There are a ton of different reasons why we all love to spend our spare time out on the trail. For many, it’s about getting away from it all; connecting with nature and slowing life down. For others it’s for the love of the challenge or for the sense of accomplishment that comes with bagging another massive peak. And for some people it’s a way to get fit, stay in shape and be more healthy — added value for all hikers, regardless of our motives to hike.
Hike to get fit, or get fit for hiking?
Hiking is, indeed, an excellent way to get into shape. Hit up a steep and challenging trail and you’ll burn a shed load of calories, not to mention improve your cardio fitness, stabilise your joints and strengthen your muscles. And the mental benefits that go with prolonged physical activity in the outdoors are well worth every painful step towards physical goals.
But what if your steps actually become painful? What if your cardio fitness is soaring but your muscles and joints are saying “hell, no!” with each step? This can not only be super frustrating, but can also lead to longer term injuries that can consequently put you out of the hiking game for months. Not ideal.
So, although getting out hiking is certainly a great way to get into shape, it’s also mega important to fit strengthening exercises into your everyday routine.
Why so important?
The main benefit to training your body for hiking is injury prevention. If you go over on your ankle, for example, strong joints and muscles recover much quicker and are less likely to become damaged in the first place. You’ll also be able to hike for longer and even up your pace — that means more miles and more exploration! Plus, everything is just a bit more fun when every step feels light and easy. Constantly struggling gets really tiring after a while.
Everyday ways to train for hiking
If time is short and you just want to add a few quick exercises into your daily routine, then here are my top tips:
Avoid elevators and escalators like the plague! Take the stairs instead, up and down.
This will help to improve your cardio fitness and also strengthen your quads (thighs) and glutes (butt muscles) — both essential for uphill power and downhill stabilising.
Stand on one foot whenever you’re in a queue (or doing the dishes, drying your hair etc!)
This helps stabilise your ankles by activating all the tiny muscles around the joints. You’ll also end up engaging some core muscles too, without even realising it! Once you get good at it, bend your standing knee. And when this gets easy, close your eyes and do it…
Do lunges while you clean your teeth.
Start with just 10 on each leg, being sure to keep your torso nice and upright. Then increase each week until you end up lunging for the whole time you brush your teeth… that’s a whopping 3 minutes, right?! You’ll strengthen your quads, glutes and hamstrings (muscles at the back of your thighs) and help stabilise your knees, as well as engaging your core.
Strength exercises for hiking
Want to really start upping your hiking fitness? Adding a couple of training circuits to your weekly schedule is a highly time efficient way to improve strength and cardio fitness.
Try this simple hiking fitness circuit:
(Each exercise is explained and featured below in a video)
- Mountain climbers x 20 (done in between each of the below exercises)
- Step ups x 20 on each leg
- Banded side steps x 20 in each directions
- Hip thrusters x 10-12
- Bulgarian split squat x 10-12 on each leg
- Band pull aparts x 15-20
- Lateral step ups x 15-20 on each leg
- Walking lunges x 16-20
Try to rest as little as possible between each exercise.
Rest for 2-3 minutes once you have completed each exercise in sequence.
Do 2-3 sets of the circuit.
Hiking strength exercises, explained
The video shows two ways to do these. The first way works your legs more, the second way works your core more. You chose which you need to improve the most, or do a combination of both.
Find anything that is around knee height to step up onto. If you’re at home then the sofa works well as the wobbliness of the soft surface also helps work all the stabilising muscles. This exercise simulates big steps-ups that you might face on steep ascents. It strengthens the muscles involved in that movement and helps improve balance and control.
Banded side steps
This is an excellent exercise to do to help prevent knee pain and injury. It helps strengthen important stabilisers in the legs and knees which in turn helps your body easily deal with uneven terrain on the trail.
This exercise helps glute activation which is essential when hiking. Getting your glutes into action helps to prevent your lower back from doing too much work — especially important when carrying a heavy pack.
Bulgarian split squat
Another great exercise for strengthening all the muscles in your legs and butt. It’s also a good one to do to ensure both legs are of equal strength. Only do as many reps as your weaker leg can manage.
Band pull aparts
Conditioning your upper back and improving your posture is a super important component of your hiking training and an essential exercise if you are carrying a heavy pack. Good posture will ensure your whole body is in a good hiking position.
Lateral step ups
Sideways step-ups help to prepare your knees, ankles and hips for hiking on uneven and challenging terrain. This exercise helps to strengthen the smaller glute muscles and knee stabilisers.
Staying low in a walking lunge helps target your downhill hiking muscles as well as the uphill hiking muscles. It’s a tough one and it’s easy to just lean right forwards into it. Try to stay upright in your torso and you’ll get some good core activation, too.
If you’re embarking upon a long trek or are after a more in depth plan to get into shape for hiking then check out the rest of our training for hiking tips.
Joey Holmes is based in Cornwall, UK, and runs Cool of the Wild. She can’t get enough of being outdoors – whether that’s lounging around the campfire cooking up a feast, hitting the trail in her running shoes, or attempting to conquer the waves on her surfboard – she lives for it. Camping is what she loves to do the most, but has also spent many many hours clinging to the side of a rock face, cycling about the place, cruising the ski-slopes on her snowboard and hiking small mountains and big hills.