Health & Fitness
You can get fit simply by hiking but why not find out how to get in shape for hiking and make the experience so much more enjoyable from the get go!
Getting in Shape for Hiking with Strength and Stamina Training
Hiking can often be seen as somewhat of a leisurely pastime. Casually strolling up a hill to enjoy a picnic and a flask of tea before sauntering gently down at a gentle pace, hopping back in the car and unwinding when you get home. The reality, as many hikers know, is rather different. Hiking can be a tough physical challenge, and if you aren’t in good shape, you could struggle to manage tougher or longer walks.
Which is where this guide comes in. The great thing about hiking is that it’s something that gives back to you as much as you bring to it – if you hike frequently, you’ll find your fitness improving steadily too; but there are plenty of ways you can expedite the process. From various aerobic and strength-building exercises, to changes in your diet, here’s the Roaming Spices’ guide on how to get in shape for hiking:
First things first, a little disclaimer before the eyebrows of all you nutritionists and sports scientists start to raise too much. At Roaming Spices, we aren’t fitness or hiking experts; we, like most other hikers, do this because we love it. This guide won’t be framed from the perspective of an omnipotent fitness guru (as many online exercise guides seem to be…) but will instead provide an overview of some of the best things to try.
Discovering how to get in shape for hiking is as much about attitude as it is about action, and rather than break down the muscular and biological specifics of the various things you can do to get fit, we’re going to relate how and why they’re good for hikers. We’re not laying out an exercise routine or diet plan, we’re simply shedding light on a few good habits. With that caveat in mind – down to business.
How to Get in Shape for Hiking with Aerobic Exercise
Hiking is a holistic experience. When it comes to the overall social and mental benefits of hiking, as well as the physical workout it puts your body through, the experience of a long walk in the great outdoors is one that not only provides plenty of benefits – but one that requires a great deal of perseverance and endurance.
While the former of these has more to do with mind than matter, your level of ability with the latter comes down (mainly) to one thing – cardiovascular fitness.
Without getting too ‘sciency’ (we did say we wouldn’t…) your cardiovascular fitness level is determined by your heart and body’s ability to supply oxygen-rich blood to all of your muscles, in a consistent enough way to ensure your muscles can maintain movement and exertion. When it comes to improving cardiovascular fitness, aerobic exercise is your best friend.
Hiking requires the participant to maintain a moderate-to-high level of physical exertion for potentially very long periods of time, and your aerobic capability will determine if you’ll be able to achieve this, and with how much effort.
The more aerobically fit you are, the longer you’ll be able to hike, and the less strenuous it will be. Simples! If you’re wondering how to get in shape for hiking, here are a few great areas of focus for your aerobic workouts:
Running to Get in Shape for Hiking
Hiking might be centred on the walking, but jogging and running are two of the best ways to improve your overall cardiovascular fitness, and they’re regularly cited as some of the most effective exercises to do. Running engages a wide variety of muscle groups, and is essentially a full-body workout. It can be done in the gym, or simply be stepping outside your front door – it’s cheap, easy, and you can’t fake it! (Unlike some other gym-specific exercises…)
If you’re making running part of your exercise routine as you get in shape for hiking, try to ensure you run for at least 20-30 minutes, at least 3 times a week. Doing so will ensure your cardiovascular fitness is always improving – as soon as you feel like you can, up the time you spend running.
You could also include ‘HIIT’ running exercises. The ‘High-Intensity Interval Training’ exercises involve switching between a low, easy jog, and an all-out sprint, and are some of the most effective if you’re looking to burn calories. Overall, running isn’t just great for hiking, but for fitness in general – running for an hour can even, allegedly, add 7 hours to your life.
Swimming to Get in Shape for Hiking
It might seem a little counterintuitive to take to the water in order to get fit for a land-based activity; surely the only time you’d need to be able to swim strongly is if you manage to fall in a river, which likely means something has gone horribly wrong with your hike anyway, and your fitness levels are the last thing on your mind. With this said, swimming, like running, offers one of the most comprehensive workouts for your whole body – and provides a fantastic boost to your cardio.
Swimming is particularly useful to hikers because it’s a zero-impact exercise. Hiking is a unique activity in that walking on unstable terrain, at different gradients, works muscles that we rarely engage in our daily lives, and thus requires a good supply of oxygenated blood to every muscle group.
Swimming gives your body a chance to work almost every single muscle, without any of the shock impact of a leg coming down on a treadmill or pavement.
If you’re swimming to get in shape for hiking, be sure to treat swimming as a workout, not just a hobby. It can be easy to fall into the trap of enjoying the swim so much that you don’t give yourself a proper workout; like all good exercise, you should push yourself until you’re out of breath, sweating, and tired.
Vary your strokes too, between front crawl, backstroke, and breaststroke (or even butterfly if you’re an aspiring Olympian).
Cycling to Get in Shape for Hiking
Cycling is a particularly beneficial exercise for aspiring hikers because it not only greatly boosts your cardiovascular fitness, but also gives your legs a darn good workout at the same time. Cycling can be a convenient and enjoyable exercise to add to your routine, and offers many benefits – the popularity of things like spin classes also mean this doesn’t have to be a solitary activity!
Similarly to running, some of the most effective cycling exercises involve HIIT. The extra resistance will get your heart pumping faster, which in turn will provide a better and more lasting boost to your cardiovascular fitness over time.
Rowing to Get in Shape for hiking
Rowing is another highly effective exercise to try if you’re getting fit for hiking – it works out a wide variety of muscles, including your upper back, shoulder, and arms (some of which don’t get as much of a work out with other popular exercises), at the same time as giving your heart a good ‘beating’.
The most important thing to note if you’re planning to add rowing to your regime is posture. It’s easy to get your rowing technique slightly wrong; this and bad posture can hinder how much you get from the rowing machine – and even cause strain or injury in the worst cases.
Most rowing machines come with a diagram that demonstrates how to correctly perform the exercise, and it’s worth paying heed to this – sit upright, use your legs to push the seat back with arms at full length, and only draw the handle to your stomach once your legs are all the way back.
Check in a mirror if you can to make sure the way you’re rowing lines up with the instructions, and if in doubt, ask a member of staff at the gym (or a friendly attendee) for some pointers.
How to Get in Shape for Hiking with Strength-Building Exercises
There’s no doubt that cardiovascular fitness is the cornerstone of the able hiker’s core ability, but it’s not the entire picture. Your aerobic ability will determine how long you can go for, and how easily, but hiking involves many key muscle groups – and if your muscles aren’t up to scratch, you might find some terrains tricky.
This is particularly true for the muscles in your legs. Traversing tricky terrain (how’s that for alliteration?!) is enough of a challenge in its own right, but unless you have enough strength in your legs (and other muscles), you might find steep down and uphill sections straining.
If you’re trying to get fit for hiking, dedicating some time to strength training is important. Any muscle exercise is a good bolster to other cardio workouts, but a few are particularly useful for hikers.
Muscles Used in Hiking
It might be natural to assume that hiking uses the same muscles as running, and so simply running and cycling will be enough to prepare your muscles for a lengthy hike, but this isn’t quite the case. The muscles used in hiking, while centred on your lower body, aren’t quite the same as the ones we use when we run, and workouts should factor this in.
It’s worth noting that there is a big difference, too, when we hike downhill versus uphill. When we walk uphill, the largest muscles in our body – the gluteus maximus and the quadriceps – are engaged. If you’re carrying a heavy bag, then many of your back muscles will also be engaged, along with your lumbar and dorsal muscles in your back to keep you upright! When we hike downhill, our quadriceps turn into brakes, and take most of the strain.
The key takeaway here is that when working out your muscles as you get fit for hiking, it’s important to focus on your lower back, bum, thighs, and calves.
Squats aren’t just great for getting you that ideal ‘bootay’, they’re also invaluable when you’re getting in shape for hiking. Squats work out several of the core muscles involved with hiking, including your gluteus maximus, quadriceps, and your hamstrings.
You can squat without any additional weight, and this is usually the best place to start. With feet around hip-width apart, with weight centred in your heels, lower yourself (with back upright) until your thighs are parallel with the floor – keep knees straight and don’t bow them inwards! Hold this position for a second, then push your heels and stand back up, with hips extended fully.
Once you become comfortable with this, it can be even better to grab a dumbbell, medicine ball, or kettlebell (basically any free weight), and hold this at chest height as you squat. As you become stronger, slowly increase the weight you lift. You’ll be ripped like the Hulk in no time. (Or not, but you’ll be better at pushing up those steep ridges!)
Another pair of fantastic leg exercises, a session on the Stairmaster or some step ups are a great way to condition your muscles further. Admittedly, a workout on the Stairmaster is also cardio-centric, but the act up walking upstairs is a great simulation for the steeper and harsher outdoor walking situations you’re likely to encounter when hiking.
Step ups as well offer targeted benefits, as they work out your glutes and quads. They’re straightforward, all you need is a box or bleacher. Smaller heights are fine as you get started, but once you become more confident and capable it can be a good idea to use a slightly taller box.
From a standing position, place one leg up onto the box, and then step onto it, standing up totally straight. Hold here for a second, then step off using the same foot. Repeat, but switching your ‘step-up foot’ each time.
As previously mentioned, one of the most significant and stressful muscular exertions when hiking if the descent. The uphill climb might often seem the most daunting, and it’s easy to dread these sections of a hike the most, but any seasoned hiker can confirm that it’s the downhill sections that leave you aching the most!
As a result, it’s a good idea to factor a workout into your routine that caters to this, and downhill lunges are perfect. You’ll need to find a gentle but lengthy downhill gradient for this exercise, and ideally, it’s best to find a stretch that lasts a good 50 yards, so you can continue the exercise seamlessly over a distance – for this, you simply need to find a gentle hill outdoors!
A downhill lunge is essentially the same as a standard lunge, except – yep, you guessed it, it’s downhill. Make sure when you step forward and lunge, your front knee is bent to 90 degrees, and you don’t push it forward so it leans over your toes, instead keep it parallel with your ankle. Keep your weight in your heels, stand back up, and step forward with your back leg to bring the two together.
This exercise engages your core really well, and the downhill element puts strain on the muscles that feel the most burn when descending a hill on a hike. Repeat the exercise slowly, steadily, and with plenty of control
These are, admittedly, just a few examples of strength and muscle-building exercises that contribute well to a workout routine that aims to get you in shape for a long and happy hiking career. The main thing we’re trying to get across is that while all exercise will help, and will go a long way to making hiking easier and more enjoyable, some exercises are more targeted.
Other exercises to try, that can also build muscle in the right way, include kettlebell deadlifts, hanging knee raises, and various glute bridges – these are all particularly targeted to the muscle groups that hikers use the most!
When it comes down to it, what we’re trying to say is that all strength exercises are created equal, but for hikers, some exercises are more equal than others.
How to Get in Shape for Hiking with the Correct Diet
You could exercise 5 times a week, and hike every weekend, but if your diet is poor, you’re not going to gain anything close to the potential benefits available to you if you were to eat well.
Diet is widely regarded as far more important than exercise for weight loss – the ‘80/20’ rule is often referred to, which states that weight loss is 80 percent diet and 20 percent exercise. The scientific accuracy of this claim is a debate we don’t want to get into, but there’s no denying that if you’re trying to shed those pounds, what you eat is extremely important.
Even if you’re not trying to lose weight, but are instead simply trying to up your fitness levels to make hiking easier and more accessible, diet is still utterly crucial. Knowing the right kinds of foods to eat, not just during a hike but also in the days between your walks, is a very powerful tool.
We’re not going to recommend a specific diet or meal plan, and we aren’t suggesting you go to the extreme and embark upon a juice fast, but what we are saying is bear in mind the food you eat – particularly in the lead up to a long hike.
There are good foods, and there are bad foods; how you put these together, the quantities you eat etc. are all down to you, but to give you some idea of a few great foods to factor into your diet as you get in shape for hiking:
- Complex Carbohydrates – including things such as wholemeal pasta, brown rice, and porridge into your diet is a great way to give your body a slow and steady release of energy, which is perfect for the days you’re exercising.
- Various Fruit – it might be high in sugar, but fruit contains natural glucose (not the kind you stir into your tea) which isn’t nearly as bad for you. Fruits also contain an assortment of vitamins and minerals. Be sure to buy fresh!
- Fibrous Foods – Without getting to visceral and graphic, fibre keeps you regular. Making foods such as peas, beans, broccoli and sprouts a regular feature in your diet is important, as a healthy guy is a key component to a successful hike. There are few things worse than being caught out with a dodgy tummy in the wilderness!
- Protein – We’re not suggesting you have to go full gym-buff and invest in an annual protein shake program, but eating a plentiful supply of natural protein, from meats, eggs, and pulses, is a great way to make the most of your strength training. Protein helps build muscles, something you’ll be grateful for out on the trail.
This is far from an exhaustive list, and there are all sorts of specific dietary plans, and plenty of advice to be found on the subject – but the key thing is that you don’t just leave your diet out of the equation. How we fuel our bodies is integral to how we can improve them, and if you’re getting in shape for hiking, don’t just think about what you do at the gym, but what you put in the fridge!
Best Way to Train for Hiking
‘Great’, you may think, ‘I now have plenty of exercises to try, and lots of delicious healthy things to eat… but where do I start? How do I even begin getting in shape? Do I do cardio AND strength? How much? Arrrghh!’.
Ok granted, your reaction probably wasn’t as extreme as this example, but what we’re touching on here is probably the golden question – how should you go about creating an exercise routine and plan that will turn you into the ultimate hiking king or queen? How do you ascend the metaphorical peak of hiking prowess, and get to the point where even the most fearsome treks are laughably achievable?
Well, firstly, the secret is that there isn’t really a secret. While there are plenty of exercise plans out there, and many strict and specific rules about which exercises to do, how many reps, how often etc (and many of these are extremely valuable!), most nutritionists and personal trainers would agree that eating the right things and putting the effort into exercising regularly will go an awfully long way to helping you achieve your goals.
If you want to think about it in the simplest way possible, then the key is eating a varied and balanced diet consistently, and making sure you exercise several times a week, regularly. When exercising, combine cardio and strength exercises, and give all of your muscles attention, with particular emphasis on the most-used muscles for hiking (above).
But we admit, that’s a bit of a cop-out.
For many people, the reason we don’t already do this is because the idea of just ‘eating healthily’ and ‘exercising right’ is a little bit overwhelming. With no structure or plan in place, it can be hard to know where to begin.
As such, here’s a VERY rough guide to how your week could look, to give you a bit of a framework going in:
Breakfast – Greek yogurt with fresh berries
Lunch – Tuna sandwich with wholemeal bread
Dinner – Homemade pasta sauce with wholemeal pasta (e.g. Bolognese)
Exercise – An hour (at least) at the gym, focussed mainly on cardio – With a combination of running, cycling, and rowing.
Breakfast – Porridge, with fresh banana
Lunch – Salad with eggs, greens, and tomatoes
Dinner – Leftover pasta sauce on a baked potato (eat the skin!)
Exercise – A day off today, but try to get some walking in, and if you feel the urge for something more strenuous, go for it.
Breakfast – Wholemeal toast, with 2 boiled eggs
Lunch – Green salad with pitta bread and hummus
Dinner – Roasted salmon fillet with asparagus, new potatoes, and roasted tomatoes on the vine
Exercise – Cardio warm-up (e.g. running), followed by a variety of strength exercises – try to do 10 minutes.
Breakfast – Greek yoghurt with nuts, fruit, and berries, sprinkled with oats
Lunch – Fresh soup, with a slice of wholemeal bread
Dinner – Tomato and artichoke gnocchi
Exercise – An hour’s swim, followed by a few strength exercises
Breakfast – Whole grain cereal with milk and berries
Lunch – Tuna Nicoise salad
Dinner – Roast chicken (either whole or breast/thighs), with potatoes, veg, and gravy
Exercise – Take the evening off, you’ve earned it!
Breakfast – Porridge with banana and peanut butter
Lunch – Leftover chicken salad sandwich on wholemeal bread
Dinner – Baked fillet of cod with fennel and couscous
Exercise – Half an hour cardio of your choice, followed by 25-30 mins strength exercises.
Breakfast – Poached eggs and avocado on wholemeal toast
Lunch – Green salad with pitta bread and hummus
Dinner – Anything you like – you’re allowed a treat every now and then!
Exercise – A final day off, but some light cardio wouldn’t go amiss
How to Get in Shape for Hiking – Final Thoughts
Well, phew. There you have it. It might not be the most data-heavy article in the world, but the majority of hikers aren’t interested in macronutrient measures and specific muscle gains (unless that’s your thing, in which case, great! You probably already know what you’re doing, and we’re flattered you’ve read this far…).
No, hiking offers a very different sense of achievement to the one we get from a good workout, but fitness certainly plays a part in how much we can enjoy hiking. If you’re in good shape, you’ll be able to hike more, in more challenging terrain, and the subsequent rewards will be much richer.
But we’ll leave you with one thing.
It’s something of a secret ingredient. A Magic bullet. People often say there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to getting fit for something like hiking. But we have some insider knowledge, and there is.
There’s one thing you can do, that is guaranteed to get you in shape for hiking. It’s not a combination of things and doesn’t involve any measurements or routines.
It’s something we can all do.
Here it is.
If you want to get in shape for hiking: hike.
Get out there, strap your boots on, and hike. The more you do it, the fitter you’ll get – that’s the beauty of hiking itself, it makes you fit. It gets you in shape.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t take the above advice to heart, as we pointed out, you can get so much from a hike if you’re in good shape. So give it a try, see what happens, but most importantly get out there in the wild and experience the beauty of the world first-hand. You will then no longer be worrying about how to get in shape for hiking as you will be a finely tuned hiking machine!
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