By Michael Lanza
When three friends and I decided to attempt to thru-hike the John Muir Trail—221 miles through California’s High Sierra, with numerous mountain passes ranging from 11,000 to over 13,000 feet in elevation—in just one week (backpackers traditionally take two to three weeks), the plan seemed like a wild dream. Hike 31 miles a day for seven straight days through some of the biggest mountains in the Lower 48? It was an agenda for lunatics. So we started training. Seriously training.
Although it would prove to be one of the physically hardest things any of us had ever done—and one of the most rewarding—three of us made it, and the fourth member of our team was fit enough to finish, but had to bail out because of severe blisters. (Read my story about that crazy adventure.)
Since then, with a small group of very fit and experienced friends, I’ve hiked very long days from the Grand Canyon (including a couple of one-day, 42-mile and 22,000-foot, rim-to-rim-to-rim hikes) to the White Mountains, the Tetons and Wind River Range, and a 50-mile dayhike across Zion National Park. And I’ve climbed numerous peaks via technical and non-technical routes, including the Mountaineers Route on 14,505-foot Mount Whitney in California’s Sequoia National Park with my 15-year-old son, who was also motivated to train hard for that.
If you’re planning to climb a big mountain or take a challenging backpacking trip or long dayhike, you may be wondering how to train properly for it—especially if, like many people, you don’t live in a place with easy access to the mountains and don’t have the freedom to spend endless hours training on trails.
I’ve developed the training regimen described in this article over nearly four decades of avid dayhiking, trail running, ultra-hiking and -running, backpacking, climbing, all forms of skiing, and other activities—including many years doing it professionally as a past Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and more than 10 years running this blog.
So for regular people with normal lives who aspire to occasionally elevate life, here’s an everyman’s (and woman’s) guide to getting yourself physically ready for the hikes, runs, and mountains of your dreams. Please share your comments, questions, or tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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Start training at least three months before your climb or hike, ideally from a good base of fitness developed through maintaining some level of regular exercise program year-round, which helps you get where you want to be more quickly and enjoyably and avoid injury. If you haven’t been exercising regularly, start training four to six months before your big climb or hike and gradually increase your workout durations and intensity—don’t start from zero going too hard or you’ll risk injury or just discouraging yourself.
Google any of the exercises mentioned in this article and you’ll find instructional videos.
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Core and Balance Exercises
Core fitness in your abdominal and back muscles creates a foundation of strength, endurance, balance, and stability—all critical to accomplishing a big climb or hike, as well as to any outdoor or athletic activity. A strong core helps your body carry a pack over a long distance—even a light hydration or daypack—conserving energy in the large muscles of your legs. And you can train your core in small blocks of time right in your home.
Five to seven days a week, do five to 15 minutes of abdominal and back exercises. I mix up the following, doing as many reps as I can:
• 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—Stomach-down on the floor or on an ABS ball or other stability ball.
Twice a week, incorporate balance exercises to train your body for uneven terrain. Some suggestions:
• Standing on one leg on a BOSU or similar balance trainer for 30 seconds; try to extend your raised leg straight out in front of you, and then bend your torso forward and extend your leg out behind you. Repeat on the other leg.
• Standing on one leg on a BOSU, with its flat side up, holding light dumbbells in your hands, pump your arms forward and backward as if running. Do 50 or more reps (25 on each arm) if you can. Repeat on the other leg.
• Stand on a bongo board and slide side to side or drop into a squat and rise back up.
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Resistance exercise—lifting weights or doing body-weight exercises like squats, pushups, dips, and pull-ups—strengthens muscles by overworking them and makes bones stronger. It gives you endurance, power, and strength for climbing and descending 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. Try to do at least half of your exercises in a way that engages the core muscles. For example:
Instead of doing standard one-arm rows with a dumbbell while bent over leaning on a bench, to engage your core, balance on one foot with a dumbbell in each hand. Then tilt your torso nearly 90 degrees forward and extend your raised leg straight out behind you, so your torso and legs form a T, with your arms extended downward holding the dumbbells. Keep the knee of the “post” leg slightly bent to avoid injury. Alternate rowing with each arm, using dumbbell weight that allows you to do 20 to 30 reps (10 to 15 with each arm); after a minute’s rest, perform 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.
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Make It Fun
Lastly, remember: This is supposed to be fun. Experiment and find exercises, routines, a schedule, and outdoor activities that you actually enjoy and look forward to—which is the real key to sticking with any fitness program. It shouldn’t be a chore; it should reinvigorate you. Set goals that are consistent with whatever achievement is truly important to you, but also with your lifestyle and how you want to spend your time.
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13 thoughts on “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb”
Yes, Mark, this story includes tips on cardio training. But this story, like many at my blog, is partly free for anyone to read but requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full. A subscription gives you full access to all of my blog’s stories, including the trip planner section at the bottom of stories about specific trips, where I share details of the itinerary and other logistics and tips on planning a trip, plus you get access to member gear discounts.
Thank you so much for this! This will be very helpful as I am planning my first mountain hike- Pico Mountain in the Azores Islands. Certainly not a big mountain by some standards but I’ve never done anything like this.
Hi Casey, thanks for the comment. I’ve never been to the Azores. Please recommend some hikes there. Good luck, too.
What an amazing article. Unfortunately we do not have enough snow in Australia to practice some of these hikes. The scenery at Lizard Head Peak looks incredible.
Thanks, Richard. You will have to go to New Zealand or come to the U.S. to find some snow!
I’m hiking Grand Canyon, south rim to north rim, about 21 miles in 1 day. Do you recommend a 3 week taper prior to the hike that matches what the Marathon runners do for their tapering? For example, I would hike 80% of my peak weekly miles 3 weeks out, 60% of peak weekly miles 2 weeks out, and essentially nothing but resting/stretching/eating right, the last week?
Hi James, really good question. You may be thinking this out even more than I do, but in general, I train on a four-week schedule, with week 1 being the easiest, building up to an exhausting week 4. And if I’m planning a big hike or climb, I schedule a taper week, or week 1, during the week prior to my hike or climb. In short, I taper for a week, but I’m training hard up until a week before the hike.
That said, I’m also careful to avoid over-training. If I find that I’m not recovering from a workout within a day or two, and that I’m tired exercising even after a rest day, I dial back the workouts for maybe a week.
Good luck with your rim to rim. Great hike. I hope you’ve seen my story about it: https://thebigoutside.com/a-grand-ambition-or-april-fools-dayhiking-the-grand-canyon-rim-to-rim-to-rim/
Good tips. I will have to work some of these exercises into my morning routine.
I would add that it helps to block some time first thing every morning to work on yourself. It can be hard the first couple of weeks, but once it becomes a routine, it is much easier to make sure the stretching and light exercise are done daily. A little morning mindfulness will also helps with getting better sleep and rest, as I try to wrap up work and life for those epic adventure holidays.
Good tip, JZ, I have a regular morning routine myself.
Great, great article…..will need to bookmark this link! I live in sunny, FLAT Florida and don’t have even hills at my doorstep. These simple exercises will work great for me, even as a basis to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Thank you again!!
Thanks, Carl. You can train for the mountains anywhere.