Cranking Out Big Days: How To Ramp Up Your Hikes and Trail Runs
By Michael Lanza
I don’t remember the first time I hiked more than 20 miles in a day. But living and hiking in New England at the time, where one mile of rocky, up-and-down trail feels as physically punishing as two miles in other parts of the country, I undoubtedly got to that distance through incrementally longer dayhikes. I only wish I could remember the sense of pleasure with myself that I must have felt that first time.
But I can list precisely the number of times I’ve hiked more than 30 miles in a day.
Those days don’t happen without a conscious decision to do it and some preparation and planning. My first was the Pemi Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, linking up the Bondcliff-Mt. Bond ridge and Franconia Ridge: 32 miles and about 10,000 very brutal vertical feet. A friend and I did it on a July day when the heat and humidity seemed engaged in a contest to see which could leap higher. Despite consuming at least 10 liters of water each, we finished it dehydrated and completed pasted physically—but awfully pleased with ourselves. (We were training for a seven-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail.)
Hard as it was, that experience convinced us that we could go even farther.
That led to other huge dayhikes like the rim-to-rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon (aka r2r2r) across and back again in a day: 44.5 miles and 11,000 feet. While it ranked among our hardest days—though not as brutally rugged and humid as the Pemi Loop—we all finished surprised at what we still had in reserve. A year after the r2r2r, seven of us went for a 50-mile dayhike across Zion National Park; five in our group made it, and I got a lesson in overuse injuries and a harsh reminder of the importance of eating smartly on these huge days.
Whatever we call them—ultra-hikes, mega, or extreme—dayhikes and trail runs of 20 miles or more are, as much as anything, a journey of self-discovery. We’re exploring our own physical potential, and discovering the powerful and intoxicating joy of realizing how far we can carry ourselves on foot in a single day. Whenever I can fit it into a busy life, I like treating myself to a local 20-mile trail run. And for me, there are few pleasures greater than knocking off a huge day in a breathtaking natural setting with good friends.
I hope it goes without saying that attempting a dayhike or trail run of 20, 30, or 40 miles or more requires serious training and preparation. I’ve laid out here what I’ve learned about hiking or trail running very far in one day.
Training: Core, Resistance, and Cardio
To pull off mega-dayhikes and trail runs, you have to get serious about training, ideally at least three months before the big day; after all, it’s very much like training for a marathon. The smartest strategy is to maintain a year-round regimen, so that you’re not playing catch-up with your fitness and trying to ramp up your regimen too rapidly in the three months prior to a big hike—that can be a formula for an overuse injury.
I follow a three-pronged exercise program:
1. Core and Balance Exercises and Stretching
Core fitness provides the foundation of strength, endurance, balance, and stability, and is critical to feeling strong throughout a long hike or run. A strong core helps your body carry a pack—even a light hydration or daypack—conserving energy in the large muscles of your legs to forestall fatigue, and helping avoid back pain and muscular injuries.
The good news? Core training doesn’t require a huge daily time commitment to achieve noticeable results.
Five to seven days a week, do five to 15 minutes of a mix of abdominal and back exercises. I do a mix of these, as many reps as I can (Google them and you’ll find videos):
• Slow bicycle crunches—In the crunch position, hold each elbow to the opposite knee for a second;
• Planks—Try to build up to three minutes;
• Body roll-ups—Lie on your back, arms extended overhead, roll up into a ball, touching your feet, extend again, repeat;
• Supermans on an abs ball.
I work some of the above exercises into my resistance workout in the gym, which I do twice a week for about an hour. Every other day of the week, whether I’m doing a cardio workout or taking a rest day, I do at least five minutes of core work.
As part of my twice-a-week resistance workout at the gym, I incorporate balance exercises to train my body for uneven terrain. I mix up the following for variety:
• Standing on one leg on a BOSU, with its rounded side up; try to build up to being able to extend your raised leg straight out in front of you, and then rotate it straight out behind you (bending your torso forward);
• Standing on one leg on a BOSU, with its flat side up, with light dumbbells in your hands, pumping your arms forward and backward as if running;
• Doing a variety of balance positions on a bongo board, including simply sliding side to side, or dropping into a squatting position and coming back up.
I’m a big believer in daily stretching or yoga to avoid injury and not only give your muscles greater range of motion, but give them more strength throughout their full range of motion. I’m sure that some falls I’ve taken over the years—whether skiing, hiking, or climbing—could easily have resulted in injury if I were less limber. Plus, daily stretching or yoga just makes me feel better.
2. Resistance Exercises
Resistance exercise—lifting weights or doing body-weight exercises like squats, pushups, dips, and pull-ups—strengthens muscles by overworking them, postponing muscle fatigue on long dayhikes and runs, and makes bones stronger. It also gives you power and strength for climbing hills with a pack on.
Do resistance exercises two or three times a week for an hour, developing a routine that targets all of the major muscles. Do at least half of your exercises in a way that engages the core muscles.
Here’s an example of modifying an exercise so that it also engages your core muscles:
Instead of doing standard one-arm rows with a dumbbell while bent over leaning on a bench, with a dumbbell in each hand, balance on one foot. Then tilt your torso 90 degrees forward and extend your raised leg straight out behind you; your torso and extended leg should form the top bar of a T, with your other leg the post of the T, with your arms extended downward holding the dumbbells. Keep the knee of the “post” leg slightly bent (to avoid injury; I’ve made that mistake). Alternate rowing with each arm, using dumbbell weight that allows you to do 20 to 30 reps (10 to 15 with each arm); then do a second set balancing on the other leg. Start with lighter dumbbells than you’re inclined to use—balancing on one leg while rowing with your arms greatly increases the difficulty.
Suggested resistance exercises:
In the gym, do at least two exercises focused on the legs, in sets long enough to temporarily exhaust you and push you to your anaerobic threshold—have you panting for breath. I do four body-weight exercises in succession without a break in between (one or two sets): 20 squats, 20 lunges, 20 jumping lunges, and 10 standing jumps.
3. Cardio Workouts
Cardio workouts can entail a variety of activities that accelerate your heart rate for a sustained period of time: trail running, vigorous walking, bicycling, Nordic skiing, and using cardio machines in the gym. Do any of these on hills to amplify the intensity. Mixing up activities helps avoid boredom and overuse injuries associated with doing one activity a lot.
• Intense cardio workouts of 20 to 60 minutes are adequate for your midweek workouts, but try to fit in one run, ride, or hike a week of at least two hours.
• Trail running is great training for hiking—and because it’s intense, it’s ideal when your time’s limited. Besides building cardio-vascular conditioning and endurance, running on trails strengthens bones and your muscles, feet, ankles, and knees for hiking, and trains your body to manage uneven terrain, reducing the chances of an ankle sprain or similar injury when hiking.
• On training runs or hikes, practice moving at a stronger pace, quickening your stride walking or running; it will help you move faster on a long hike or run.
• Work gradually up to a run or hike that’s at least two-thirds the distance of the mega-dayhike or run you’re training for. Take this longer outing a week or two prior to the big day to give your body time to recover afterward.
• In the week prior to your ultra-hike or trail run, taper off your workouts significantly, so that you’re just maintaining fitness without fatiguing yourself. I will go from a normal five exercise days to four, with no more than one very intense workout, and take two consecutive rest days (just doing a little core work and stretching) before the ultra-hike.
• Build endurance through “bonus” training time: Walk, run, or bike local errands. Do lunges, crunches, and planks when you get up or before bed or while watching TV. Take stairs instead of elevators and escalators. Doing these things regularly can earn you a couple hours or more of “free” exercise time every week.
See my story “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb.”
Most of us don’t have the luxury of more free time to exercise. But we can control how intensely we work out. Set goals for increasing the difficulty of your workouts—such as more reps or weight, or pushing your pace on training runs or hikes—and your endurance will grow.
I also increase the intensity of workouts by wearing a weight vest while doing resistance and core exercises in the gym and when using a stair machine (though I don’t wear in during high-impact activities like trail running because of the risk of overuse injury). It doesn’t require a lot of weight to greatly elevate the difficulty; I often just put 12 pounds in my 20-pound vest.
Lighten Your Pack
Every pound you’re carrying demands more energy from you every step of the way. Think about how much impact superfluous weight has if, instead of traveling 10 miles on foot—taking roughly 20,000 steps—you’re going 20 miles and taking 40,000 steps. Or 30 miles and 60,000 steps. The cumulative toll of every ounce over the course of a big day can make the difference between finishing happy or hurting—or not finishing.
• Decide what to wear and carry not based on a need to be prepared for all possible developments, but based on the day’s forecast and typical seasonal weather patterns, how far you’re going, and your maximum distance from a road. You don’t have to prepare for the end of the world.
• Bring a layering system that’s not just versatile, but lightweight and not more than needed. Two examples: Do you really need a rain jacket, or will a four-ounce wind shell suffice? (If the forecast is for heavy rain, postpone to another day.) And don’t bring an emergency sleeping bag when a fist-size, four-ounce, emergency bivy sack like the one made by Adventure Medical Kits will do. You won’t sit around cooling off for long spells, so bring just enough layers to stay warm while moving.
• While you will bonk if you don’t consume enough calories to make it through a big day (see Food and Water below), we each have a limit to how much food we can stomach. Experience will teach you where your own limit is, allowing you to dial in precisely how much you have to carry. But generally, no matter how many calories you’ll burn in a day—and you will run a deficit on a big day, but that’s okay—many people won’t consume more than about 4,000 calories. The takeaway message: Plan precisely how much you will eat, to avoid hauling superfluous weight.
See my tips on ultralight backpacking, which offer some useful advice for dayhikers, too.
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Food and Water
• Beyond training, adequate hydration is probably the most important factor determining whether you’ll make it through a huge dayhike or trail run. While you’ll probably need a half-liter to a liter per hour, how much you should drink varies depending on external factors like ambient air temperature and humidity level. Drink every 15 minutes or so and pay attention to your body’s signals: If you feel thirsty, you’ve already fallen behind. You should urinate at a normal frequency, and your urine should be clear.
• You’ll probably replenish from streams. Know where water sources are and avoid carrying an unnecessary surplus of water (unless you’re in a place where water sources are unreliable or you’ll face extreme heat). Carry a lightweight and efficient water-treatment method like a Steri-Pen.
• Drink a lot of water when you’re refilling at a water source; better to carry water in your belly than on your back.
• On a big day, don’t rely just on water—carry a sports drink in powder form for electrolyte replacement, especially later in the day.
• Remember: Your body absorbs water at a limited rate (about a liter per hour), so drink frequently rather than gulping water at longer intervals.
• Proper nutrition is also critical. While you may make it through a 15- or 20-miler without eating enough—burning up stored energy in fat reserves—the farther you go, the more your body will insist on getting refueled. Men need about 250 calories per hour, women about 200 calories. Experiment with the sorts of foods you like eating on the trail, but include a diverse blend of sweet and salty—the latter particularly important in hot weather, to replace sodium you’re body’s losing. I also find I’ll hit a limit for how much processed food, like energy bars, I can eat in one day. I carry plenty of whole foods, like nuts or a bagel with turkey, cheese, lettuce, and cucumber slices.
• Keep snacks within reach, like in a pack hipbelt pocket, to eat on the move.
• Start early—nothing will sink an ambitious plan like a late start, and you want to take advantage of the cool hours of morning and exert less in the heat of afternoon.
• Dial back from your usual training pace slightly, to keep some energy in reserve.
• Break up a big day mentally into a series of shorter hikes, identifying where you’ll take rest breaks, to make the total distance feel more manageable. You don’t have to follow a rigid schedule, but having some idea of when you want to reach key spots along the way will prevent a much later finish than hoped for.
• Take breaks of 15 to 30 minutes every three hours or so—long enough for some recovery without losing too much time.
• Manage your stationary time wisely—you can only push your pace so much, but you can move more efficiently by not wasting time when you’re not moving. Examples: Don’t all stop just because one person has to stop briefly, and plan rests where you can refill water.
• Carry a small first-aid kit to deal with the most likely issues, like blisters and cuts. To prevent blisters on long days, I often preemptively place athletic tape over my heels—eliminating the friction that contributes to blisters. See my article “6 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters.”
Use Trekking Poles
I wouldn’t consider making an ultra-dayhike without poles, which greatly lessen muscle fatigue and the impact on joints. I like ultralight, adjustable poles for trails with a lot of steep ups and downs, so that I can vary the length as needed.
I have used poles when alternately running and hiking on an outing, but I find that the law of diminishing returns applies here: The more running you do versus walking, the more exhausting it is to use poles—all the more argument for having lightweight, collapsible poles that you can tuck away on the outside of a daypack if you want to run a long section of trail.
Big Caveat for Big Days
This point is both obvious and worth emphasizing: Don’t overextend yourself. This may seem like a joke in the context of dayhikes or trail runs of 20 miles or more, yet those are perfectly reasonable objectives for someone who’s prepared for them, but a recipe for disaster for anyone who’s not. Land managers warn against attempting these sorts of outings because park staff have to deal with the people who wind up needing help. Don’t become one of those people.
• Know the challenges and hazards of the environment you’re entering.
• Make incremental steps up in distance, not huge leaps; don’t set your sights on a 30-miler unless you’ve done some 20-mile days.
• Assume you have to get yourself out of any situation, not that someone else will save your butt.
Remember: It’s Supposed to Be Fun
Well, okay, training isn’t always fun. But the payoff for this training should be, on some level, satisfying, rewarding, invigorating, uplifting… and fun. Don’t make the training itself a misery to endure—an exercise program that you loathe is one that’s too easy to quit.
Find a routine that fits into your lifestyle and schedule so that you look forward to it, rather than it becoming drudgery—which will better motivate you to stick to it. Make it a habit and, in time, you will find that you feel better physically and that it reduces the stress in your life. And having an objective on the horizon that you’re getting ready for provides a powerful motivation for many people—which leads me to a final suggestion…
Keep a To-Do List
I maintain a tick list of ultra-dayhikes I want to do. Do the same yourself: A list will motivate and excite you to train and make plans for knocking off another of them. Best of all, even as I strive to keep checking off another big dayhike, my list keeps getting longer. There’s a wealth of trails out there waiting for you. Looking for ideas? Besides the stories I’ve linked above, see all of my stories at The Big Outside about ultra-dayhikes I’ve done, including a hike in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, a 25-miler in the Grand Canyon, a 20-mile, nine-summit “Death March” the length of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, these big dayhikes or runs in Glacier National Park, and this Ask Me post suggesting a 29-mile dayhike in the Grand Canyon.