How to Train for a Thru-Hike: A Systematic Approach
Hiking the PCT, AT, CDT, or the JMT can all be a truly life-changing and wonderful experience - months away from work and electronic distractions while you reconnect with nature and meet tons of amazing people along the way. But if you want to have a successful and fun hike, the most important thing you need to do is prepare your physically for such an undertaking. A lack of training will turn what could have been an enjoyable adventure into a sufferfest of epic proportions and even the mellowest of trails will inevitably break you - and most thru hikes aren't mellow!
There is one thing every prospective thru-hiker must realize before they begin planning and preparing for a long-distance hike: A thru-hike is - first and foremost - an endurance event. Training for a thru-hike should be taken as seriously and methodically as an athlete would for, say an ultra marathon - except where the ultra marathoner is typically done within 24 hours, you'll be on the trail for months. Only once you realize this can you find success on the trail.
Before you start training, it's important to take a look at what you'll need to be able to do physically. You'll want to research what kind of conditions to expect on an average day on the trail. Use these factors to shape your training and as benchmarks to measure your progress. Treat these as minimums to exceed and not just goals to meet, ideally you want to be fitter than you need to be. By the end of your training, none of these (individually) should be all that challenging. These factors will vary widely based on the individual trail - and to a certain degree personal preferences - but should include:
Miles covered in one day
Elevation gain in one day
Maximum pack weight
Ability to recover from tough days overnight
There are a number of fitness components we want to focus on for preparing for a long-distance hike. They include: Muscular Strength, Aerobic Endurance, Anaerobic Threshold, and Hiking.
It takes strength to walk uphill with a pack. The more you have, the more efficient your muscles become, allowing you to walk faster (and easier) for less energy. Increasing strength improves muscle recruitment, meaning you are able to use more of your existing muscle fibers to do work. Lets use an example of two hikers: one has a one-repetition maximum squat of 100lbs. the other has a one-rep max of 200lbs. They both carry 25lb. packs. As they walk, they are using their leg muscles to propel themselves, each step could be thought of as a mini-squat. The first hiker is lifting 25% of his one-rep max with each step, the second is only using 12.5%. Who do you think will tire sooner? That's right, the first one. And not only will he tire sooner, but he's likely going to end up slowing down on long, steep sections and is going to have a much harder time recovering from long days and steep climbs. The fatigue will carry over to the next day and beyond. Having the right amount of strength will allow you to hike quickly and efficiently.
Take a look at this chart. This shows you how many reps and sets to do depending on the type of weight lifting. For thru-hiking, we want to focus on Strength and Endurance. Neither of these types of weight lifting will build much muscle mass, which is good, as excess muscle will hinder you just as much as excess body fat. The goal of the Strength workouts is to increase the amount of weight you can lift, which in turn, improves muscle recruitment. Strength workouts mean high weight and low reps - when it says 1-5 reps per set, it means that you should not physically be capable of doing a 6th rep - if you can, it's time to add more weight. If you're not sure what your 1-rep max is, find a weight that you can only lift 2-3 times - that's about 80% of your 1-rep max. The Endurance workouts will improve your muscles' ability to recover and to go longer without that burning sensation - these are low-weight, high-rep workouts. I often find that people neglect the high-weight, low-rep workouts in favor of easier weight sessions. Both if these types of training are important for thru-hiking, but your maximum strength is far more important. Endurance can and will be built elsewhere. If you really want to ensure success on the trail - get stronger.
Here are the primary exercises we want to focus on (feel free to add and additional exercises as necessary):
You can add extra weight to any of the workouts I have listed above, some of them may just require a little creativity with bars, plates, or dumbbells. As often as possible, I recommend using free weight as opposed to machines. Free weights provide an additional balance component and train your body to use proper form and technique. The purpose for the lower body and core exercises may seem obvious, but why the upper body exercises? These workouts will condition your back and neck muscles for long days of carrying a pack, as well as improving your ability to use your trekking poles to provide stability and balance.
Running, cycling, and other aerobic activities are a great way to build hiking endurance, especially if hiking trails aren't convenient for day-to-day workouts. They work by improving your body's ability to transport nutrients and oxygen to the muscles. These workouts should be kept at a 'conversational pace,' meaning that you shouldn't be breathing so hard that you can't speak in full sentences. If you want to get technical, a heart rate monitor will help - simply stay between 65-80% of your maximum heart rate. Over time, as your body becomes more efficient, you'll be able to run, bike, etc., faster while remaining in this 'conversational pace.' Oftentimes to new athletes, these workouts won't seem like they're doing anything. The pace may just feel too easy to be of any real benefit. Resist the urge to go faster. Aerobic training works despite feeling easy.
Building endurance with these types of activities will improve you ability to 'go long' when it comes to hiking. One thing that ultra marathoners will do in training to prepare for such a long-duration event is to do back-to-back workouts. For example, a person training for a 100 mile race might do a 20 mile run on Saturday and a 10 miler on Sunday. This trains the body to be able to keep going even when fatigued. These types of back-to-back workouts will allow you to recover from a long hike overnight and leave you ready to do it again the next day.
When you hike, if you find yourself having to stop occasionally, whether it's to catch your breath, get burning in your muscles, etc., it is generally because you have a lack of aerobic endurance. Doing some basic aerobic excercies will cure this.
This one is generally less important for thru-hiking, but it can be very beneficial for certain people and situations. If you are planning a high-altitude hike (such as the John Muir Trail), are older, or want to increase your hiking speed to, say 4mph, but have plateaued at 3mph, some 'speed training' aka Anaerobic Threshold workouts will help. Simply put, anaerobic workouts involve bouts of high-intensity running, cycling, hiking, etc., followed by an equal amount of rest. This can be done with just about any of your normal aerobic activities, including hiking. The goal is to get your heart rate near its maximum.
Here's what an Interval workout should look like:
Set (repeat 4-12 times)
3-6min high-intensity exercise
10min Cool Down
These workouts are tough, if you're new to interval training, 4 sets should leave you pretty exhausted. High-intensity interval training will increase your V02max (your body's ability to absorb and use oxygen), improve capillary blood flow in the muscles, and increase your top end speed. You'll have the speed and stamina to get through tough trail sections. You'll breathe easier at altitude and acclimate quicker. You'll recover faster.
Some argue the best way to train for a long-distance hike is to..... hike! I tend to agree, but of course that all depends on your ability to consistently get out and go on regular hikes. For most people, that simply isn't an option. I live in the Seattle area, and I have access to some great trails that are about 45 minutes away, but even that's a little too far to go 2-3 times a week. Going running around the neighborhood or heading to the gym are far more time-effective methods of training for the majority of prospective thru-hikers. Flat-landers will have to get creative (like finding a tall building, stadium, or do box step-ups in the living room in front of the tv) in order to get any sort of 'hikes' in.
That being said, you should try to go often 2 times per month would be a good minimum to shoot for (more if you're able.) As you are beginning your program, start with moderate hikes and slowly build up to tougher and tougher hikes. Near the end of your training program, you'll want to look for hikes that will be harder than what you'll encounter on your thru-hike. Ideally your most physically challenging days will be had during your training, and not on your hike. As I mentioned earlier, back-to-back workouts are very beneficial for building endurance for very long events. This method of training should undoubtedly be applied to thru-hikes. Doing a very tough hike on, say Saturday, and another challenging hike on Sunday will train your body to cope with the built up fatigue and will improve your overall hiking endurance. Another one of my 'favorite' hiking workouts when I train for a climb like Mt. Rainier is to do a 'Tempo Hike,' which involves choosing a challenging hike, carrying 150% of my max pack weight, and hiking as fast as I can maintain for the entire duration. Breaks are kept to an absolute minimum - stopping only to change a layer or grab a bite to eat. The pace should be quick and challenging, but manageable - 'comfortably hard' is the typical descriptor for tempo workouts. These Tempo Hikes are much harder than anything you will do on the trail, but will make your planned hiking pace feel easy.
As far as carrying a pack, start out relatively light (~15lbs. is a good place to start) and build up to approximately 150% the max weight you expect to carry on the trail. For example, if you know your max pack weight (just after resupply) will be 30lbs., build to a max weight of 30x1.5=45lbs. Training with a heavier pack will make your actual pack feel lighter than it actually is. This also helps condition your back, neck, and shoulders to carry loads.
This is arguably the most important aspect of your training. Your body gets stronger when it recovers form workouts, not when you actually do the workouts. Training - for anything - is a process of breaking down the body and building it back up. With each workout, it is imperative that you are able to fully recover to see an increase in performance. Failure to fully recover will result in a downward trend in performance and may result in training injuries. Most aerobic workouts can be recovered from in 4-12hrs. Harder workouts - like intervals - may require longer, up to 36hrs. To ensure proper recovery from hard workouts, the day following should be kept relatively easy, like an aerobic run or hike. An exception to this rule would be for big back-to-back workouts later on in your training, and those should be followed up with 1-2 days of rest and/or easy training. Recovery workouts - like going for a brisk walk or very easy run - will promote muscle recovery better than simply being sedentary.
Not discussion of training for a thru-hike would be complete without talking about mental toughness. Most thru-hikers fail because of the mental fatigue and not the physical. There are a few good ways to help improve mental toughness at home. One of the best is to allow yourself to simply 'be uncomfortable.' You should learn to train outside when the weather in terrible, or when you simply don't feel like going out. You won't have the luxury of waiting for good weather or motivation when you're on the trail. Try going for a hike at 11pm on a friday night when it cold, windy, and rainy, and you're tired from a long day of work. I guarantee that'll build some mental toughness. I have personally found that doing 12 sets in an interval workout has the ability to instill quite bit of mental toughness. Do a simple Google search, you'll find plenty of ways to improve your mental ability to endure suffering.
How to put together a training routine:
Your own individual training routine will vary largely based upon your schedule. Thru-hiking generally isn't as performance-oriented as a marathon or triathlon, so you don't necessarily need massive hours per week, but getting in 2-3 really good session per week will still go a long way towards hiking fitness. Ideally though you should try to work out 5-6 days per week. Remember - minimum effort yields minimal results. You're never going to reach the end of the trail and say 'I trained way too hard for this,' but it will become clear very early on if you didn't train enough. Below I have outlined a plan involving periodization and sample weeks. This should help you put together both your weekly routines as well as your month-to-month training goals and schedule.
These schedules are designed for trails like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or John Muir Trail, but cane adapted to just about any hiking adventure - longer of shorter.
This is an approach common to many endurance sports. It involves structuring your training season by making workouts more and more event-specific the closer you get to the event - in this case, a thru-hike. There are the 3 phases:
Base (4-8 months out) - This is where we build our base fitness to prepare our bodies for harder workouts later on in the season. The main focuses in this phase should be building aerobic endurance and maximum strength. If you are a seasoned hiker or athlete with years of training under your belt, this phase may be as short as 8 weeks. Those who are active, but just beginning their fitness journey in preparation for a thru-hike should dedicate up to 6 months purely for this phase. Those 'getting off the couch' for their hike should dedicate even longer. Avoid punishing yourself with super heavy packs or really tough hikes just yet, we'll get there in the Build phase, but we need to arrive there strong and uninjured.
Tuesday: Aerobic 30-45min
Wednesday: Weight Lifting - Max Strength
Thursday: Rest or Aerobic 30min
Friday: Weight Lifting - Max Strength
Saturday: Aerobic 30-45min or Hike 1-4hr (25-100% max pack weight)
Sunday: Aerobic 45-60min
Build (1-4 months out) - Now that your body is conditioned to handle harder workouts,it's time to make workouts more trail-specific. Start adding extra weight to the pack, interval workouts, and endurance weight lifting.
Tuesday: Aerobic 45-60min
Wednesday: Weight Lifting (Max Strength) or Intervals
Thursday: Aerobic 45min
Friday: Weight Lifting (Endurance)
Saturday: Hike 2-5hr (75-150% max pack weight)
Sunday: Aerobic 45-60min
Peak (1-4 weeks out) - This is where we put it all together. Try to get at least one very long, very tough workout in per week - ideally a long, hilly hike. This is the perfect time to get in some monster back-to-back workouts, these should be the most physically difficult workouts of your training, and should ideally be tougher than anything you'll face on the trail. Do your best to keep from getting injured and take an extra rest day as needed to prevent overtraining. With approximately 1 week remaining, begin to taper the duration, but not the intensity, of your workouts. This rest period will allow your body to reach its maximum fitness potential (based on your training) to ensure you will be fully rested and ready to hit the trail.
Tuesday: Aerobic 45-60min
Wednesday: Weight Lifting (Max Strength) or Intervals
Thursday: Aerobic 60min
Friday: Weight Lifting (Endurance)
Saturday: Hike 4-12hr (150% max pack weight)
Sunday: Aerobic 60-120min or Hike 2-6hr (150% max pack weight)