I’m using another excerpt from my book “Hear the Challenge” to answer some questions I get asked a lot. There’s no sense in me re-writing a bunch of information I’ve already elaborated on elsewhere. Besides, I think I went into some pretty good depth here. Now having said all that, this will be the first post of many regarding Physical Preparation for a thru hike. I plan to make more posts with actual workouts targeting specific responses from specific areas and systems within our bodies. There will also be demonstrations in those posts of the future.
The following article was written from the standpoint of physically preparing for an Appalachian Trail thru hike. All information, tips, and advice given can be applied across the spectrum of all trails, not just the AT.
Many people begin and complete an Appalachian Trail thru-hike with little to no prior hiking experience, as well as little to no physical preparation. It can be done, and you will suffer more in the beginning, but if you’re mentally tough, no amount of physical suffering will stop you from achieving what you set out to do. All that said, there are steps you can take to ease some of that suffering by getting yourself physically prepared for a 2,000 plus mile hike. As with anything, the best way to prepare for something is to do the closest thing to it – “Practice like you play.” If you want to get good at pushups, you don’t do bench press, you do pushups. If you want to get good at hiking, the best thing to do is hike. Obviously, nothing will completely prepare you for hiking over 2,000 miles without actually hiking that far first. So, you have to start out slow, getting your body prepared for some of the challenges it will meet on the trail. Something important to remember about the AT; for pretty much the entire 2,190 miles, it’s either going up, or going down. If you don’t have any mountains or steep inclines near you, then it’s going to be difficult to give your body a dose of what to expect. Luckily, there are ways to prepare at home or in the gym in order to soften the initial shock to your body when you finally begin trekking across the Appalachian terrain.
As mentioned earlier, I’m an experienced strength and conditioning specialist, who has completed the trail and encountered all the physical hardships it has to offer. In doing so, I can better prescribe the exercises you would need to do in order to lessen the initial pain when you get out there. If you live near mountains, the first thing I’m going to tell you to do is HIKE; throw on a pack and start hiking. Doing this ahead of time will afford you the luxury of building yourself up in regards to the distances you have to do, as well as the weight in your pack. If you have no prior hiking experience, then make sure you start out easy. Acclimate yourself to walking with weight on your back, then slowly increase your distances and pack weight. As with anything, the greatest changes and bodily adaptations are going to come from pushing yourself. At some point, you’re going to have to leave your comfort zone, and make it hurt; that’s the only way you’ll make progress. Hike just a little bit further each time, even though you want to turn back. Keep going up that incline even though you want to rest for a minute because your muscles are burning. Add that little bit of extra weight to your pack, because the last time it felt too easy. Little things like those will go a long way in helping you get stronger. Since I don’t know you personally, the best advice I can give you is to be smart about it. You know yourself best, so push your limits, but don’t get crazy and overdo it.
For those of you who live in an area without mountains (like me), you can still take steps to strengthen and prepare your body before you go out there. Those of you who do live in or around mountains can still take notes from the following advice; there is no harm in doing extra to prepare. As I mentioned before, the main muscles that are going to hurt and burn when you first get out there will be your feet, calves, quads, and back. There will be plenty of other aches and pains, but these are the main ones you can prepare for on the very first day. When you look at the physical actions of hiking the Appalachian Trail, you will notice there is a TON of repetition. There is a lot of stepping, striding, and pushing; done over, and over, and over again, all day long, every day. The best way to prepare for that is to try and simulate it as closely as possible at the gym, or in your home. Most people who try to prepare at home or in the gym will do so by walking on a treadmill that has been set to full incline, for as long as they can. This helps, and it’s much better than nothing, but I’ll tell you right now, the number of steep, smooth inclines you’ll encounter on the AT can be counted on all your fingers and toes. Most of the hiking out there will be more akin to doing “step-ups.” Stepping up onto rocks, ledges, fallen trees, roots, more rocks, you name it. You can help prepare yourself for this by simulating those steps on a stair stepper machine. Even better than using a machine; practice doing lunges, body weight squats, calf raises, and step ups on risers, chairs, boxes, stairs, or benches. As always, gradually up the intensity of these exercises. Raise the level of intensity by adding weight, reps, and time to them. Every so often, take yourself to muscular failure while performing a certain exercise. This means you do a specific motion or exercise until you cannot physically do it any longer. You will reach muscle failure many times when you first start on the trail, so this will prepare you to deal with that mentally and physically. It will also help push back/postpone the point in time in which you do reach muscle failure, due to your extra strength from preconditioning. As always, do these exercises within reason. Again, I do not know you personally, so I cannot account for any past injuries, or proneness to injury that you may have. Of course, you should always check with your family doctor before partaking in any kind of intense physical activity/challenge.
Some other exercises that will be invaluable to preparing you for physical demands on the trail will be exercises that help strengthen your core. You need to go out there with a strong back, as well as a strong abdomen to reinforce and support that strong back. The two simplest/best exercises to help achieve this (on your own without the help or guidance of a trainer) are body planks and supermans (prone back extensions). You can look up either of these two exercises online and be able to safely perform them on your own just by looking at them. You can perform both of them to failure, but when first starting out, take it easy and don’t overdo it. They will be invaluable in helping to strengthen your core and getting you ready to tote a heavy pack around all day. It would be irresponsible of me to tell you to do all of these things without adding that you shouldn’t neglect your other muscle groups. Without turning this into a sermon about working out, or a book on fitness, just make sure you don’t forget to engage and exercise all other muscle groups of your body. If you need any more guidance, then I suggest you buy a book specifically on the subject, hire a trainer, or consult a friend who knows about these things (hopefully).
Aside from building up your strength and endurance, you should also spend some time improving your flexibility. Join a yoga class, or research some unassisted stretches online. Increased flexibility, as well as joint mobility will go a VERY, VERY long way in preventing injury. Stretch everything, but put extra emphasis on your hamstrings, hips, and other muscles/joints of the lower extremities.
I have one last piece of advice when it comes to physically preparing yourself for a long-distance hike. This advice may be slightly controversial, but it’s completely optional and could help you out in the long run. Your feet are going to take a beating out there. You’re very likely going to get blisters, and you’re going to develop calluses on the bottoms of your feet, as well as your toes. The road to developing these calluses, which in the end protect your feet and skin from blisters, can be a painful one. If there is one thing I would have done in hindsight to prepare my feet, it would have been walking around barefoot more, while back home. This way I could have toughened up the pads of my feet, easing some of my future suffering when I got on the trail. Again, do this within reason. Don’t go crazy and get nails, glass, and dangerous substances stuck all over the bottom of your feet. Maybe go check your mail barefoot, or walk around your back yard, driveway, and sidewalk without shoes on; make sure you check for any hazardous items that are going to wind up embedded in your foot. This trick won’t completely save your feet from the rigors of the trail, but it will certainly add a buffer. That being said, there are always those individuals who are exceptions to the rule, who make it through the entire trail without a single foot issue. These people are either very experienced with maintaining their foot health and choosing footwear, or sometimes just damn lucky. On the Pacific Crest Trail, my second thru-hike, I wore trail runners for the entire hike and got thru nearly 2,700 miles with only one blister and several hot spots. This was because I knew my feet, and chose the perfect footwear for me specifically.