Why Exercising is Important for Hiking

Written by Becky

The popularity of hiking seems to be on the rise as more people want a way to leave their technology behind and spend more time outdoors. Also with the fall season here there is no better time to enjoy the colours of the leaves then on the trail. Hiking is one of the easiest ways to enjoy the great outdoors and with the right fitness training you can discover more remote places in the world that are only reachable on foot.
At first my thoughts on hiking were that it is just walking in the woods, who needs to train for that? That may true if your definition of hiking is a nice walk on a trail with your family on Sunday afternoon. If you are planning longer day hikes, multi-day hikes or a backpacking trip, training will go a long way in making your trip more enjoyable and your body will thank you. Trust me, from personal experience I have learned this lesson the hard way.

When my husband and I embarked on our first hiking adventure together we were foolishly unprepared. We attempted to do the Saranac Laker 6er challenge, which is the completion of 6 mountain peaks in surrounding Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountain Range in New York State. To get the extra special honour (bragging rights) you can complete the challenge in 24 hours. We are both active people who weight train and run on a regular basis so we thought, no problem we can easily do this! Ahh…so naïve. We made it through four of the six mountain peaks before we had to call it quits our legs and spirits diminished.
Even though you may think you are in good physical shape the principle of specificity will always come into play. Meaning you have to train for the specific sport or activity that you do for optimal performance. There is a very big difference between walking 10km around your neighbourhood and hiking 10km carrying a 20lbs pack walking up and down steep, unstable terrain. That being said the basis of hiking is walking. If you can walk and you love exploring the outdoors than with time and proper training there is no limit to where you can venture to. Whether you are training for a long day hike or a multi-day backpack trip the goal of training is to develop speed, power, control and balance. Training can also reduce your risk of injury and increase your self-confidence to navigate rocky inclines and declines. There are three main fitness components that a hiking training program should incorporate, strength, endurance and flexibility.


Strength training should focus primarily on exercises for the lower body as the legs are your primary mover. Core strength is also very important to improve balance and stability that you need on the trail. As much as possible select free weight and/or cable exercises over using weight machines as you are also working on core strength and balance. Unilateral movements such as a single leg deadlift, step-ups and split squats are more beneficial as hiking trails consist of uneven ground and rocks. Along the same lines, perform standing exercises over seated ones for more muscle recruitment. For example perform pull-ups instead of a lat pull down or split squats instead of seated leg press. Although lower body and core strength are high priorities including a couple upper body exercises is beneficial especially if you plan to be carrying a heavy pack or using trekking poles.


Cardiovascular endurance is crucial for hiking especially for long distance day hikes or if you are hiking multiple days in a row. Beginner trail distances average around 5km to 12km while advance hiking trails can be as long 22km to 48km with a greater than 1000m elevation gain. Consider doing that distance multiple days in a row for long backpacking treks. Aerobic fitness is the priority as you will need to be able to sustain a lower intensity effort for long periods of time. Anaerobic fitness becomes more of a concern if you are hiking in area of high altitude as the oxygen supply is less and for shorter periods of time while climbing steep inclines. The best way to increase your cardiovascular endurance is to get outside and walk. Plan at least three to four aerobic activities per week slowly increasing the distance to build up a solid base before incorporating higher intensity interval training. Aim for at least two of your aerobic activities to be hikes. If that is not possible where you live using the incline on a treadmill or using a step machine is a fair replacement.


Flexibility and range of motion in the joints can be a hiker’s best friend. Anyone trekking for long hours on the trail, up and down various terrain and wearing a backpack is likely to experience some muscle soreness and stiffness. Main muscle groups to focus stretching on are the calves, hips, trapezius, quadriceps and low back. The calf muscles tighten with long uphill climbs. The quadriceps have an increased load when descending down steep stretches while the hips, low back and trapezius may feel sore from carrying a heavy backpack. Performing static stretches feels rewarding after a challenging day but adding a warm-up before your hike is also beneficial. Performing a short dynamic stretch routine before starting prepares your body for the movements required for the hike and may help to decreases your risk of injury or muscle strain.
Whether you are traveling to the Rocky Mountains, planning a trip with your friends to climb Machu Picchu, or just want to start explore the local trails near you, consider the benefits of preparing your body for the physical challenge. By incorporating strength training, increasing your cardiovascular fitness and learning a stretch routine you will be preparing your body for the challenge. You don’t want to miss out on all that mother nature has to offer because your legs are tired or you are too short of breathe to continue. Hiking is an excellent form of physical activity, a fun way to exercise with friends and family and what better way to explore the world than on foot?

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