As a certified personal trainer and avid backcountry hiker, I know how physically taxing a strenuous hike on a mountain trail can be. I often peruse articles dispensing advice for how to train for a hiking trip. There is some solid information out there, but there is also a fair amount of bad advice as well. One example of bad advice is when writers tell people that they can stay in shape for warm weather hiking/backpacking trips by simply working on the treadmill during the winter months.
Why the Treadmill is not Enough
I am not here to disparage the treadmill; it provides valuable cardio-respiratory benefits and has its place in any fitness program. My clients use the treadmill for warm-up, cool downs, active recovery periods, and occasionally for high-intensity interval training. It is a good tool.
But when it comes to training for a hiking trip, or even maintaining hiking fitness during the winter months, the treadmill is not enough to get the job done. Take a look at the picture at the top of this article. That is a hiking trail in the smoky mountains. Do you really think walking on a treadmill will prepare your body to handle that?
Although the treadmill provides a good cardio benefit to trainees (particularly if using high-intensity intervals), it does not promote the leg strength needed for a strenuous long distance hike, especially if you are going to the mountains. The reason: When you are on a treadmill, the “ground” is moving under your feet. Even at an incline, you do not have to use your leg muscles and glutes to propel yourself forward. This is not even close to a reasonable simulation of the demands hiking will place on your leg muscles. To maintain adequate strength in your legs you have to get on solid ground.
Effective Winter Training for Summer Hikers
The best thing you can do to train for summer and spring hiking during the winter months is get out and walk on uneven terrain. Of course, winter weather in some locales does not always allow extended outdoors activity, so your training must take place indoors.
I do nearly all my hiking in the mountains and my winter training is designed specifically to accommodate strenuous and steep ascents and descents. Even if your hiking adventures tend to be on more even ground, a training program designed for mountain hikers will certainly meet your requirements for flatland hiking fitness.
Cardio Training: My hiking training during the winter months includes cardio work four to five times per week. I use several different cardio trainers, including treadmills, arc trainers and stair climbers. Seventy-five percent of my cardio training is performed as high intensity interval training. Each session lasts about 30 minutes. Once a week I do a longer 45 to 60 minute cardio session at a moderate pace.
Resistance Training for the Legs Core and Back: Building and maintaining leg, core and back strength is critical to hiking fitness. To build and maintain muscle requires resistance (either body weight or weight training). As a trainer, I prefer to use compound movements that activate multiple muscle groups at the same time. Here are a few exercises I include in my winter training program for hiking.
- Lunges (either carrying dumbbells or not): stretch your step as far as possible, bringing your back knee almost to the floor. When performing the lunge, keep your weight on your front heel to develop the muscles in the back of your leg and glutes. I do three sets of walking front lunges (twenty steps with each leg per set) twice a week.
- Side Lunge Hops: Keep your back upright while making a long sideways step. Then bring your trailing foot to your lead foot in a quick hopping motion.
- Leap Frogs: Just like when you were a kid. A partial squat and an explosive leap forward. If you really want to smoke your leg muscles do three sets of ten leap frogs immediately after you do your three sets of lunges.
- Step-ups: Perform step-ups with a high knee raise on an aerobic step/platform for one minute, alternating legs each step. Rest for 15 seconds and repeat four to five times. This exercise has aerobic and strength benefits.
- Dead-lifts and Squats: These are classic weight-training movements that promote full-body fitness activate every major muscle group in the body. It is not important to use heavy weight when performing these exercises; proper form is the critical factor.
- Kettlebell Exercises: Kettlebell swings, woodchoppers, and cleans are full-body movements that strengthen legs, back, core and shoulders. I do a kettlebell routine at least twice a week as part of my winter training for hiking.
Please note that that you can perform most of these exercises using only your body weight. I mix up all of these exercises and movements and do each of them at least once a week. Performing even three or four of these exercises regularly in conjunction with your treadmill cardio routine will greatly enhance your ability to maintain hiking conditioning over the winter.