Daylight savings happened this week, which means it’s time to say good-bye to after-work training hikes and afternoon runs for a few months! But how the hell do you stay fit in a bleak, cold world that’s dark when you leave for work and dark when you get home? Well, one of your best bets is to take your weekday workouts indoors. So today, let’s talk about how to train for hiking in the gym.
In this post, I’ll take each of my 5 essential workouts for outdoor athletes and give you some ideas for how to adapt them for the gym. If you’re new to the 5 essential workouts, fill out the form below to grab my free Epic Outdoor Endurance Roadmap. It will tell you more about each of the workouts and how to adapt them to your fitness level.
1. Aerobic base training
Aerobic base workouts are longer cardio workouts performed at a steady, moderate pace. They train your aerobic (fat burning) energy pathway to give you plenty of endurance over the long haul.
Do I really need aerobic base training in the off season?
If you are actively training for a hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, or ultra running goal right now, there’s no escaping aerobic base training. It’s the foundation of your endurance, and you need to build or maintain it every week.
When it comes to the off season, you have more choices. Some coaches have their athletes back off aerobic base workouts during this time and focus on high-intensity exercise (lactate threshold training and increasing VO2 max). This may be an option for you if you will have plenty of time for base-building when the training season rolls around.
However, if you’re a time-crunched athlete who’s trying to juggle work, family, and having a life, you may want to maintain some aerobic base through the off season. This is especially true if you’re a person who likes to be “always on” for races and winter sports. For more info on this kind of lifestyle, check out my post about “always-on” fitness.
Gym exercises for aerobic base building
Fortunately, training your aerobic system in the gym is pretty straightforward. Your biggest challenge will probably be finding a machine you can use for more than 30 minutes without getting kicked off! For this reason, it’s a good idea to do these workouts outside of peak gym hours if you can.
Here are some fun (or at least not grindingly boring) options for building aerobic base indoors. Feel free to mix and match these within the same workout session to keep things fresh.
Incline treadmill with backpack
Put some weight in your backpack, ramp the treadmill up 6–8 degrees, and walk briskly. Adjust the speed and incline as needed to keep your heart rate near your aerobic threshold.
While stair mills are less sport-specific than climbing actual stairs, they’re a lot more convenient! Keep the pace nice and slow, as stairs tend to drive your heart rate up faster than the treadmill.
Low impact aerobics
It’s hard to find a group fitness class that keeps the intensity moderate, but they really do exist! (Here’s one I’m currently loving.) You can access classes live, at the gym or at home through a streaming service like Beach Body On-Demand.
When trying a new group fitness class, keep an eye on your heart rate monitor. Rest or modify if your heart rate is more than +5 above your aerobic threshold heart rate. Remember, this is aerobic base training. The Insanity workout is on a different day!
2. Lactate threshold training
Working out at an intensity just below your lactate threshold increases your speed and endurance. It also makes hard exercise less painful so you can push longer when trail running uphill or attacking a steep section of trail.
Lactate threshold training can be done in the form of longer intervals or as a steady state (tempo) workout.
Not sure what your lactate threshold heart rate is?
You can get a good idea with this simple field test. On a day when you are rested, put on your heart rate monitor, hop on the treadmill, and run at the hardest pace you can sustain for 20 minutes. Afterward, average your heart rate for the last 5 minutes of the test and multiply this average by 0.95. This is your approximate LT threshold heart rate.
Gym exercises for lactate threshold training
For best results with lactate threshold training, shoot for a target heart rate just below your lactate threshold heart rate. (Within 10 beats below is a good rule of thumb.)
Some tips for planning your lactate threshold training:
- Decide on your total “work” time. This is the time you will spend exercising near your lactate threshold heart rate. It could range from about 15 minutes for beginners to 40 minutes and above for experts.
- Divide your work time into intervals lasting 5–20 minutes. (Advanced exercisers can also do all of this work in one go as a tempo or steady-state workout.)
- Warm up with at least 10 minutes of easy cardio.
- Perform your intervals. Rest 1–5 minutes between intervals to allow your heart rate to recover. (Shorter rests are harder but push your fitness faster.)
- Cool down after with 5–10 minutes of easy cardio.
The best gym exercises for lactate threshold training include the stair mill, running on the treadmill, or walking briskly on an incline treadmill with a pack. Really, anything sport-specific that requires steady effort will do the trick!
3. VO2 max training
Many outdoor athletes are keen to increase VO2 max, and with good reason. VO2 max improves your speed, power, and (probably) performance at altitude. VO2 max workouts also rev up your metabolism for hours to days, making them an important part of any weight management program.
What is VO2 max?
Simply put, it’s the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise. Several factors contribute to this, but probably the most important is the pumping of your heart. A strong heart that moves a lot of blood with one pump also moves more oxygen to your muscles.
Workouts for increasing VO2 max
The gym is actually a great place to work on VO2 max, because you can control many variables that you can’t outdoors.
The best workouts for increasing VO2 max involve high-intensity interval training (HIIT). High-intensity intervals are short and performed at near-maximal effort.
It’s worth noting that heart rate is a poor measure of intensity for these short intervals. Just push yourself almost as hard as you can go (an 8 or a 9 on a 10-point effort scale).
Some tips on planning your VO2 max workouts:
- Decide on your total “work” time. This is the time you will be exercising at near-maximal intensity. It could range from about 5 minutes for beginners to 15 minutes and above for experts.
- Divide your work time into intervals lasting 30 seconds to 3 minutes.
- Decide on your rest interval between work intervals. If you’re a beginner, try a rest-to-work ratio of 3:1. More advanced athletes may be able to do 1:1.
- Warm up with at least 10 minutes of easy cardio.
- Perform your intervals.
- Cool down afterward with 5–10 minutes easy cardio.
Gym exercises for increasing VO2 max
The best exercises for VO2 max force you to generate power quickly using your entire body. Some examples:
- Squat jumps
- Mountain climbers
- Plyo push-ups
- Battle ropes (incorporate the legs by squatting or lunging)
- Burpees and squat thrusts
- HIIT group fitness classes, including CrossFit.
It can be awkward to do VO2 max workouts on machines like treadmills, because the machine is slow to accelerate. By the time it reaches full speed, you will have lost 10 seconds of your 30-second work interval.
That being said, machines can sometimes work in a pinch, especially for high-intensity intervals longer than one minute.
4. Strength training
Finally, a workout that actually lends itself to the gym!
The off season and the colder months are a great time for hikers, backpackers, mountaineers, and trail runners to focus on strength training. Specifically, you want to condition your entire body, correct imbalances, and improve functional strength and movement.
Building a strength training program
All strength training should include the five functional movements that you perform in every day life. Here are the movements with some exercise examples.
|Squatting||Goblet squat, sumo squat, Bulgarian split squat|
|Lunging||Front lunge, reverse lunge, walking lunge|
|Pushing||Push-up, bench press, dumbbell overhead press|
|Pulling||Pull-up, horizontal pull-up, row, lat pull down|
|Rotation||Bicycle crunch, wood chopper, decline Russian twist|
You should also include some sport specific exercises. Some that work well for hikers, backpackers, mountaineers, and trail runners:
- Calf raise (standing, sitting)
- Deadlifts (one-legged, Bulgarian, classic)
- Hamstring curls (using machine, ankle weights, or stability ball)
- Core exercises (crunches, reverse crunches, hanging leg lifts)
- Glute bridge (lift one leg to increase resistance)
2 kinds of strength training workouts to focus on during your off season
This workout builds both muscular strength and endurance. Perform this workout 2–3 times a week using 6–8 of the exercises above.
You can mix up your exercises throughout the week for fun and variety. Just be sure to include a good mix of functional movements and sport-specific exercises.
To boost your cardio time, skip the rest period and perform this workout as a circuit. Rest for 2–3 minutes between circuits.
If you are an outdoor athlete who carries heavy loads (backpacker, mountaineer), you may also benefit from a 4–8-week heavy-lifting period near the beginning of your training season. Only begin this period after sufficient rest and when your muscles are balanced and well-conditioned.
For your heavy lifting period, choose 3–5 sport-specific exercises. The best choices are exercises that work multiple muscle groups like squats, deadlifts, Turkish get-ups, and hanging leg lifts.
Perform the following 2–3 times a week:
Again, it’s fine to mix up the exercises for variety. (Five one day; a different five on another day.)
5. Your long workout
Can you replicate a 6-hour hike in the gym? To be honest, not completely.
Hiking outside has many training benefits. It gets you used to moving over varied, changing terrain. You’ll also learn to deal with weather and other environmental obstacles. And it gives you a chance to test your nutrition, gear, and clothing systems in real-world conditions.
From this point of view, even walking around the city with your backpack is better than walking on the treadmill!
So whenever possible, do your long workout outdoors.
That being said, if a huge snowstorm hits, or you’re stuck on a cruise ship, it’s possible to replicate your long endurance workout in the gym.
Long workout gym tips
Doing hours of moderate cardio in the gym takes commitment and grit! Here are some tips to make the process less painful.
- Measure your long gym workout by time, not miles.
- To prevent burnout and boredom, break your long workout into two “longish” workouts on consecutive days.
- Use sport-specific exercises like stair mill, step-ups, or walking uphill on an incline treadmill.
- Keep intensity moderate (near aerobic threshold or 3 to 4 on a 10-point effort scale).
- Wear the same pack in the gym that you would use if you were outdoors.
- Do longer workouts when the gym is not busy. Be courteous and respect time limits if others are waiting for machines or equipment.
And there you have ’em. My best tips on how to train for hiking in the gym.
Need support and encouragement while training during the cold months — or any time? Jump in my Facebook Group, Mountaineers and Backpackers in Training.
Originally published Nov. 10, 2019.