One of the interesting things about fitness is that it’s not completely transferable to other activities.
Depending on your fitness routine, whether you’re a cyclist, a pole dancer or hit the gym five times a week, your body gets used to doing things a particular way.
Which can mean, when you hit the trail, it’s not as easy as you’d thought it would be!
Whether you’re new to hiking, a regular hiker or looking to build up your endurance for longer hikes, we’ve got your fitness covered.
Feet, Legs, Lungs
Your feet, legs and lungs are your body’s workhorses when it comes to hiking. Getting them in top condition will make your hiking experiences a lot more enjoyable.
When you consider that two little feet hold up an entire body, it’s no wonder that foot health and foot fitness is essential on the trail.
You’d think that standing on your feet all day would be enough to keep them strong.
Unfortunately things like bad posture and shoes weaken the strength of the muscles in both the feet and ankles.
Many people naturally stand with their knees locked back – it’s often an unconscious way of relaxing while standing. However this stance weakens the stomach and back muscles creating a sway in the lower back, pushing your hips forward, which in turn throws out knee and foot alignment. With this awkward posture you lose sense of your centre of gravity.
When it comes to shoes, these are designed to protect your feet (or to make them look pretty!). But their support means your foot muscles don’t need to work as hard to keep you balanced. And wearing heels shortens the tendons up the back of the ankles and the calf muscles, not to mention putting excess pressure on ball and toe joints.
All of this leads to making you less sure-footed on uneven terrain and leaving you prone to slipping, falling and sprained ankles.
Going barefoot as often as possible provides the perfect environment for your feet to reactivate and build the balancing strength of the twenty odd muscles in each of them. Walking on grass helps the smaller muscles in the feet for balance and walking on beach sand will help build up ankle and calf strength.
You can also do simple exercises at home.
* Hold each of these for a minimum of 10 seconds and slowly build up until you can do it for 30 seconds or more.
In a standing position, making sure your posture is tall and straight and your knees are not locked back:
- Lift your toes off the ground
- Balance up on your tippy toes
- Stand on the heels of your feet
- Balance on one foot at a time
Seated ankle rotations:
- Rotate your feet inwards
- Rotate your feet outwards
- Point your toes then pull them back
Who hasn’t felt that burn in their thighs on an incline??!!
While your feet keep you stable, your legs do all the work!
Building up strength in your leg muscles also helps to protect your knees and helps your body navigate uneven terrain on the trail. So you want exercises that will activate all the different muscles in your legs, including your butt!
These exercises target the front, back, inside and outside muscles of your legs.
You can either do these:
- in sets of 8/12/15 (eg 3 lots of 8 with a short rest in between)
- as many as you can in 30 seconds (and build up to longer)
- or until you hit fatigue (when you just can’t do another one)
Squats target the front of your thighs and your butt.
Easy – sit on a chair where your feet can easily touch the ground. Keeping your back straight and feet directly in front of your hip bones, stand up and sit down with precision.
Medium – Squat without the chair, making sure you keep your back straight and eyes forward at all times.
Hard – Hold the squat pose without standing. You can also bounce or pulse in the position.
Frog Squats target the back of your thighs and your butt.
Easy – sit on a chair where your feet can easily touch the ground. Keeping your back straight and feet directly in front of your hip bones, rest your elbows on your knees and keep them there as you lift your butt and straighten your legs as far as you can. With your elbows on your knees you should end up with your head slightly upside down.
Medium – Find your normal squat position without the chair. Keep your back straight and put your elbows on your knees (it’s easier if you lay your forearms across each other). Lift your butt and straighten your legs as far as you can while keeping your elbows on your knees. Again your head should end up slightly upside down.
Hard – start in a low frog squat. Place your elbows inside your knees with your hands together. Keeping your back straight and your elbows in place, lift your butt and straighten your legs as far as you can.
Side Leg Raises for outside thigh and hip muscles
Easy – Lay on your side making sure that your knees, hips and shoulders are aligned over the top of each other. Straighten your body and your legs. Keeping both feet parallel to each other (ie don’t rotate at your hip to make it easier or raise your leg higher), raise the top leg and lower it again with precision. Switch sides.
Medium/Hard – Instead of raising and lowering your top leg, hold your top leg in the raised position for time (eg 30 seconds) or pulse the leg in the top position..
Lying V for inside thigh and stomach muscles
Easy – Lay on your back and raise your legs to a vertical position and as straight as you can make them. Push your lower back into the ground – you can help this by putting your hands under the bottom part of your butt. Spread your legs into a V shape, as wide as is comfortable, then bring them back together again. Repeat.
Medium/Hard – You can either pulse a couple of times in the V position before bringing your legs back together or hold the V and pulse for time (eg 30 seconds). Be sure to keep your lower back pressed into the ground – the easiest way to do this is to be conscious of keeping your hips tilted under. This will also engage your stomach muscles more.
Single Leg Lunge Pulses for the smaller stabilising muscles around the knee
This is a physio exercise for strengthening knees.
Take a lunge position reaching your arms forward and in line with your back (so a straight line between the bottom of your spine and your hands). Put all your weight on your front foot and just use your back foot to slightly touch the ground for balance. Pulse slightly on the bend in the front knee.
Don’t overdo this exercise, use it for maintenance and stop if it hurts you in any way.
I think all of us have experienced “huffy puffy” at one time or another on a trail! Am I right?!
Burning lungs, heart pumping!
Bringing it all together; feet keep you stabilised, legs do all the work, lungs provide the oxygen!
There are a couple of angles you can take to reduce the “huffy puffy”. One is exercise and one is controlled breathing.
Exercise doesn’t need to be super high intensity to improve your lung capacity. Try things like:
- Speed walking around the neighbourhood
- Skipping rope
- Hitting some stairs regularly
- Finding a local hill to walk up every other day
- Grab your bike and go for a ride
* Try to increase distance/time to build on your cardio endurance.
Losing the “huffy puffy” is as much about cardio endurance as it is about controlling your breath.
One way to help control your breathing is with a breathing exercise. While they are normally to help with meditation or reduce stress, breathing exercises also help you build lung capacity and strengthen your diaphragm (belly breathing).
Four Square Breathing Technique
Use belly breathing – fill the belly on the inhale and empty the belly on the exhale. The idea is to inhale, exhale and hold your breath in equal proportions. Also when you hold your breath try not to block off your throat.
Step 1 : Inhale into your belly for a slow count of 4.
Step 2 : Without blocking your throat, hold your breath for a slow count of 4.
Step 3 : Exhale completely for a slow count of 4
Step 4 : Hold your breath again for a slow count of 4.
Repeat the process 5 – 6 times.
Once you get used to Four Square Breathing, take it to a higher level of 5 square, 6 square, up to 10 square if you can.
If you’re new to hiking, remember that hiking is just walking; it will only take a short time to build up your fitness levels to take on regular or longer hikes or more challenging terrain.
Begin a fitness routine that includes a lot of walking and the easy exercises above and keep at it.
Choose easy trails that are shorter in distance and relatively flat. You’ll find that each of the tours listed on the OTBT website will have details about the distance, terrain, how long it will take and whether or not it’s suitable for beginners. We have plenty of them so you’ll have lots of variety to choose from.
It won’t take long before you’re ready for more!
Hiking on a regular basis, in itself is great exercise and helps build up strength and cardio.
By adding specific exercises, like the ones above, to your weekly routine, you’ll add another level to your fitness that will help reduce injuries and build your confidence on the trail. To push yourself a little more, if you have a gym membership, try building up on your distance and incline on the treadmill.
And of course, challenge yourself with longer trails or more difficult terrain!
Some kind of fitness regimen is a must for endurance hikers. However don’t continually push yourself further all the time otherwise you could burn out.
The trick to endurance fitness of any kind is to include easy days where the trail is shorter or less challenging and rest days.
In the fitness world, an endurance routine might look like this:
- 4 days a week train at a slightly higher level than normal
- 2 days a week train at a lower level than normal
- 1 day of rest
* Build on this from week to week.
If you can’t get out on the trail every day you can also:
– take your routine to the gym and build on your endurance on the treadmill and stair climber
– add weight to your backpack and walk local hills and beaches
Rest & Nutrition
There’s more to getting fit for hiking than just exercise. You should be treating your body as an important piece of hiking equipment – one that needs regular maintenance.
Don’t overdo the exercise. Didn’t expect that one did you?! Constantly pushing your body too hard causes physical stress, inflammation from repetition and muscles that can’t repair. Bam you’re off the trails for months! Listen to your body, recognise your limits and respect it.
Getting good sleep regularly is essential for recovery, whether from exercise or hiking. So is having at least one day off a week from any kind of exercise. While you’re sleeping/resting your body repairs the tiny microtears in your muscles (pulled muscles) and allows your cortisol and adrenaline levels to come back down.
Eat for nutrients not calories. Good nutrition should be part of your everyday routine to provide high quality fuel for your body to both hike and recover. The kind of nutrients we’re talking about are the vitamins, minerals and fibre you get from eating the rainbow of fruit and veg, as well as protein to support your muscles and healthy carbs and fats for energy.
In reality getting hike fit is not just about exercise. Just as hiking can become a way of life, so can the maintenance, your self care.
Hiking has a way of shifting your mindset on so many levels and this is just one of them.