One of the first things you realize when you commit to a training program is that the exercise world is constantly changing. Nothing makes me feel really old like realizing that a lot the exercises I learned in gymnastics as a kid are actually kinda bad for you! Fortunately, expert athletes and coaches have written a wealth of fitness books — including hiking training books — to help us keep up to date on the latest developments.
Hikers haven’t been blessed with as many amazing books as runners, cyclists, and triathletes. Fortunately, the basic principles of endurance training apply to us to. So we can learn plenty from books geared for other long-distance sports.
What’s more, interest in hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering is growing fast. So I’d expect to see more sport-specific books hitting the shelves in the future.
In today’s post, I’ll review the three hiking training and fitness books that have helped me the most this year.
Steve House and Scott Johnston, Patagonia Books, 2014
OK, so who wouldn’t want to learn about hiking training from Steve House and his coach? If you’re not familiar with Steve, he’s a mountaineer with an impressive record for making first ascents and putting up new routes. Scott is Steve’s personal trainer, a coach of world-class Nordic ski racers, and an excellent mountaineer in his own right.
Steve and Scott designed Training for the New Alpinism as a self-coaching manual for mountaineers. Chapters cover both exercise theory and practical workout advice. The book also includes essays and photography from the authors and other notable climbers.
This book has become extremely popular in mountaineering and hiking communities — so much so, that athletes reference it in casual conversation in Colorado!
What I love
While this book was written specifically for mountaineers, hikers and backpackers can also benefit from Steve and Scott’s advice on aerobic conditioning, strength training, sports nutrition, psychological preparation, and tips for high altitude.
The authors recommend a high training volume made up of 70–80 percent long, slow distance workouts (which, as they point out, doesn’t always look “slow” in well-trained athletes). This advice lines up well with exercise physiology research, but is often ignored in the age of CrossFit when many athletes are trying to shortcut their cardiovascular fitness with high-intensity interval training. Spoiler alert: HIIT alone won’t create endurance and stamina!
Two other parts of this book I thought were excellent: their core and max strength programs.
What could be better
My biggest complaint about this book is that it all but ignores the importance of higher intensity training. I get the need to emphasize long, slow distance, especially when it’s fallen out of fashion lately. But in my opinion, the authors overstate their case.
As a result, we have a whole generation of mountaineers hiking slowly, breathing through their noses — and feeling sluggish without a higher gear to shift into. I know because I actually tried this for a few months to see what would happen. Once I added some interval training back into my workouts, that ass-dragging feeling went away, and I enjoyed my training hikes much more.
Another downside of this book: it tends to overly complicate matters. It’s long descriptions of physiology are pedantic and often hard to follow. It also divides intensity into 5 heart rate zones, when in all honesty, 3 would do fine. And it never really explains how to train above zone 3.
Finally, the authors sometimes forget that most members of their audience aren’t sponsored athletes with endless time to train. Early in the book, they discuss training schedules using Steve as an example. Which is unfortunate, because Steve trains more hours in the off-season that I train at my peak! And I have more time to train than the average human.
The bottom line
Training for the New Alpinism is packed with value for hikers, backpackers, and mountaineers, and its definitely a must-read if you will be heading to high altitude. Just be sure to do your interval training (see video below) and mentally adjust the training schedules to work for you. For most hiking and mountaineering goals, you should need no more than 10–12 hours of training at your peak. Though if you can get more, that’s great.
Courtenay Schurman and Doug Schurman, Human Kinetics Inc., 2008
I discovered this book in mountaineering school. We were required to read the classic mountaineering manual Freedom of the Hills, and Courtenay was the author of the conditioning chapter. Her information was so valuable, I ended up buying The Outdoor Athlete, the training manual she’d written with her husband.
Doug and Courtenay are experienced personal trainers (specifically, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists) who lead hiking fitness workshops for The Mountaineers and REI. Their book includes general training information, plus sport-specific training programs for:
- Hiking, trekking and backpacking
- Alpine scrambling and mountaineering
- Rock and ice climbing
- Trail running
- Off-road biking
- Kayaking, canoeing, and rafting
- Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and backcountry skiing
At the end of each sport-specific chapter, the authors offer suggested workout schedules for common goals. I actually followed their Mount Rainier training program to prepare for that climb.
What I love
This book provides very sport-specific training information that’s hard to find elsewhere. Let’s face it: there just aren’t too many articles about training for alpine scrambling or kayaking on Pinterest. Wondering what cardio machine you should hop on to improve your snowshoeing? This book will totally tell you (with helpful charts).
Another thing I love about this book is that it gives incredibly detailed advice. Very rarely did I find gaps in Courtenay and Doug’s explanations that I had to fill with guesswork or additional internet research. Overall, of these three books, I found theirs to be the most user-friendly.
Finally, the book includes a library of 65 strength, flexibility, and stability exercises, complete with photos. This section will be incredibly helpful for beginners. There’s even an “exercise finder” chart to help you pick the right ones for your sport.
What could be better
The Mount Rainier workout killed me. Granted, this is mostly my fault. Never assume that a training plan you find in a book or on the website will work for you! It’s up to you to start at the right place and progress at a speed that’s appropriate for your body and fitness level.
That being said, after completing a distance workout, strength workout, and a tabata in one day, I ran their program past a trainer friend. Her immediate reaction was that it was overkill. (Granted, she doesn’t train elite athletes or mountaineers.)
The end result: I climbed Mount Rainier overtrained with sore hips and a sciatica flare up. I did summit the mountain, which was great, but there was probably more pain involved than necessary.
The good news: I had much better results climbing in Bolivia using a modified version of the same program.
Lesson learned: listen to your body. Don’t follow the training programs in this book (or any book) into the grave.
The bottom line
The Outdoor Athlete is a solid training manual packed with great advice. It’s unique in that it’s very sport-specific and actually explains individual exercises instead of assuming you will look them up on YouTube. As with any training plan, listen to your body, adapt as needed, and never follow the program off a cliff!
Joe Friel, VeloPress, 2015
Fast After 50 was recommended to me by a friend in her 60s who travels around the world competing in cross-country ski races. Even though I’m not 50 (yet), she’s faster than me, so I wanted to know her secrets.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Joe Friel has trained top athletes in pretty much every endurance sport. He’s the author of The Triathlete’s Training Bible and its spinoffs. He’s also a competitive masters cyclist who’s still going strong after 70.
What I love
If you feel a sense of dread every time a new birthday approaches, Friel will refresh your well of hope. He spends many chapters reviewing the research on aging and sports performance. The bottom line: maintaining your training will literally keep your body young in many ways! This is especially true if you engage high-intensity strength and cardio training.
Friel also shares my obsession with training periodicity. To this end, he provides a number of helpful tables to help you plan your training season and prioritize your workouts for each phase. While his recommendations will be especially helpful for over-50 athletes, exercisers of all ages will find a ton of value.
Finally, Friel’s training schedules are extremely efficient. He realizes that athletes over 50 can tolerate fewer training hours per week, and he shows you how to make the most of each one. His advice will also benefit time-crunched hikers and mountaineers of all ages.
What could be better
While I ended up loving this book, I almost didn’t make it through the first half. The discussion of research and exercise science is dense and at times a bit meandering. It’s not until Chapter 6 (Advanced Training) that he really starts dropping knowledge bombs. So if you’re struggling, I recommend skipping ahead to the practical stuff.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Friel assumes he’s talking to experienced athletes. While he gives you excellent advice on endurance training in general, he doesn’t get into sport-specific training much at all. For this reason, beginners will want to supplement this book with additional resources. (The Outdoor Athlete above is a good one.)
The bottom line
While especially valuable for master’s athletes, Fast After 50 will benefit hikers of all ages. Readers who endure through the less-than-riveting introductory chapters will be richly rewarded.
And there you have ’em. My 3 top training books for every hiker’s bookshelf.
Are there other endurance training books you recommend? Comment to share.
Originally published Jan. 25, 2019.