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How to Get in Shape for Hiking


If you're a beginner or you've been away from hiking for awhile, you might find yourself huffing and puffing on the trial and feeling out of shape. That's normal, especially if you haven't been training. The first step to understanding fitness training is to get a grasp of what cardio training zones are and what they look like.


In this video, I walk and talk you through cardiac training zones so you can what they look like and use them in your training.

Training with intervals

When you're looking to increase the intensity of training, you can play with three different variables:

  1. Speed

  2. Elevation

  3. Load

Using intervals, or short periods of time or distance, to increase one of these variables can help you become more fit and increase your capacity to remain in a higher cardiac zone for longer periods. Watch the video below to learn how to incorporate intervals into your training.


Physiology not psychology

When your heart rate and breathing rate goes up, it can feel scary. It doesn't mean you're out of shape, it just means that your body needs more oxygen. Yet, we often make ourselves miserable on the trail by making our huffing and puffing mean something about who we are as a person with thoughts like:

  • I’m so out of shape.

  • I can’t keep up.

  • I never should have done this trail.

  • I can’t believe I let myself get to this point.

  • I’m embarrassed they have to wait on me.

  • I’m going to get left behind.

Thoughts like these are not helpful and can contribute to a feeling of rising panic or frustration with your body. If you feel a bit of panic because your heart rate increases and your breathing gets faster, reassure yourself that it’s just because your muscles need more O2 and try to refrain from passing judgment on yourself. Instead, give your body what it needs and think encouraging thoughts about what it can do to bring more enjoyment to the climb!


To maximize your breath, breathe in through your nose and then breath it all out slowly through your mouth with pursed lips like blowing out a candle. This technique ensures that you maximize your oxygen intake by fully emptying your lungs.

External factors

If you're feeling frustrated because hiking is hard and you're not sure why you feel so out of shape on some days and on top of the world on others, think about what might be causing your feelings of effort besides fitness.

A faster heart rate makes hiking feel like more effort so consider the things that increase your heart rate. These things can be internal or external and they are the reason you can do the same thing in the same way on two different days and feel a completely different level of exertion.

Let's consider the external factors.

We've talked in the previous videos about the obvious ones:

  • Load

  • Elevation or incline

  • Speed

Increasing any of these things demands a greater output from the cardiovascular system and thus, a higher heart rate. However, your heart rate also increases when its hot and humid in an effort to bring down your core temperature. That's why hiking will 'feel' harder when it's hot.

Hiking into the wind requires you to work harder to overcome the wind resistance, and more intense work results in a higher heart rate. An unstable terrain that requires more effort to balance, such as crossing a boulder field or fast moving creek, will likely increase your heart rate as well.

Altitude also requires a faster heart beat until you've fully acclimated by making more red blood cells. With 'thinner' air at altitude, your body increases your oxygen intake by prompting you to breathe faster and then pumps that oxygenated blood throughout your body more rapidly.

When climbing feels hard, ask yourself which of these factors is contributing to your increased effort. Understand that you'll have a slower pace and have to work harder when it is hot and humid or you've got a fully loaded pack. When you identify the external factors that make hiking most challenging, tailor your training to simulate these conditions so you're better prepared. If inclines are hard, train on stairs or perform hill repeats. If carrying a pack is a challenge, train by walking with a progressively heavier and heavier load. Give your body the best chance to be better under the conditions you plan to hike in, but also give it the grace to lower performance parameters when conditions are more challenging.


Your training program

You don't have to spend hours on a treadmill to get in shape for the trail.


Here's how I recommend you structure your aerobic training. Keep in mind that the American Heart Association recommends 20-30 minutes of daily exercise for cardiac health, so at a minimum, take a daily walk. To improve your hiking fitness, remember to challenge your pace, load, and endurance. Try a structure like this to address each of these parameters:

  • Monday: Easy 30-minute walk.

  • Tuesday: Speed interval walk.

  • Wednesday: Easy 30-minute walk.

  • Thursday: Hill or stair repeats or walking with a loaded backpack.

  • Friday: Easy 30-minute walk.

  • Saturday: Long slow walk or hike starting at an hour and adding 15-30 minutes or half a mile to a mile each week.

  • Sunday: Recovery stretching or easy yoga.

You'll be amazed how 30 minutes of daily walking will improve your hiking experience! A schedule like this can improve your general fitness, but if you're training for a specific hike, you'll want to include strengthening and cardio training tailored to your goals. The Healthy Hiker 6-Month Virtual Training Program can help you with customized workouts that increase your strength, flexibility, and fitness so you can hike with more ease and confidence. You'll struggle less and enjoy your trail time more! Schedule a consultation to get started!

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