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How to Enjoy Hiking More Through Conditioning

Tips that get your body in shape for hiking

Reprinted as seen in the May+June 2011 issue of Washington Trails magazine, written by John Colver.

I personally enjoy hiking and backpacking as a way to experience the beauty of the outdoors, and as a fitness coach, I recommend that everyone go hiking. It is a perfect way to build a solid foundation for fitness and health. I can’t think of a single activity that provides more fitness enjoyment and benefits than hiking.

I also know that sometimes we experience fatigue or pain which might detract from our enjoyment. Back pain and knee pain are very common. But is the hiking to blame? Not according to the physical therapist who once told me, “If people hiked regularly, I’d be out of business.” It’s my observation that the hours we spend sitting in an automobile or at our desks cannot help our posture and overall balance. In coaching, I try to address this imbalance in simple and effective ways that will always increase body awareness and efficiency.

Here are six exercise tips that can help us all enjoy hiking more:

Think About Your Posture
As you walk, imagine yourself as a dancer—tall and elegant. This awareness can help align, or unkink your body in a way that you are now recruiting more of your muscles, especially in the middle of your trunk.

Use the Most Powerful Muscles
As you walk, focus on stepping off from your heels; this small action can increase the use of strong gluteus muscles as well as hamstrings. You can also reduce the strain on your quadriceps muscles, knees and calves and ankles while greatly increasing your efficiency.

Maintain a neutral spine
It’s important to create equal tension in a way that neither strains your back or core abdominal muscles. One way to do this is to imagine you had to carry a friend on your shoulders. You’d bend the knees slightly and quickly engage your core trunk muscles to protect your lower back and gain balance. 

Build Strength Naturally
As an outdoor athlete, I would rather not spend my time in a gym, and yet I want to have the necessary strength to be able to comfortably carry a pack, quickly put up a tent or to easily use a snow shovel or mountain axe. One of my favorite routines is the “daily dozen.” It takes only twelve minutes, and it will exercise all of your muscle groups, develop great movement skills and increase strength and flexibility, all by using only your own body weight. You can go through the routine twice for a longer session. Download a step-by-step graphic featuring all of the exercises in “The Daily Dozen.”

Work on Speed
Struggling to keep up can be a drag. Hiking alone will improve your overall fitness, and practicing some strength exercises like the daily dozen will build strength, but there are some tricks to improving your speed.

One thing you can do is to practice “interval training.” Here’s an example of how to add some quick segments to your hikes or training walks. Pick a large tree or rock a few hundred yards away, then simply pick up the pace and see how quickly you can reach your target. Alternatively, you can use your watch to measure a minute of faster-paced hiking. Doing even three to four faster intervals during a hike will make a big difference. It works because you are stimulating your neuromuscular system to be able to move more quickly. With intervals, the key is to focus not on going “hard” but on being fast and nimble. Try intervals two to three times each week, and you’ll see an improvement in your speed in a matter of weeks.

Practice Your Balance
Everyone can improve balance, and it’s a myth that we lose it as we age. What really happens is that we practice less. One simple and fun way to see improvements in balance and stability is to see how long you can stand on one leg — fifteen seconds, thirty seconds, a minute or more. For an extra challenge, try standing on one leg with your eyes closed. Do it for fun each day after your daily dozen.

And finally, I’d like to share an experience. This approach has been one of the best things I’ve ever found to improve my hiking, but I didn’t learn it in a book or from a coach. I learned this secret by walking behind my Nepalese friend, Lakpa Rita Sherpa. He walks with a grace and softness that is almost impossible not to mimic. When I’m on trail and want an energy boost, I walk like he does. I become completely aware of every footfall landing so softly as to try to leave no footprint. I find myself walking taller. I breathe more deeply. I explore my connection to nature.

And this awareness reminds me that I’m doing the very best exercise possible. I am surrounded by beauty, getting fit and improving my health with every single step I take.