Now that it’s January, your summer hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering goals are suddenly feeling real! But seriously, how long does it take to get in shape for this stuff?
Should you start ramping up right now and push on through to summer? Or should you take a more strategic approach?
Those are the questions we’re going to answer today.
This post was inspired by a friend of mine who is climbing Mount Rainier this summer. This person is super motivated and no stranger to hard work. They actually started training back in the fall.
By the time January rolled around, they were already in amazing shape. But they were also starting to feel a bit stale and burned out.
Keeping up that momentum and drive until July was going to be a physical and mental challenge. So they decided to step back and strategize a bit.
Let’s talk about how you can do the same so that you hit peak fitness at the right time.
Training v. fitness
Before you dive into your training season, it’s good to understand the difference between fitness and training.
Fitness is the exercise you do day to day to maintain health as well as a certain base level of sports performance.
Training is a totally different animal. It’s a systematic, week-over-week build up of your volume and intensity to prepare for a difficult goal.
In training, you build up to a fitness peak that will get you through a big hike or climb. This peak fitness is very strenuous to maintain and therefore meant to be temporary.
It’s almost impossible to sustain your peak long-term, though you can sometimes maintain it for a few weeks or months.
My point here is that you should not be in training all of the time.
If you exercised your entire life like you were about to climb Mount Rainier in a couple of weeks, you would be a physical and emotional wreck. You’d be overtrained, irritable, inflamed, and prone to all kinds of repetitive stress injuries.
So how do you train and peak at the right time without burning yourself down? You have to get strategic about your training season.
How to plan your training season
For the following exercise, I like to print out an entire year of calendar pages and hang them on the wall. (Here’s a website where you can do it for free.)
First of all, I calendar the goal hike, including any travel time. Then I add the following “phases” to my calendar, working backwards.
In endurance training, the taper is a period of easy effort just before your goal hike. Tapering allows your body to repair itself and consolidate the gains you’ve made.
- A two-week taper works well for most backpacking, trekking, and mountaineering trips.
- One week will probably be enough for most day hikes.
To learn more about tapering the right way, check out my post, How to Peak and Taper the Right Way.
This is the period where you are ramping up your training time and/or intensity every week to prepare for your goal trip.
This phase generally lasts from three to six months. (See the next section for detailed recommendations.)
During the training phase, it’s important to pause your build up every few weeks and take an easy week. This allows your body to heal from the rigor of training and will actually make you stronger.
In addition to calendaring your training phase, it’s a good idea to note your hardest 2-3 weeks of training, also known as your peak. You will likely be tired during this time, so try to keep the rest of your schedule light to allow for lots of rest and recovery.
This is the phase early in the training season where you build a solid base of endurance, speed, and strength.
For endurance, this means getting out and enjoying some longer hikes. It also means adding some moderate cardio workouts to your schedule. For tips on dialing in the right intensity for endurance workouts, check out my post, How to find your aerobic threshold with a simple DIY lactate test.
For speed, you’ll want to add some intervals to your training. These can be HIIT workouts or longer lactate threshold intervals. For more info on interval training, check out these posts:
- How to make heart rate zone training ridiculously simple
- 8 proven benefits of interval training for hikers
For strength, aim for 2-3 full-body sessions a week using moderate resistance. To learn more, check out my post, What mountaineers need to know about strength training. (Almost all of this info also applies to day hikers and backpackers.)
The base phase can last anywhere from two to four months, depending on your starting fitness and the difficulty of your goal trip.
How long should I train?
The length of your training phase depends on your:
- Goal trip difficulty.
- Fitness level at the start of training.
- Health and wellness.
- Experience with training.
If you’re mostly planning to tackle easy day hikes this season, your base fitness may actually be sufficient to carry you through.
But for difficult hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering trips, you’ll want to build up and peak just before the event.
As a rule of thumb, most people will need about four months of build to train for an endurance event.
You can take a little less time if you are:
- Starting with a high base fitness.
- Planning an easy-to-moderate goal trip
- Familiar with the demands of the goal trip.
And you may want to take a little more time if you are:
- Starting at a lower fitness level
- Training for a very demanding goal trip.
- Doing this kind of trip for the first time.
- New to training.
- Older or have a chronic condition that requires extra recovery time.
I also don’t recommend training for more than six months unless you are very experienced. (Ask me about the time I trained for nine months straight and completely melted down at the end. That was this trip.)
Need some help putting it all together?
My FREE Training Plan Workbook shows you how to coach yourself for your next adventure. You’ll learn my six-step process for writing fail-proof training plans that get results. Fill out the form to get your copy.
So how long does it take to get in shape for hiking?
As you can see, there’s no simple answer. (Don’t you hate that?)
By timing your training phases correctly, you can reach peak fitness just before your trip. The trick is not to overdo it and burn yourself out.
So if you’re reading this in January and your trip is in the summer, this is a great time to start your base phase. But you might want to wait a couple of months before you really start to build.
Do you have additional questions about planning your training? Hop in my Facebook Group Backpackers and Mountaineers in Training for additional help and support.
Originally published Jan. 14, 2020.