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Fitness and Performance

Hiking: how to prep your body for the mountains.

Dec 10 2021

Breath-taking views, epic scenery, exercise, and a sense of accomplishment all wrapped into one. That’s why so many of us are addicted to hiking in the great outdoors. But if you’re a keen hiker, then you’ll know that strength, stamina, and balance are the difference between a good hike and an unforgettable one. Bodyset physiotherapist, Aastha Chowhan shares her top tips on how to get your body into peak condition for the mountains…  

“I love nothing more than pulling on my hiking boots and setting off on an uphill adventure. And the better condition my body is in, the more I enjoy it!” says Aastha.

Among her favourite hikes are the Himalayan trails of the Hamta Pass trek and the Sandakphu trek, the rolling paths of the Great Gable trail in Lake District and the Crib Goch trail in Snowdonia. For all trails, however big or small, uphill hiking requires planning and preparation. Scrambling over boulders, traversing uneven surfaces, and descending steep paths, all requires cardiovascular and muscular endurance, stability, and mobility.

Start your hiking training early 

Make sure you start your training programme a very minimum of 6 weeks before your hike. It’s never too early to start training for a hiking challenge. In fact, the earlier the better.

Strength training for hiking 

Strength training is a great way to bulletproof your joints and ensure your muscles can absorb force. Strength training improves your hiking performance on the peaks and reduces the impact on your joints and connective tissues. It leads to a better performance and a reduced risk of injury.

Bulgarian Split Squats 
Why it works  

Core, quad, and glute strength is key to uphill performance. Training your body to work in a split-squat position boosts mobility, strength, and stability. Bulgarian split squats strengthen your hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings while familiarising your body with balance and stabilisation at the time – reflective of what is required from your body on steep hikes.

How to do it 

Stand lunge-length in front of a bench. Rest the top of one foot on the bench, keeping your hips square. Lower down until your rear knee nearly touches the floor and your front thigh is parallel to the floor. Complete all reps on one side, then switch. After several sessions – or when you feel ready – progress to completing the task with a dumbbell in each hand. Aim to use a moderate weight, using 60-80% of your maximum capability.

How often

2-3 times a week 

Sets

3

Reps

10-15 per leg

Further strength exercises 

It’s important to weave in a good balance of leg, core, and back strength exercises. Some of which can also include goblet squats to train your body in carrying heavy loads while moving. Eccentric decline squats to build strong quads to support your body on the descent. Hip hinges and deadlifts to improve posterior and core strength. Push-ups and pull-ups to improve your arm and back strength, required for carrying heavy backpacks too. Lastly, nothing beats walking up and down your stairs with weights in your backpack to build strength and get used to what’s to come!

Balance training for hiking 

As you scramble up a slope, your torso rotates, your core muscles tighten, your hips take more of the load, and your shoulder and arm extend forward to grab a handhold to pull you up. Hiking requires a remarkable degree of synchronisation between different muscles groups, and balance in your body as you cross uneven terrain.

Single leg dumbbell press on a balance trainer  
Why it works  

The single leg dumbbell press targets the hamstrings and the hip flexors while providing proprioceptive stimulus to the muscles of the ankle. All of which are required to work together to provide balance throughout your body on uneven and unstable terrains while hiking.

How to do it 

Stand on top of the upside-down balance trainer with your foot placed right in the centre. Bend forward holding a slight bend in your knee and lower the dumbbell to the tip of the balance trainer. Stand back up and press the dumbbell over your head. Repeat 10-15 times and then change leg. Aim to use a moderate weight, using 60-80% of your maximum capability. If you find this difficult to start with, you can do this exercise without the balance trainer until you feel comfortable.

How often

2-3 times a week 

Sets

3

Reps

10-15 per leg

Further balance exercises 

Ankle sprains are a common hiking injury. Practice single leg standing and single leg standing reaches with ankle weights to improve ankle strength. Star balances for overall body balance and stability ball glute bridges for balance as well as increased glute and hamstring strength.

Cardio training for hiking 
Cardio intervals 

Intervals are a great way to improve your hiking endurance. They gradually and sporadically spike your heart rate, which helps your heart muscles adapt to strenuous workouts. They are designed to challenge the upper limit of your aerobic energy system, forcing your body to adapt to working at higher intensities – something you would encounter on steep inclines.  

How to do it 

Swim, go for a jog, use an elliptical machine, cycle, or row in your gym. Choose a cardio sport that you enjoy and apply the following method: go fast for 3 minutes.  This doesn’t have to be your maximum speed but it should get you huffing and puffing. Then go slow for 1.5 minutes and repeat. With each set try to go a little faster or include an additional interval.

How often

2-3 times a week 

Sets

3

Reps

5-8

Further cardio exercises 

It doesn’t all have to be intervals! Try out the real thing and start hiking when you can. Take a short hike, 3 to 4 times a week to help your body adjust to new terrain while you build the muscles you need to tackle tougher hikes. Improve cardiovascular strength on these hikes by moving fast and taking minimal breaks. Likewise, long weekend practice hikes are important too. Go slow and take breaks improve distance endurance. If you’re out of season then focus on long stints swimming or using a static bike, elliptical trainer, rowing machine or treadmill. Aim to complete a minimum of 150-300 minutes per week.

Planning an uphill adventure?

The above are just a few examples of how you might approach a hiking training programme. However, every body is different with individual strengths and weaknesses. If you would like to know more about how we could help you improve your hiking performance with a bespoke plan designed for you, please get in touch to book an assessment. Our team of expert physiotherapists are here to help!