You don’t need to be the fastest hiker in the pack to have a good time. On the other hand, improving your hiking speed with the right workouts can build confidence when you’re with a group. No one likes to be the slow kid at the back of the pack.
Speed can also be a safety factor. For example, if you plan to hike a Colorado 14er, you need to reach the top and descend before afternoon thunderstorms arrive. (You could also start hiking at midnight the night before, but that’s kind of a drag.)
So how do you hike faster? Well, when it comes to hiking speed, there are three limiting factors: economy, lactate threshold, and VO2 max.
In today’s post, we’ll take a look at each of these. I’ll also give you a simple workout you can use to improve your performance in each area.
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Why it matters
Like a car, your body has a fuel economy rating. The less oxygen, sugar and fat your muscles need to burn to do the same amount of work, the faster you’ll be.
There are several factors that play into economy. Many of them are out of your control. For example, the fastest runners tend to have long shin bones, which gives them a mechanical advantage. But if you’re not blessed with long legs, there’s not much you can do about it!
For hikers, one easy way to improve economy is to carry lighter equipment. Still lugging around the 90L cordura nylon pack from 1997? Consider upgrading. Modern gear is much lighter and easier on your body.
Another way to improve economy is to lose excess body weight. Now I’m not one of those people who believes that a girl should have 15 percent body fat before attempting to backpack or climb. (Because I sure AF don’t.) But if you’re looking to lose a few pounds anyway, improving your hiking speed can be great motivation.
Simple fat loss workout: strength circuit
Circuit training provides a double whammy for fat loss. First, it builds muscle, which increases your body’s resting metabolism. In fact, engaging in a vigorous strength session appears to increase your calorie burning power for up to three days.
Second, the fast pace of circuit training gets your heart pumping. This burns additional calories and provides some aerobic benefits.
Making your own circuits can be a lot of fun, and there are literally hundreds of exercises you can use to mix things up. But here is a super simple one that incorporates the five basic body movements:
Simple strength circuit
Start with a 5–10-minute warm-up of light cardio. Then do the following circuit:
- 10 push ups (use your knees if you need to)
- 15 goblet squats (beginners can use body weight alone)
- 10 horizontal pull ups (use your knees to assist if needed)
- 10 lunges (any variety works, but back lunges are best if you have a history of knee pain)
- 10 medicine ball wood choppers
Complete this circuit three times. Rest 2–3 minutes between circuits.
Try to complete all exercises in the circuit without stopping. If needed, rest 30–60 seconds between exercises.
Be sure to stretch after your workout.
Perform this circuit workout 2 times a week, increasing reps and resistance over time.
2. Lactate threshold
Why it matters
Your lactate threshold (LT) is the exercise intensity at which hydrogen ions (a byproduct of lactic acid metabolism) begin to accumulate rapidly in the blood.
To estimate your LT in terms of heart rate, put on your heart rate monitor and exercise at the hardest intensity you can maintain for 20 minutes. Then multiply your average heart rate for this workout by 0.95. (Note that your LT heart rate will vary a bit between sports.)
When exercising at intensities above your LT, you’ll feel winded as you gasp in an effort to blow off excess hydrogen. You may also feel your muscles start to burn due to acid buildup.
Exercising at or just below your LT can actually raise it. It will also make you more comfortable with elevated acid levels. This means you can hike faster for longer before discomfort starts to kick in.
A simple lactate threshold workout: LT intervals
Performing intervals (alternating periods of hard effort and rest) can raise your LT and improve your hiking speed.
The following LT interval workout can be performed while hiking uphill, running, climbing stairs, and on most treadmills and cardio machines.
Beginner’s LT interval workout
Warm up with 5–10 minutes of easy cardio.
Perform 3 X 5-minute LT intervals
- Intervals should be at an effort level of 6–7, or within 10 beats below your lactate threshold
- Rest 5 minutes between intervals
- Always finish with enough energy for an additional interval. Stop early if needed.
Cool down with 5–10 minutes of easy cardio, then stretch.
Perform your LT workout once a week. Remember, it’s a harder workout, so allow for plenty of recovery time after. Gradually increase to 5 X 5-minute intervals with 5-minute rest periods.
3. Aerobic capacity (VO2 Max)
Why it matters
Your VO2 max measures the amount of oxygen you consume when you exercise at maximum intensity. Having a strong heart, high lung capacity, and lots of blood vessels to carry oxygen to your muscles will improve your VO2 max.
Your VO2 max also depends on your genetics, your body weight, and environmental factors. For example, studies suggest that people indigenous to high altitudes (think Sherpas) tend to have naturally high VO2 maxes.
It’s possible to get your VO2 max tested at a lab or gym, but it’s not necessary to know your exact number in order to improve. If you want to, you can estimate your VO2 max heart rate/power/pace by exercising at the hardest pace you can sustain for 5 minutes and checking the average.
VO2 max is a strong predictor of endurance performance. It’s especially important for hikers who will be traveling to high altitudes. If there’s less oxygen available, you need to be able to make the most of it, right?
A simple VO2 max workout: HIIT
High intensity interval training (HIIT) is the most effective way to improve your VO2 max. As we’ll discuss in a minute, this type of training puts temporary but significant stress on your body. For this reason, I don’t recommend adding HIIT to your program until you’ve built up a good base of fitness (say, 7 hours of cardio a week).
Simple intermediate HIIT workout
To get a good HIIT workout, choose an exercise where you can control your speed. Good options include running, battle ropes, burpees, mountain climbers, jump squats, and box jumps.
Warm up for 5–10 minutes
Perform 9 x 60 s intervals at near maximal intensity (effort level 8–9 on a 10-point scale)
- Rest 3 minutes between intervals
- If needed, break intervals into 3 sets of 3, with a 5–10 minute rest between sets
- Keep moving during the rest periods. Walk or jog lightly.
- Stop if you feel very tired. Always finish with one interval left in you!
Finish by cooling down with 5–10 minutes of easy cardio
Perform this workout once a week. Remember that this is a high-intensity effort that requires some extra recovery. Make the next day’s workout easy, or rest.
A word on safety
To improve your VO2 max, you will need to exercise at very high intensity for brief periods. This type of workout can be quite stressful on your body. While the overall risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event like a heart attack during exercise is low, high-intensity cardio increases this risk.
For these reasons, always see a doctor before working out if you are new to exercise, have risk heart disease risk factors, or have any chronic condition that could be worsened by exercise.
High-intensity training also increases your risk of injury. Always warm up with at least 5–10 minutes of low intensity cardio before starting your intervals. If you are over 50, recovering from an injury, or have any chronic health conditions, you can extend your warmup even longer.
Wondering how to put it all together?
If you’d like a roadmap to solid hiking fitness, check out my Beginner Training Plan for hikers! It walks you through 8 weeks of hiking-specific workouts day by day. It’s a great way to take the guesswork out of your hiking training while building speed, stamina, and confidence.
And there you have them! 3 simple workouts to help you hike faster this summer.
What’s your favorite hiking speed workout? Comment below to share.
Originally published Feb. 8, 2019.