Indoor Training for the Off-Season

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For sea-level living city-dwellers, it’s hard enough to navigate the time (and the traffic) to get upstate and go for a hike -- throw in the unpredictable nature of Winter in the Northeast and many people simply hang up their hiking boots until Spring. While I’m one to brave the elements at least a couple times a month for the promise of a good view and a quiet trail, I don’t always feel like being cold &/or wet either. Thankfully there are a number of exercises you can do inside that will help get your body trail-fit for when the temps do rise!

The three areas to focus on when training for hiking in the off-season are core, cardio and strength. A strong core stabilizes your body, carries the weight of your backpack and helps you remain balanced when walking on uneven terrain. A healthy heart pumps oxygen out to your muscles, allowing you to go farther and have less post-hike muscle cramps. Strong legs are what pull you uphill and keep gravity at bay on the downs, while strong and flexible arms keep you counterbalanced, allow you to pick up your heavy pack after a break and brace you in case of a fall.

Most fitness experts recommend 2-3 days of cardio work and 2-3 days of strength training per week, with 1-2 days of recovery or rest. While my workout regimen resembles that of an accordion – all in for a couple weeks, then I get busy and skip the gym, then I’m all in again & repeat – I do strive for this combo of strength and conditioning & when I have been able to stick with it, there’s a noticeable difference in how I feel post-hike. I also feel stronger in my day-to-day life and I sleep deeper, which is always lovely.

I am by no means a physical trainer or a doctor, so please consult with yours if you are new to, or have been away from the gym for a while. Common sense says to do what your body is comfortable with and work up from there. I am not going to go into the specifics of how to do each exercise, (there’s Google, YouTube and personal trainers for that), but I will share some of the exercises I’ve done at home or at the gym that have had big impact on my backpacking. 

Because the terrain of hiking is varied, be sure to pay attention to your obliques in order to keep you stable and upright. Some core exercises that really work for me are side-planks, v-ups and Russian twists. For leg strength, there’s nothing closer to hiking than everyone’s favorite – lunges! All types of lunges will work – forward, back and side. Use a resistance band or hold dumbbells in your hands for extra burn. Step-ups are great too for mimicking that uphill climb. For cardio, you don’t necessarily have to go high impact. Running will get those lungs and heart in shape, but so will the stationary or recumbent bike, the elliptical machine and simply walking as much as possible. I know it’s hard to get outside in the winter, but opting to take the stairs at home or at work is a great way to get in a little extra training. Swimming and yoga, two forms of exercise I always say I want to do more of, but rarely get around to, will certainly help train for hiking. 

There is a plethora of options for off-season training online and in-print, including week-by-week plans and how-to videos. In particular, I recommend reading the multi-page fitness spread in the March 2019 Backpacker Magazine, (which coincidentally arrived in my mailbox just as I was crafting this post), and to the following three articles. They are the most comprehensive and helpful that I’ve found. Again, I want to highlight that before beginning any new exercise routine, please consult with your physician.

Training for Hiking, by Karen Jenson & the editors at the R.E.I. blog

How to Get in Shape for Hiking, from the editors at Backpacker Magazine

Off-Season Training, by Aer Parris on the Therm-A-Rest blog

Melissa GoodwinComment