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To take a hike #x2026;

By Molly Martin

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Most folks who might go hiking know that, like Boy Scouts, they should always be prepared.

Usually that indicates a readiness for emergencies or a change in weather, which calls for always carrying the "10 Essentials." But hikers can also prepare physically, to make outings this spring more enjoyable and the days that follow less painful.

The very elements that can turn a simple walk into a hike -- length, speed, natural trails, impressive views -- point to the training that might help. While it may be obvious to gradually extend and quicken one's regular walks to get ready for longer hikes, accounting for uneven surfaces, inclines and declines can draw from a range of exercise options and resources.

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One of the best guides for training for hiking, other outdoor activities (and life in general) remains the 1999 Mountaineers book "Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness" by David Musnick and Mark Pierce. Musnick is a physician practicing sports medicine and nutritional medicine; Pierce is an athletic trainer.

To prepare for hiking, Musnick recommends aerobic conditioning, strength training, stretching, balance and agility drills. You can find an abbreviated version of his hiking training program at http://gorp.com/gorp/activity/fitness/expert/exp012401.htm.

Some of his advice:

In training, try to achieve a distance and elevation gain within 60 to 75 percent of those expected during your hike.

A StairMaster StepMill (the one with the escalator-style steps) is better hiking preparation than the StairClimber (which doesn't require you to pick up your feet).

Do balance and agility exercises twice a week for 5 to 10 minutes to improve stability on boulders, logs, slopes and snow.

If you plan to cross rivers or boulder fields, include hopping exercises -- but do squats and lunges for four weeks before beginning hops.

Even though going downhill can feel less taxing aerobically, your knees absorb a lot of force. To decrease the likelihood of kneecap or thigh muscle pain, while training do step-down exercises (off a step or stairs, starting with a 4-inch rise and increasing to 6 to 8 inches), and while hiking take breaks every 60 to 90 minutes.

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In the new book "The Hiking Engine," podiatrist Stuart Plotkin addresses the care and maintenance of feet and legs. Some of his tips:

Long toenails colliding with the toe of a hiking boot can cause "black nail" (blood blisters under the nail), so trim toenails before beginning a hike.

Because the back of the leg can be especially tight from walking and hiking, contributing to foot, ankle, knee and back problems, stretch hamstring and calf muscles regularly.

To avoid shin splints (pain in the front of the lower leg), try this exercise: Sit so your feet dangle and drape a half-pound sand bag over the top of one foot. Flex your foot upward as high as you can, hold for five seconds, lower, repeat five times, then switch feet.

Another new entry for hiking preparation is the "All-Terrain Workout" (1-877-469-4533, www.gowildfitness.com). In this 50-minute video, marathon trail runner and triathlete Jennifer Varno makes the wilderness her gym.

Because Varno's workout includes quite a bit of jumping, it's probably suited to intermediate or advanced exercisers, though she offers constant modifications for doing the exercises at home. The biggest danger, though, might be not finishing the tape, because you are so inspired to go outside and try it yourself.

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