By Claire Jencks
Whether you’ve been eyeing that 10-mile loop, or daydreaming of a month-long thru-hike, chances are you’ve set some lofty objectives for the upcoming hiking season. In order to tackle those goals, and stay injury free, you’ll need a solid training plan. To help, we interviewed Nika Ouellette, Boston-based strength and conditioning coach and 2020 Olympic Javelin hopeful. Here, she’s provided some training tips to make sure your body is in optimal shape to make the most of the upcoming season, and the one after, and the one after that.
#1. Warm up (correctly)
When you get to the trailhead, unless you’re Kilian Jornet, you probably don’t just sprint straight up. It takes a bit to get in the hiking groove, right? Any major workout demands a warm up in much the same way in order to gently warm up the muscle tissue and “wake up” your central nervous system. Here are a few ways Ouellette suggests doing just that:
Start with a foam roll routine for a solid 5-10 minutes. Not only will this give you proprioceptive feedback—connecting your mind with the position and movement of your body—it will also get the fluids moving in your tissue, increasing blood flow and flushing out toxins. Target tight or gritty muscle areas with long slow rolls and avoid hanging out in one spot for too long. The most bang for your buck includes rolling out your back, butt and legs.
After your foam roll, do a few minutes of mobility work. This is not the stretching you did in gym class. While flexibility refers to the ability of your soft tissue (muscles) to lengthen, mobility is another beast entirely. It’s a catchall term for the muscles, joint capsules, and motor control within a specific joint. By working on mobility, you’re increasing the amount of control you have over your joints. Ouellette explains, “We want to train our joints to be familiar with their full and active range of motion in unfamiliar territory. More than anything, having full ROM [range of motion] is your best shot at preventing injury.”
The last part of your warm up is the one you may know the best. Grab a jump rope, a bike, or put on your running shoes and go for a quick lap. Just 5-10 minutes of this will really increase your core temp and finish off your warm-up right.
#2. The Power of Plyometrics
The goal of doing plyos is to increase power by performing exercises that exert maximum force in short intervals of time. In plain English, plyometric exercises build fast-twitch (type 2 fibers) using short and explosive movements like box jumps—admittedly not what hiking brings to mind. But, as Ouellette explains, “With plyos we’re building neuromuscular efficiency. Fast twitch fibers will help catch you if you trip or lose balance—they are key for stabilizing you at a moment’s notice.” Aim to incorporate an upper body, lower body and a sprint plyo into each day of your routine.
#3. Strength is key
“Strength work is the core of a good training program,” Ouellette states. When lifting, you’re essentially spiking your heart rate and then bringing it back down over and over again, which helps increase your anaerobic capacity. “Hiking is a marathon, not a sprint, so we use lifting as a way to increase your strength over time.” If you’re lifting three times a week, Ouellette recommends keeping your reps in the 6-8 range for the first 3 weeks, 5-6 for the next 3 week and moving to 4 reps for the last three, increasing weight each time you decrease reps. This concept is known as “progressive overload” training and is widely used to increase strength and efficiency.
#4. Functional over classic
“Life happens on one leg,” Ouellette explains. Hiking involves uneven surfaces, inclines and obstacles, and both of your legs are rarely planted on the ground simultaneously. When choosing exercises, keep this functionality in mind. For the lower body, this might include single-leg deadlifts, slideboard leg curls, bulgarian split squats and more. For your upper body, look to rows, pushups and presses. One more thing to note here is that the rest you take after a set is just as important as the exercises you choose. A core exercise such as planks, rollouts, etc., can serve double-duty as a rest and a strengthening exercise if placed in between difficult lifts.
#5. Core is King and Queen
From heavy packs to the mountain passes, hiking is inherently unstable. To take care of your spine and ensure longevity in your outdoor career, make sure your lifting routine includes core. Lots of it. Ouellette recommends adding an anti-rotational and anti-flexion core exercise such as the pall-of-press, or plank variations or loaded carries between each set of lifts.
#6. Quick Conditioning
Conditioning doesn’t have to be a slog—done right it can happen in under 10 minutes after your lifting session. Ouellette elaborates, “With conditioning, we’re looking to increase the interval capacity—recognizable as that burning feeling in your legs at the end of a long day—to allow you to go farther along the trail while exerting less energy.” Interval training will allow you to exceed your aerobic work capacity for a finite amount of time and, with varying rest intervals, will actually help increase your aerobic capacity so you can go farther even faster. First, choose any low impact form of movement such as a bike, slideboard, erg or jumping rope. Next, do eight reps of 30 seconds on, 30 seconds rest. If you’re running, aim for a swift jog; something that will get your heart pumping but not exhaust you. Do this 8 times. Voila. Conditioning done. As the weeks progress, steadily decrease your rest time. Ouellette recommends moving from a work to rest ratio of 1:2 to 1:1 then 2:1. For simplicity, stay at 30 seconds of work and 8 repetitions throughout.
There are many uncontrollables in the outdoors, but your fitness doesn’t have to be one of them. Using our tips and the sample workout below, you’ll be ready to hike your dream routes and go farther, faster.
Aim to complete this workout 3x a week in the two months leading up to your goal or season of choice. Supplement it with cross training on your off days in the form of low-impact activities like biking, swimming, and even hiking if the trails are open! The workout should take around an hour to complete (once you get the movements down).
For the first three weeks complete 3 rounds of 8 reps each for the lifting section. In the second week, increase weight and complete 3 rounds of 5-6 reps, and in the last 2 weeks increase weight and complete 3 quality rounds of 4 repetitions. Quality of movement is always better than quantity – if you find yourself at the end of a set trying to grind it out with poor form, stop. Come back for the next workout and try again. Your body will thank you.