Hike Stronger: Get Prepared for a Great Season with Specialized Exercises

 

Photos by Bryan Carroll

Over the past several years, we’ve been lucky enough to build a pretty substantial community around Hyperlite Mountain Gear as the business has grown. Making gear that people really connect with has translated to a lot of relationships and a lot of stories—a major side-benefit of doing what we do.

Bryan Carroll, a young guy with a serious bent for getting out and into it, was an early-adopter of our take on ultralight design. He bought a pack early on, and soon the pictures followed. He lives in an adventure-rich zone in the Cascades in Washington, but even people with incredible access out their backdoors don’t do as much as this guy in a given week.

At the same time, it’s been a pleasure to watch Bryan build a professional life for himself, sprouted from his passion for the outdoors. Somehow, in addition to basically living in the mountains, he’s also managed to rack up an assortment of degrees and certifications, plus seven years of experience in his field. At the end of some long hours off-trail and in school, he’s now a Physical Therapist with his own practice. He tailors his services toward holistic, full-body health, using his clinical skills to help active people mend existing injuries and prevent future ones with nutrition counseling and movement therapy.

Balanced Exercises For a Balanced Hiking Season

If you read the Hyperlite Mountain Gear blog regularly, you’ve probably noticed we have a thing for systems, efficiency and sustainability. Fortunately, so does Bryan. His approach to training for big efforts in the backcountry is based on achieving a higher level of efficiency by harnessing the power of the systems that propel our bodies down the trail and through life. The end goal is to help people hike, climb, run, bike and ski stronger, and longer—both on a daily basis and for years to come.

For most of us across the country, the season is just getting going right now. And while a lot of us shy away from considering ourselves athletes, we would probably all admit that we could do a little more to keep the momentum up season-to-season. That’s why we decided to consult Bryan—fresh off a two-week trip to Patagonia—to see if he might have any specific recommendations to help us get out of the gate and over the initial fitness hump before we sling on a pack for any kind of real mileage.

The old “hike yourself into shape” mantra is probably the most common fitness program among hikers and backpackers. Most of us focus on working our legs out at this time of year, if we do anything at all. According to Bryan, that’s reasonable, but faulty logic. “Sure, hiking does primarily involve the legs,” he says, “but the entire body is needed to make any one system work. There’s a lot of core and upper body rotational movement involved in the motion, too.”

The thing is, our muscles aren’t exclusively forward-motion machines. They don’t grind along like tank tracks. “Elasticity is really what propels you and makes you walk forward faster and more efficiently,” adds Bryan. He explains:

“When you’re walking, your legs are typically going one direction while your arms and upper body move in the opposite way. That lengthens all of the muscle and tissue strands across the body, and the rebounding action helps to propel you into your next step. It’s like a rubber band effect; If you’re trying to shoot a rubber band across a room, if you don’t pull it back first, it’s not going to go anywhere. The more you pull it, the more power you’re going to get in the opposite direction.”

Loading into the body is what creates power, to get us up and over obstacles and past cruxes. This is why it’s so important to think about the entire body when considering exercises to do to prepare for hiking season or a big trip. Yes, strong legs are important and will help you feel better, faster during serious efforts early on. But you can’t rely on working them out alone to get ready. Really, there are a couple of reasons for that, but they’re related.

The first, obviously, is over-use. Again, Bryan: “Just like with any other sport, training for one activity, i.e., range of motion, can result in over-use of certain muscles and tissue, and even wear out joints.” In short, if you want to hike strong now, and for the rest of your life, you want to mix up your base fitness routine to include something other than hiking.

A solid preparation workout needs to do more than just nimbly steer clear of repetitive motion, though. It should also build the core and upper body musculature to be able to handle the initial loading—that cross-body stretching motion that allows us to harness the power of the legs. Balancing the two creates a whole-body system primed for movement in any direction—the definition of efficiency.

That’s why, in order to really get a jump on the season, you need to break out of the standard, single-plane range of motion associated with forward movement. Working in side-to-side and circular motions will expand the ranges of motion engaged to complete the picture.

Balancing out tissue has the added benefit of keeping it from getting “stuck” in a pathway. Muscles that are accustomed to one kind of unidirectional movement are less adaptable and more prone to injury when something unpredictable gets thrown into the mix. And as we all know, hiking and scrambling—especially in the early season when trail conditions are often variable—tend to be the definition of unpredictable.

Ultimately, a balanced approach to physical preparation is about creating resilience and fostering efficiency. In scenarios where your balance is a bit off, you’ll be ready to deal. And when everything is all good, you’ll be firing on all cylinders.

Ever the pragmatist, Bryan Carroll wraps his approach to pre-season prep up simply: “You do use more legs than upper body hiking, so you don’t have to go all-in on the upper body, but some goes a long way.” Here’s how to get a good start:

Bryan Carroll’s Basic Guide to Exercises for Hiking Pre-season Prep
1. Dress for Success & Work the Kinks Out

Yeah, it’s spring, but it can still be on the cool-to-cold size out there. Pay special attention to maintaining your core temperature, ideally to where you’re holding some heat but not overheating. Warm tissue equals happy tissue, especially when it’s just getting used to getting going again.

Also, if you live in a cold climate, odds are you’re holding a lot of general tightness and other crud in your feet. A little self-massage goes a long way. Especially while you’re out on the trail.

2. Stretch

Especially ankles, hip flexors, lateral hips and hamstrings. For the ankles, you can lie on your back and hold your leg up in the air. Move the ankle around in circles in alternating directions. You can also lie face down with the top of your foot against the ground and do the same thing for a variation.

For hip flexors, try the pigeon stretch (ease into it). Hamstrings? You know the drill.

3. Build

Lunges and squats are your best/worst friend. There are a million varieties of each, but the best increase flexibility and strength at the same time. Crossing that to/fro axis is key here, which can be accomplished with or without weight for added resistance. Forward lunges can be crossed up by reaching towards the forward knee with the opposite arm. The same works for side lunges. For a deep hip stretch and hamstring strengthener, grab a weight or water bottle for counter balance, drop to a deep squat and use your elbow to push the knees gently outward.

3. Eat right
More to come on that in future posts from Bryan and Brian.