The best exercise for hiking is hiking.
But most of us, unfortunately, can’t be hiking all the time. Here are some of the best sport-specific ways I’ve found for improving and maintaining my fitness level before a hike or between outings. Or as I wrote in a previous article – Here’s how I try to stay fit enough to do my thing.
I personally like to have a structured routine base program. Something that is perhaps a little less sport-specific and less intense but which keeps me moving and keeps me accountable and provides a measuring stick.
Yoga and the like are great for flexibility and strength – but they are also great at training you to relax and breathe through discomfort – which is useful when hiking. These are great base fitness programs to which you can add the other, more sport-specific elements as you get stronger.
Lately I’ve replaced most of my yoga time with a structured taekwando class, which I get similar benefits from.
Rollering your feet
Your feet are really important and really vulnerable – they are at the end of the longest levers on your body and they absorb and redirect incredible amounts of weight every day. In fact, your feet are the points at which your body interacts through gravity with the largest, heaviest object in the world (the ground) thousands of times each day!
This can cause repetitive stress issues.
One of the best ways to head this off is to roll a tennis ball under each bare foot for several minutes each day. Roll the ball back and forth across the ball of your foot, up and down the arch of the foot, and crunch it with your toes – all while bearing progressively more weight into the ball.
Another way to take care of your feet, especially if you often hike in boots, is to go barefoot as much as possible. Boots splint your ankle, which is desirable while hiking, but eventually will make your ankles weaker, less flexible, and more prone to injury.
One way to counter this is to walk barefoot as much as possible – especially on uneven ground. While hiking, when you get to camp, take off the boots and socks and let your feet air dry as you walk about for the rest of the day.
If you need some protection on the bottom of your tender feet, get some camp shoes or sandals – but avoid flipflops. Flipflops are one of the worst things for your feet because they cause you to walk with your toes clamped together to hold the flipflop on.
Great cardio and even better leg strength/endurance exercise. Because it is zero-impact it is a relatively soothing way to rehab legs that are beat up from your last hike. As a bonus, modern ellipticals can simulate climbing steep elevations.
I would start low and slow and short, and work my way up gradually, emphasizing improvements in endurance/duration before improvements in elevation or intensity. For instance, nowadays I am doing 45-60 minute bouts nearly every day at an 800kcal/hour intensity and increasing resistance and elevation once per month.
These are probably the single best low back, hip, knee, and ankle exercise for both strength and flexibility – and as a bonus, it prepares you for third-world squatty potties!
You want to train for both repetitions (with explosive power coming out of the squats) and for being able to sit comfortably in a full squat for up to 30-60 seconds.
Form is important. Bear weight into your heels and keep your hands forward to counterbalance you.
Alternating lunges – step forward into a box stance, dip the knee almost to the ground, then recover and step forward with the opposite leg. Check out the following video.
Planks and side-planks
While elliptical is great specifically because of the zero impact nature of it, actual hiking is not a zero impact activity. Often, the most damaging part is the jarring downhills and the spots where you are forced to jump or run.
You will be sore for the first week because of the eccentric contractions caused by unaccustomed impacts on your legs. One way to prepare for that impact (in addition to continued progressive elliptical exercise) is by jumping rope.
Jumping is a great plyometric leg exercise as well as good cardio.
Again, start short and slow and work your way up.