How to Train for a Thru-Hike (Especially when you live at 522 feet above sea level)

There is a magic amount of training that should be done for a long hike, without overdoing it. Injuries can happen due to over-training just as much as they can happen from not training. Here are some areas that we think are worth addressing before setting out: 

FEET - No matter what you do to prepare physically for a thru-hike, your focus, first and foremost, should be on your feet. A hard lesson to learn is that what we do to our feet now affects what our feet will be able to do later. Most feet can handle long distance, that is a beautiful part of being human in that we are truly endurance animals. However you can thank evolution for the fact that our feet are so prone to sprains, plantar fasciitis, and the other ugly faces of foot pain. Discrepancies between the potential of our feet and reality of our foot health date back to the beginning when we became bipedal creatures. Whether or not we live an active lifestyle, foot pain is merciless and can cause not just discomfort but also a change in our daily lives. With all that said, it is crucial to always take care of your feet from the very first step we take, unfortunately we may not be graced with the advantage of knowing from the beginning that we some day will want to hike across the country. Some of us will just have to settle with falling in love with our feet the moment we decide to take our thru-hike dream and turn it into an attainable reality. So where do you go from here?

  1. STRETCH - Stretch, Dammit. It is not complicated, and most of the time you can actively stretch while sitting at a desk, in class, in a meeting, wherever your want! There are no excuses. Here are some of our favorites:       

  • Ankle Circles- Sitting down, or standing, isolate one ankle by drawing air circles with your toes. Continue for 30 seconds before reversing the direction of the circle. Repeat with the other ankle.

  • Flex Stretch- Sitting down, flex one foot by slowly pulling, with the toes, the foot towards your shin. At the top of the flex, slowly point the toes away from your shin, stretching down the top of the foot. Continue for 30 seconds, and then repeat on the other foot.
  • Roll ‘Em Out- Grab a tennis ball, lacrosse ball, Nalgene water bottle, or foam roller. Sit the roller underneath your arch and roll your weight around on the roller. You are the judge of how much weight to put into your foot. Repeat on the other foot. If you really want a treat, freeze water in a water bottle before rolling ‘em out.       

Stretching will be a huge factor in maintaining and building strength as well as decreasing the chances of injury.

     2.  STRENGTHEN- The best way to build foot strength especially for a thru-hike is to hike. Add miles incrementally, and hike with your weighted pack when you can. If you are taking on extra work to save up money for a thru-hike, we can relate, you might not be able to hike as much as you would like to during the week. Try out these simple exercises to get your feet in tip top shape to hike the distance:

  • Calf Raises- Standing tall rise up on the ball of one foot. Lower your heel towards the ground, without resting it on the ground. Repeat for 20 reps, and then switch to the other foot. This can be performed on a flat surface or on the edge of a step.
  • Toe Crunch- Place a towel or handkerchief on the ground and step one foot on the area. Spread your toes out wide, and then scrunch the towel up with your toes as you bring them back in.  Repeat 15-20 times before switching feet.

    3. SOAK- Treat your feet to a weekly Epsom Salt soak. All you need is some hot water, Epsom Salt, and 20 minutes to revive your feet. Do not forget to drink lots of water afterwards!

   4. SUPPORT- Wear good shoes. The definition of good shoes is a pair of properly fitting shoes that provide the support and matches the profile of your foot. It is extremely easy to go by the shoe your friend recommends or your friend’s friend, but in reality, everyone’s foot needs are different. What shoe may be best for one hiker, may not work for you. Do your research in the field, not just online. As you start hiking around, pay close attention to your posture and how you distribute your weight on your feet. Do you roll your foot outwards when you walk or during normal motion? Do you roll your feet inwards? Overpronation and Supination are important to address before you get on the trail, don't ignore it. Do you have a high arch or a flat arch? These are all factors to take into consideration when picking out a trail shoe that works best for you. A good tip if you do not know where to start is to hit up a knowledgeable gear shop to have an expert check out your gait and offer recommendations.

CARDIOVASCULAR - Hiking, and just simply staying active, during the months leading up to your hike is important. Your body will have a lot of adjustments to make as is. Practice climbing elevation by hiking more difficult trails. If you live only a couple of hundred feet above sea level, pick a hill and repeat climbing it over and over. Your heart will be happy and carefree on the trail. Plus all of us low elevation dwellers will need any little bit of help for high altitude and peaks when we get there.

HIPS/LEGS- Another good reason to hike before you hike is to get your legs in shape. We mentioned before but can mention again the benefit of hiking especially with a weighted pack. It is a good idea to experiment with different paces to see what is comfortable for you, what you can work towards and what is too much. To supplement the hiking, stretching is a great way to maintain mobility and to help with recovery in between your hikes. In addition to hip flexors, the IT band is not one to leave out! There are so many stretches out there that target the hips and supporting muscles. Here are a handful of our favorites and what they stretch:

  • Frog Pose (Inner Thighs)- Begin in Table Pose. Take your legs out a little wider, keeping your knees in line with your ankles and feet. Take getting into this pose slow, and know your limits - don’t push it! Walk your arms out on the floor in front of you. Your elbows can rest on the floor, if you are there. Exhale slowly while pushing your hips backwards until you feel the stretch in your hips and inner thighs. Spend 3-6 breaths here.

  • Low Lunge (Hip Flexors)- From standing fold forward to place hands on the floor. Step back with one foot and set your back knee on the ground. Push your hips forward to actively stretch your hip flexors. Bring your torso tall while breathing into the stretch. You can gradually deepen the stretch. Hold here for 30 seconds before switching to the other leg.

  • Thread the Needle (Gluteus Maximus attaching to IT)- Laying on your back with you feet on the ground and knees in the air, place your right ankle just above your left knee or on your thigh. Holding your left leg around the thigh, pull your left knee towards you. Make sure to keep your back flat on the ground. Hold for 1-2 minutes before switching to the other side.

  • Standing Forward Bend (Hamstrings)- With your feet slightly apart, bend forward with your arms reaching towards the ground. Here you can use a block or a step, if you cannot reach the ground. You can also keep a slight bend in your knees as to not lock them out. Hold for 5-6 breaths.

Listed are just a few of our favorites. There is a wide variety of stretches that target different components of the hip-leg system. Stretching your legs will benefit your feet as well as your back. Always remember to take new stretches slow, and know your limits. Also remember that everything works like a machine. While you can isolate one muscle to stretch or strengthen, in order to keep the system working efficiently, you have to give attention to all of the components.

CORE- Core is crucial. No, you do not have to take on the trail with a chiseled six-pack. However, core is responsible for balance, agility, and good posture. With a weighted pack on your back, your core will help you keep upright and strong. Our daily movement on and off the trail is far from just frontal movement, or a single plane of movement. Therefore, just working out on one plane is not quite beneficial. Instead, try out strengthening exercises that target multi-planar, or rotational, movement.  

  • Plank- Starting on hands and knees in Table pose, step your feet back. Image a string starting at your belly button pulling straight up into the sky. You should feel your abs working here not your arms. There are tons of variations to a basic plank; you can always make it easier or more challenging. Hold 30 second to 1 minute. Repeat as many times as you want.
  • Side Plank- Come to your side on the ground. You can either take this pose from your elbow or go all the way up on your hand. The key here is to lift your hip/buttocks off the ground and to keep it from sagging to the ground. Likewise to the plank, there are lots of variations here. One of our favorite modifications is to begin to lower your hips and then take them back up to a full plank. Another modification to deepen the exercise is to thread your free hand underneath your supporting arm, twisting through your obliques.

  • Superman- Laying on your stomach with your hands straight out in front of your long ways, raise your chest off of the floor powering from your lower back. Rise up and hold or carry through the entire movement. Lower back to the ground slowly. These movements should be controlled. Repeat for 20 reps or 30 seconds. 

CLEAR HEADSPACE- It is simple. Being comfortable in your own mind is crucial to being able to handle the inevitable moments of loneliness that come with a long hike. Meditation, even in the smallest doses, is good for you. The ability to calm your mind will also help out in situations of distress, discomfort, or with anxiety. If you have trouble with your mind wandering or thinking about what is next or dwelling on what has past, focus on your breath. Practice this before hitting the trail.