How to Get in Shape for Hiking When You’re Starting From Zero
Over in our Facebook Group, we’ve got quite a few members who are excited to lose weight and get in shape for hiking. So I thought I’d put together a quick hiking fitness training program for beginners.
These early workouts may feel a long way from climbing Mt. Rainier or hiking the Appalachian Trail (or whatever your goal is). But get excited anyway.
Remember that this is where everyone starts. Literally everyone.
Yes, even your neighbor Susie the ultra runner with 15 percent body fat and your coworker Brian who has speed climbed Denali had to take that first step at some point. (And they also probably had to take time off and come back a few times, too.)
Not everyone has the courage and commitment to chase big, lofty goals. So be all in and own your awesomeness. There’s a good chance this fitness journey is going to change your life.
About This Program
Who can benefit?
The following progression is ideal for people who are new to cardio training or coming back after an extended break. (Because as much as we’d love to hike our lives away, almost everyone eventually takes a break to deal with injury, pregnancy, or to work on other life goals.)
This approach should work for all ages and body types, including athletes with weight loss goals.
That being said, even seasoned athletes might find something useful. Learning the three-zone model for heart rate training greatly simplified my life — and made my workouts a lot more flexible.
Where do I start?
This post describes a three-phase model for improving your aerobic fitness. Start at the phase you’re at and go from there.
If you’re not sure which phase is right for you, go through your normal exercise routine for a week and record your total minutes of cardio for each day. (Include all sustained exercise like walking, jogging, hiking, swimming, biking, etc.)
- If you’re just getting started or you’re inconsistent with your workouts, start with Phase 1.
- When you’re able to exercise for 30 minutes at a time on 3–4 days a week, you’re ready for Phase 2.
- Phase 3 is for athletes who are doing seven or more hours of cardio a week.
What exercises should I do?
If your goal is to train for hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering, you’ll ideally want to include plenty of weight-bearing exercises (meaning your full weight is on your feet). Walking and easy hiking are all good choices for beginners. As your fitness improves, you can progress to harder hikes, hill walking, jogging, and stair-climbing.
That being said, some people need to start with non-weight-bearing exercises, especially in the early stages. For example, if you have knee or joint issues, or if you’re carrying a lot of extra weight, you may be more comfortable on a bike (real or stationary), elliptical machine, swimming, or doing water aerobics.
The most important thing is to find something you enjoy and stick with it.
What equipment do I need?
Your top priority is to invest in some comfortable, high-quality footwear. This might mean walking shoes, running shoes, and/or hiking boots, depending on the exercises you plan to do.
As you progress to interval training in Phases 2 and 3, you might benefit from using a heart rate monitor with a chest strap. Here’s a simple one that I use for interval workouts.
Could exercise increase my risk of a heart attack or stroke?
The benefits of cardio training almost always outweigh the risks. But you should take a few precautions, especially when moving into higher-intensity workouts.
Workouts in Phases 1 and 2 below are at low-to-moderate intensities that will be safe for most athletes. However, see a doctor if you have any medical condition that could be aggravated by exercise like heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, or a recent injury. Be sure to follow any suggested modifications.
Phase 3 includes high-intensity workouts at short, near-maximal efforts. Before beginning this phase, consult your doctor if 2 or more of the following apply:
- You’re a man over age 45 or a woman over age 55
- You have a family history of early cardiovascular disease or sudden death
- Your BMI is over 30 (check here)
- You have high blood pressure (over 140/90) or high cholesterol (LDL over 140 or total cholesterol over 200)
- Your blood sugar is elevated (over 100 mg/dL on the impaired fasting blood glucose test)
- You’re currently a smoker or recently quit
Coach Sarah’s Hiking Fitness Training Program
Phase 1: Work up to 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio
If you’re brand new to fitness — or if you’re coming off an extended break — congratulations! Your decision to work out can totally transform your life if you stick with it.
The guidelines for this phase:
- Your No. 1 goal for this phase is to establish a consistent workout routine that you enjoy.
- Start with 30 minutes a day of cardio 2–3 days a week. Gradually work up to 3–4 days per week.
- Your workout intensity should be low to moderate (3–4 effort level on a 1–10 scale). You should be able to easily chat with a friend throughout your workout.
- If you can’t do 30 minutes at first, just go as long as you can. You can also break your 30 minutes into smaller workouts if that helps (for example 3×10 minutes, 2×15 minutes).
- When you can workout for 30 minutes without stopping, and you’re consistently doing 3–4 workouts per week, you’re ready for Phase 2.
One of the hardest tasks for new exercisers is establishing consistency.
It’s easy to convince yourself that you just don’t have time or let other tasks get in the way. Some tips for making exercise a regular part of your life:
- Plan ahead. Every Sunday, I sit down and plan my training for the week and add those times to my calendar.
- Anticipate potential pitfalls and plan around them. For example, if you have trouble getting to the gym after work, try getting up 30 minutes early and working out before you go to the office.
- Try a variety of different exercises to find out what you enjoy.
- Treat yourself to your favorite music or podcast while you work out.
- Find an exercise buddy you enjoy talking to. Keep one another accountable.
- Set a consistency goal (for example, 4 workouts a week for a month) and reward yourself when you reach it.
Above all, stay positive and celebrate small successes.
While most people notice small changes early like improved sleep, mood, and energy levels, it may take a few weeks before you notice changes in your fitness. That’s OK. Have faith that you are doing great things for your body, even if the changes aren’t obvious yet.
Phase 2: Use aerobic interval training to increase your fitness
Congrats! You’ve built your endurance to 30 minutes per day and established a consistent workout routine. Now you’re ready to pick up the duration and intensity.
To find the right workout intensity for this phase, you need to find your aerobic threshold, which is the effort level at which your body shifts from burning fat exclusively for energy to burning some sugar.
Aerobic threshold test
Use a heart rate monitor to do a graded exercise test on a treadmill. Warm up, and then increase the workout intensity gradually (0.5 mph) every 2 minutes. At the end of 2 minutes, try to recite the Pledge of Allegiance out loud. Your aerobic threshold is the heart rate (HR) at which talking becomes a little difficult (though you can still speak).
Based on this HR, we can establish two training zones for you:
- Zone 1: The 10 beat range just below your aerobic threshold
- Zone 2: The 10 beat range just above your aerobic threshold
So if Suzy’s aerobic threshold is HR 130, her zones look like this:
- Zone 1: HR 120-130
- Zone 2: HR 131-141
If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, Zone 2 should feel like a 5 or 6 on the 1–10 effort scale. Carrying on a conversation while exercising at this intensity should be possible, but a little difficult.
Be sure to retest your aerobic threshold every month or so, as it will rise as your fitness increases.
Phase 2 Workout Guidelines
- Start with 3–4 workouts per week. Gradually progress to 4–5 per week. You can replace 1–2 of these interval workouts with a hike.
- Begin each workout with an easy 10-minute warm-up.
- After warming up, perform some Zone 2 intervals. Increase your effort level so that your heart rate rises a little above your aerobic threshold and hold this intensity for one minute. Then slow down so that your heart rate drops into Zone 1 and recover for 3 minutes.
- Gradually decrease your recovery interval (2 minutes, 1.5 minutes, 1 minute) until you hit a 1:1 work-recovery ratio.
- You can also gradually increase the length of your Zone 2 intervals (up to 5 min.) using the same work-recovery ratios (1:3, 1:2, 1:1.5, 1:1).
- Increase your total cardio time by about 5–10 percent each week (less when you’re increasing your interval length or frequency).
- Once you’re really rocking the intervals, do one workout a week all in Zone 2 (no rest intervals). For runners, this is called a tempo run.
- Your hiking “workouts” can be less structured, but try to keep the intensity in Zones 1 and 2 throughout. That means keeping your heart rate elevated, but not to the point where you’re panting or gasping.
- Finish each interval workout with an easy 10-minute cool-down and stretching session.
Phase 2 is where you’ll really start to see gains in your aerobic capacity and endurance.
If your goal is to hike for fun and fitness, you can probably get all the training you need in Phase 2. But if you’re going to be tackling more strenuous climbing and mountaineering objectives, you’ll eventually move on to Phase 3.
Phase 3: Use anaerobic interval training to increase your speed and endurance
Wow, if you’re tackling this phase, you’re officially a long way from the couch! Before starting anaerobic endurance training, you should be about doing at least seven hours of cardio per week. This can include your interval workouts and some longer hikes.
In this phase, we’ll add anaerobic interval workouts to your program.
These high-intensity workouts raise your body’s ability to use and tolerate lactate, a metabolic product that builds up in the blood when you’re exerting hard. This allows you to sustain higher effort levels for longer when hiking and climbing.
It’s important to note that anaerobic interval training is very taxing, so we use it sparingly, alternate it with easier workouts, and combine it with lots of rest and recovery.
In fact, during Phase 3, 80 to 90 percent of your training should be done in Zone 1. This includes your warm-ups, cool-downs, recovery intervals, hikes, and some Zone 1 workouts on “easy” days.
A reminder that this is the phase where you should consult a doctor if you have multiple risk factors for cardiovascular disease. (See the safety section in the introduction for more info.)
To find the correct intensity for anaerobic interval training, you’ll need to test your anaerobic threshold.
This is the effort level at which lactate begins to rapidly accumulate in your blood. Here’s how to estimate it with a field test:
- Warm up with 10 minutes of very easy cardio.
- Start running (hiking up a steep hill works too) at a hard pace (7–8 on the intensity scale). Adjust your effort level as needed. Try to find a steady pace that you can sustain for about 20 minutes (but not much longer).
- Starting at minute 15, check your heart rate at the end of every minute.
- After 20 minutes, stop the test and cool down for 10 minutes.
- Calculate your average HR over the last five minutes of the test.
- Multiply this average HR by 0.95 to estimate your anaerobic threshold.
- Zone 3 is any HR above this number.
Some general guidelines for your Phase 3 training
Here’s what your weekly workouts might look like:
- One long Zone 1 hike per week (working toward your goal distance and elevation gain).
- Two medium-duration Zone 1 hikes or cardio workouts (60 to 90 minutes).
- One Zone 2 interval workout (60 to 75 minutes). Use the same progression as Phase 2. Gradually increase the interval length to 10 minutes with a proportionate rest interval (1:2, 1:1.5, 1:1).
- One or two Zone 3 interval workouts (60 to 75 minutes). Intervals should last 30–60 seconds with a 1:3 work-rest ratio. After a few intervals, take a 10-minute recovery run at Zone 1, and then complete another set of intervals. Gradually increase the duration of the intervals.
- Increase your total training time by no more than 10 percent each week up to the maximum your schedule allows. (If the length of your long hike fluctuates a lot and throws off your planning, feel free to take it out of the equation.)
- Always warm up before interval training and cool down after.
- Every 3–5 weeks, take an “rest” week. Decrease your training by 30 to 50 percent to allow your body to heal, recover, and consolidate the gains you’ve made.
Finally, a reminder to listen to your body.
Working too hard during phase 3 can result in overtraining syndrome or injury, so be conservative. Take excellent care of yourself when training at this level and get plenty of rest at night and on your days off. If you’re feeling beat up or can’t hit your target heart rate on intervals, make that workout a Zone 1 effort. Treat yourself like the thoroughbred you are.
So there you have it. A hiking fitness training plan to take you from absolute zero to absolute hero.
Happy training, and feel free to drop your own tips, questions, and suggestions in the comments. Or better yet, hop in the Facebook Group!
Originally published July 18, 2018