If you've ever gone from walking at the highest incline on a treadmill to taking on a wildly high elevation-gain hike, you know that nothing is going to truly prepare you for a hike besides hiking more. At the same time, truly great hikers and trekkers know that they need a foundation of strength and endurance to successfully tackle the hardest hikes. Not everyone has time to hit up the closest mountain or national park to work on building strength and endurance, and you really don't need to do that anyway. What you need is to hit up the gym and invest some time in training. It's simple: the stronger you are and the more you challenge the muscles, the better hiker you'll be. Here are 6 weight training and fitness tips to strengthen your hiking muscles and avoid injury on the longest, hardest hikes.
This list wouldn't be complete without squats - sorry, guys. Squats are the most ultra-useful weightlifting activity when it comes to strengthening as much leg, ab, and back muscle as possible, all in one movement. The most important thing about squatting is avoiding injury by doing them with the correct form. Keep your spine neutral by contracting your abs, lift your chest and look forward, and stand with your feet hip-length apart. Don't go ass to the grass - rather, bend until you're in a seated position. There's no need to put your knees through that much stress. Last but not least, don't forget to breathe in down and up as you're lifting.
Take a glance at someone doing deadlifts, and they seem pretty simple: you're literally picking up something and putting it back down. But deadlifts, even more than squats, exercise and strengthen your entire body. People underestimate how important core strength is until they're carrying a backpack up a near-impossible rock staircase, and deadlifts require a super-tight core. Not to mention, deadlifts hit your arms, legs, back, and chest as well. Keep your back straight and remember to breathe to avoid slipped disks and hernias. Alternate between classic deadlifts and straight-leg deadlifts to strengthen your calves as well.
3. Ankle Turns, Toe Lifts, and Heel Raises
This is the triad for ankle strength, and if you've ever suffered a downhill trek with aching, floppy ankles, you know why these exercises are absolutely necessary. They're basic, they don't require weight other than your bodyweight, and they're going to save you a lot of pain and twisted ankles. Once you've done a few sets with pure bodyweight, add weight gradually to really strengthen your ankles for flexibility, balance, and endurance on hard terrain.
4. High Box Step-Ups
These are pretty self-explanatory: high box step-ups are going to prep your body for some serious climbing and hiking. They strengthen your hamstrings, glutes, and quads. More importantly, they challenge you to stay balanced and in control. This is an exercise that you can do as slow as you need to until you have real control over your movements, because that's what's going to keep you going strong when you're actually on a challenging stretch of uneven, steep terrain.
6. Take BCAAs
Most supplements are questionable at best, but when it comes to BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids), you won't regret making an investment. Exercise scientists and weightlifters trip over BCAAs because they're almost too good to be true. Still, the research backs them up. BCAAs are our final training tip because they allow you to train and hike longer and harder, and they reduce recovery time when you take them before and after a hike or workout. BCAAs are amino acids that trigger protein synthesis (muscle growth) and inhibit muscle breakdown. They also stop tryptophan, the chemical that says, No, stop, I'm way too tired to keep hiking, causing tiredness. Get this: one study found people who took BCAAs before their workout could push on for 17 percent longer than those who didn't. You build muscle so you can hike longer, and with less pain and recovery time. Convinced yet? We thought so.
Most hikers aren't exactly itching to get to the gym, but in this case, going to the gym will just make your hiking game stronger. Not to mention, you're going to enjoy it a lot more when your muscles aren't burning holes through your pants. Take some tips from fitness buffs and become a better, happier, and stronger hiker.
Writing from Copenhagen, Denmark, Dan Chabert is an entrepreneur, husband and ultramarathon distance runner. He spends most of his time on runnerclick.com and he has been featured on runnerblogs all over the world. See more at gearweare.