The top 3 things you need to know before starting a hike training program

by | Nov 15, 2019 | 0 comments

What should you know before you dive into a program?

I created a video for this post and you can watch it here.

What top 3 things should you know before you start your training program? I gotcha covered here! 

First and most importantly- As long as you are training for your hike with a quality trainer and a smart program, I’m happy. There are some great programs and some really, bad ones available. I simply want you to feel informed no matter where you turn for your program.

This post is intended to help you learn:

  • what to look for in a program
  • how to spot a qualified coach from a pretender to avoid wasting valuable time and resources doing gimmicky or substandard training plan.
  • why hiring a trainer can help you in many ways.

This post is NOT to convince you to buy my program. I genuinely want you to train for your hike. Be that with me or someone else, just spend time training months before you go and you’ll be better for it.

The value of training

Training is one of the most important aspects of long distance hiking there is. It reduces injury risk, allows you to enjoy your hike more, improves mental strength, and eases doubt that you CAN do your selected trail. Who wants to suffer and struggle to cover miles when you can do some prep before hand and really enjoy the trail while taking in the sights?

All of the scenic trail agencies will advise you to train and be prepared. Backpacker and Outside magazine tout the benefits of training for hiking for a reason. Literally NO ONE but the stranger on the internet forums is telling you not to train.

Besides, what do you gain by not training? Nothing. Well, not exactly: no improved fitness, no increased chance of success, no positive mental self talk, no sense of readiness, less confidence, more physical discomfort. You get the idea.

What to look for in a program

How to spot a less than ideal program

If a program has you doing things like bicep curls, squats on a Bosu, or using the pec machine, or it’s probably not a wise program for hikers. Yes, biceps will help you lift your pack up and put it on. But you don’t need to do curls to prepare for that part of your trip. I promise.

Bosu ball squats might be a fine exercise if you are a Bering Sea fisherman and need that unstable surface to replicate a work environment for exercise. However, for hikers, it’s not the best choice. It simply doesn’t translate well to the needs of a hiker.

Have you ever tripped and face planted while hiking? I have! That pack on your back means you’re hitting mach 1 on the way to the ground. To get back up, I did a push-up to help myself get up after gravity (and a pesky root) gave me a close up view of the trial. That’s a direct carry over from my training into my activity.

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Not made for hikers!

Besides, when have you ever performed the motion of a pec machine in real life, let alone while hiking?

There are no bad exercises, just ones that fit your needs and goals and ones that don’t.

Learn to spot the imposters: if it’s an isolation exercise and uses only one joint of your body (think isolated bicep curls) it’s not for you. If it incorporates more than one joint (squats) that’s ideal. 

What about machines?

I would personally prefer that programs don’t rely solely on machines. You should learn be comfortable moving your body with and without weights. That’s sort of what backpacking is, right?  Exercises that skip machines also carry over better into everyday life and sport than what a lot of machines offer.

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I’m not saying this machine doesn’t have a purpose, but it shouldn’t be part of a hiking program.

Machines do serve a purpose but may not be the best choice for hike preparation. I like some machines but most of us will benefit most from using free weights or body weight versions of exercise.

Using machines also means that you need to go to the gym to get the workout in. That eliminates the ability to remain flexible with your training schedule.

High intensity yea or nay?

High intensity interval training or HIIT is also not your best bet. Now before you fire off comments about me have 3 or 4 different HIIT workouts on my site, let’s talk about why they are there and why they will remain. 

These workout have some things going for them. For starters, they do improve your cardio vascular endurance, that’s been proven time and time again. They are short, taking up to about 20 minutes to complete. Third, they give you options if you are really time crunched but need to get in a workout. (Even then, it’s probably not your best use of time.)

Of course, there are cons too. It’s not the right type of training for hikers. Ideally, you’d have less high intensity training and more sub-maximal training. The lower intensity mimics hiking better than the high intensity stuff. Secondly, the workouts are so short that they miss the endurance component. Third, you can’t target hiking specific exercises very well. Some exercises require thought and muscle control, not speed.

I use them in my personal workouts because I like that type of training from time to time. I also created them to give hikers who said they didn’t have time to train no excuse to train. Therefore, the workouts will remain available. I’d much rather you did something instead of nothing in the short amount of time you may have.

What should a program offer?

Cardio training. The cardio should mostly be sub maximal effort. Hikers don’t redline very often and the training should reflect that. It’s okay to go “all out” occasionally but don’t spend time crushing yourself with hot and heavy cardio workouts.

Muscular Endurance. Hikers spend hours on their feet and that means you’ll need a solid base of muscular endurance. A program should work you up to 3-4 working sets of exercise and repetition schemes in the 12-20 range for the exercises. 

Strength Training. Building strong muscles will ensure that you are ready for carrying a pack that can be heavy at times, up hills, through streams, down hills and over uneven terrain. Strong legs, core, and shoulders will be a massive benefit before you go.

There should be a mix of single leg and double leg exercises. You should be pushing and pulling, rotating or resisting rotation in a variety of ways and directions. Each trainer has their own style and preferred exercises (lunges!) but trainers can and (should) adjust to meet your comfort and skill level.

Bonus: Extras that cover things like a training hike mileage/elevation plan to guide your training hikes. Exercises that target commonly injured areas for hikers. This might mean glute specific exercises to reduce IT band issues, foot exercises, or ankle strengthening exercises.

Recovery or de-load weeks. For example, a typical program will have you working on a routine for 3 weeks and de-loading for one week. This might be a reduced number of reps, sets, or weight for a week. It may also include yoga, stretching, or other recovery activities. 

I’d also look for scheduled days off in program, flexibility for busy schedules, and wiggle room to do activities you really enjoy, like yoga or a spin class. It’s also important that a program can be adjusted for any issues past or present like injuries, arthritis, or aches/pains.

Qualified coach or pretender?

How to find a qualified coach vs someone who wants to be

It’s not mandatory that your trainer have hiking experience, but it sure will be a huge benefit. The experience that comes with hiking helps a trainer understand the specific needs for hikers. With out that trainer knowledge, you may find a program with exercises that are not using your time wisely.

An important note here – Just because someone has hiked a long distance trail doesn’t make them qualified to offer training advice. I see this a LOT on the internet groups. Take the advice from those groups with a grain of salt.

There’s a lot of science and skill that goes into programming a workout. A trainer should know and understand:

  1. selecting the correct exercises
  2. knowing what muscle groups are targeted
  3. exercise frequency and intensity
  4. how to modify an exercise to be easier or harder
  5. how to properly adjust a program to meet your needs

Does the internet group commenter take into account these things? Unlikely.

What credentials should I look for in a trainer and why should I care?

Having a personal training certificate shows that someone was willing to put in the time, money, and effort. For them, fitness is more than just a hobby. It shows a level of competence and understanding of principals that non-certified trainers may not have. There are plenty of non-certified smart “trainers” out there, but find one that has committed their craft by getting certified. 

The particular credentialing body isn’t that important since they all teach the basics. A degree in exercise science is a bonus, as are degrees in physical therapy. These types of degrees show a mastery of anatomy, physiology, movement irregularities, common injury causes, and corrective exercise. 

Why should I consider hiring a trainer?

The most overlooked factor in success

Outside of the reasons listed above? Accountability. It’s darn easy to say you’re going to train and be ready when the time comes. Suddenly, you end up working long hours to save money, friends want to hang out, family stuff comes up, you get sick, you miss a 10 days in a row and your start day is creeping up. Oops.

Now what?

How will you make program adjustments when these inevitable things pop up? Would you just restart the program? Do you pick up where you left off? Should you train twice as much to make up for lost time? Should you stop altogether because you aren’t sure what to do? Do you restart next week and take the rest of the week off? Find a shorter program to do instead?

It can be overwhelming!

This is why a trainer makes sense. Let them sweat the details and make adjustments to help keep you on track. Come to them with your concerns and they will provide you with the answers to keep you on target.

As a bonus, they will also motivate you and are an immediate resource for your questions. That’s what you pay them for!

I will note that I answer training questions and injury related questions for hikers all year long. If you have a question, let me know! 


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Need to start training for your next adventure but you’re not sure where to start? We can help! You can pick up our free 12 week training program to get started today or work with Lee to create a custom plan for you.

Lee Welton

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