air!

2. Warm Up

This part usually takes place on its own. By the time you’ve packed away your sleeping bag and your tent, your body has been moving and warming up. As you begin the day, take a slower pace  until you feel your body moving smoother. Going hard too quickly forces your body into anaerobic energy use right out of the gate, so you’ll be battling lactic acid buildup all day. This also puts your body at risk of being too stiff to catch itself when the unexpected rock causes your ankle to begin rolling…

3) Opposite Motions

Lew Porchiazzo, a Strength and Conditioning coach for the University of Michigan lent some insight into training on the trail. “Your body has been held in one position all day: hosting your pack. The idea would be to pull your body into an opposite motion when you can.” Some examples that come to my mind are the superman exercise and tree pose. This will also help strengthen antagonistic muscles as you go which allows your primarily used muscles to rest while still receiving increased blood flow.


These ideas are not medical advice by any means, merely a notes as I try to navigate the fitness world. This is what my research and contacts have concluded. It’s how I’ve begun focusing my workouts, and I have already seen a massive shift in my mental strength to push onward and my body’s ability to keep up. Start with your goal, break it down into actions, improve upon those actions and revisit these written goals as you train.note“If the outcome were certain, the effort would mean nothing, and no important questions would be answered in the trying” Mark Twight.

These ideas are not medical advice, and are not meant to replace a trainer or physician’s advice. Speak to a doctor or consultant before starting any fitness program

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