One of the most frustrating parts of hiking is feeling slower than everyone else. I know because when I first moved to Colorado, I was always getting left behind on the trail. So in today’s post, I’m going to lay out a hiking training plan to help you speed up — and maybe even lead the pack! (Won’t they be surprised?)
To learn more, play the video clip above, or read the transcript below for the quick and dirty version.
Why Hiking Speed Matters
Hey, guys. It’s Sarah from Miss Adventure Pants. This week, I’m going to lay out a hiking training plan that will help you hike faster.
Pace is something that bothers a lot of people when they start hiking. It’s easy to get frustrated comparing yourself to your friends, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, or whoever you’re hiking with.
And if you hike with a group — something like Meetup or or a hiking club — it’s kind of demoralizing to be stuck at the back of the pack.
(I’ve been a leader for both Meetup and Colorado Mountain Club, and I know one thing that causes the most tension and conflict on group hikes is pace. The fast people and the slow people can both get frustrated over how fast everyone goes.)
Hiking speed can also be a safety issue. If you’re going to do something like climb a Colorado 14er — say, Mt. Elbert — you’ll spend a long time above tree line. So the faster you hike, the less time you’re exposed to dangers like lightning. You can get down faster and earlier and have a beer sooner. Which we all love, right?
How Fast Do You Want to Hike?
Now full disclosure: people who know me are probably laughing. Because here’s a secret: I’m honestly not that fast. (Shh.)
But this raises a good question. How fast do you really need to be to be safe and have a good time?
First, be realistic. Hiking isn’t running. To put things in perspective, a pretty fit hiker can move 2–3 mph over easy terrain. But once you start going uphill or carrying a heavy pack, you’ll usually slow down to 1–2 mph. And on scrambles and technical terrain, you’re often looking at less than 1 mph.
So what pace should you shoot for? A good exercise is to write down the top three outdoor trips you really want to take this year. Then either check online or look in a guidebook and figure out the:
- Round-trip distance
- Elevation gain (that’s the number of feet you’re going to go up. For most day hikes, it’s a number between 0′ and 5,000′).
These are the numbers you want to aim for in your hiking training plan.
For example, if you’re climbing Mount Elbert, you need to summit by noon to avoid lightning danger. It’s 4.5 mi. (one way) and 4,700′ to the top. So if you leave the trailhead at 7, you need to be able to hike uphill at 1 mph for 4–5 hours to reach your goal.
Another consideration is how much weight you’ll be carrying. Are you going to wear a full 40 lb. backpack on a multiday backpacking trip? If so, you’ll need to design your hiking training plan to build up pack weight as well as distance and elevation.
Get Your Baseline
After you set your goals, the next thing to do is to figure out your baseline hiking speed. A good way to do this is to pick a hike that’s:
- Near your home
- Has a known distance and elevation gain
- One you don’t mind repeating a few times during your training season
If you’re here in Denver, Mt. Morrison and Mt. Falcon are good ones. Up in Fort Collins people really like to do Horsetooth Rock. And for Boulder, check out Green Mountain, Bear Peak, South Boulder Peak, and Mount Sanitas.
In other locations, check out websites like SummitPost.
If you live in a place where the trails don’t gain much elevation, find a short loop that you can do a few times. When I’m visiting family in Cleveland, I train by repeating the Furnace Run Loop (260′ elevation gain) in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Once you’ve picked out an “index” hike that you’re going to repeat through the training season, put on a little 10–15-lb. daypack, and time yourself. How long does the whole hike take you from car to car? If there are prominent landmarks along the way (for example, the picnic shelter at Mt. Falcon), note the time you pass them.
Now you know your hiking speed “baseline,” which is your time to beat. Be sure to write this down somewhere. You’re going to have a lot of fun watching these numbers improve over time!
Start Fun and Easy
Once you’ve got an idea of your baseline hiking speed, your next step is to build up your base fitness. And I know this is terrible news, but that really means getting out and hiking as often as you can.
Now, I know most of us can’t always go hiking every day. Me, I have a day job and write a blog. But I try to hike at least once after work during the week and once on the weekend.
Your early season hikes should be enjoyable, and they shouldn’t overtax you. Start with a daypack and a distance and elevation gain that feel comfortable. This will improve your morale and motivation and get you excited about the summer ahead.
Make Your Hiking Training Plan
Once you’ve got yourself in a nice hiking routine, plan out a progression of hikes you’re going to do that will gradually bring you closer to your goal.
Say I want to climb Mt. Elbert in August. Between now and August, I have to find a couple other hikes that build up toward 9 miles of roundtrip distance and 4,300′ of elevation gain. So I might include hikes at 5 miles, then 7 miles, and increase my elevation gain by 500′ each week.
If you’re training for backpacking, plan a few hikes where you don’t increase your distance or elevation. Instead, add 3–5 pounds to your pack weight. Gradually build this up over a few months until you’re carrying more than your goal weight. (For example, if you plan to carry a 40 lb. pack on your trip, try to carry 45 lb. on at least one training hike.)
When making your hiking training plan, you’re going to need distance and elevation data on lots of hikes. Some online resources:
- SummitPost (worldwide)
- Hiking Project (worldwide, but mostly USA)
- ProTrails (USA)
- 14ers.com (mostly Colorado)
- The Mountaineers (Pacific Northwest)
- Local hiking blogs
Finally, don’t forget to work some easier “rest” weeks into your hiking training plan. If you go harder and harder every single week, you run the risk of getting hurt or burning out.
A good rule of thumb is to take one weekend a month a little easier. Give your body a chance to relax and recover from all this great work you’re doing.
Ramp Up the Intensity
When you build up some base fitness, you’ll feel your body getting stronger, faster, and recovering well after exercise. This can take a few weeks or months. Don’t rush it!
Once you’ve got a nice base (and only then), add a couple of drills to your hiking training plan to help increase your hiking speed.
Leg turnover drill
When we see a hill coming up, most of us think, “Ah, crap. I’m gonna slow down.” But don’t do that. Instead, walk faster up the hill for 1 minute.
How was that? If it was tough, try slowing down your pace. Or shorten your intervals to 30 seconds. Then over your next few hikes, work up to a minute, two minutes, or even three minutes. You can also try to increase the number of drills you do on each hike.
Pushing your cardio on tough terrain teaches your body to work longer at higher intensities. Eventually you’ll be able to go faster for longer without feeling like you’re suffering.
High intensity internal training
If you’ve been training for 4–6 weeks and you’re feeling pretty good, add some high intensity interval training (HIIT) once a week. I love interval day, because it’s fun and super flexible. You can do at home, at the gym, or on the road.
During internal training, you’re trying to drive your heart rate into the anaerobic zone, which does all kinds of amazing things for your body. It’s going to increase your endurance and allow you to travel at higher speeds for longer. You’ll also get a lot of health benefits, like better metabolism and a stronger heart.
The best part is that HIIT workouts can be super short. Half an hour of interval training has the same benefits as running for 60 minutes at a steady pace. So save these workouts for days when your schedule’s a little bit tight.
So how do you design a HIIT workout?
There are tons of programs, charts, and tables you can download from the internet. And if you’re really new to this, it might be worthwhile to work with a trainer, even for just a session or two. They can do some fitness testing and make some individual recommendations for you.
But basically, to design a HIIT workout, you just need to pick some kind of aerobic activity. Running, hiking uphill, jumping rope, cycling, and swimming can all work. You don’t want to be weighted or wear a heavy backpack for this one, because the idea is to move fast!
Start with a warm up, then run (or swim or whatever) as hard as you can for a minute or two. Try to drive your heart rate up above 85 percent of its max. (For more on calculating heart rate zones, see the section below.)
Then stop and jog slowly (or even walk) for a minute or two. Once your heart rate recovers, whether that takes one minute or three, take off again for another minute.
When you first start out, your recovery time between intervals might be longer, and that’s OK. Over the next few weeks, gradually increase your intervals and decrease your recovery time. If you want, you can even change exercises to keep things interesting.
A word on heart rate
One other thing I’ll mention that’s super helpful for HIIT workouts is a heart rate monitor. For maximum accuracy, find one with a chest strap that’s tight enough to hold the electrodes firmly against your skin. The best monitors also have a phone app to give you real time feedback.
Before I got a good heart rate monitor, I was really underestimating how hard I was working. Once I put it on, I realized I was probably overtraining on some hikes (and undertraining a bit on others.) Having the monitor keeps me from pushing too hard and burning out. But it also reassures me that I’m getting the job done.
My current heart rate monitor is a Wahoo Tickr, which I highly recommend. The phone app that comes with it helps you figure out your heart rate targets based on your resting heart rate.
If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, you can also calculate your heart rate zones using the Karvonen heart rate zone calculator. To do this, use an app like Cardiio to check your resting heart rate while you’re laying in bed in the morning, then plug your numbers into the calculator. Try to get above 65 percent on all your hikes and 85 percent during your intervals.
Some people are intimidated by the idea of high intensity interval training, but I promise you it’s actually fun. It sounds so weird to be like, “You’re gonna go and run, and suffer, and push yourself really hard, and LOVE IT!” But you might.
For me, interval workouts go way faster than distance and tempo ones. So don’t be afraid to give it a try.
Track Your Progress
Every couple of weeks during the training season, go back to your favorite hiking spot and time your index hike. Is it getting faster? Or are you able to maintain the same pace with more weight?
Seeing (and feeling) progress can take a couple months. But if you stick with your hiking training plan, you’ll eventually start to see those numbers tick up.
And better yet, you’ll start to feel stronger and less tired after your hikes. Enjoying your hike is the best payoff of all from training.
Questions about your hiking training plan?
Originally published July 24, 2017.