Why Fitness is Important for Hiking

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I’ve wanted to write something about training for outdoor activities for some time. Why? Because I think it’s an aspect that not many people pay much credence to.

I mean, why do we need to get fit to walk? Isn’t walking enough? Also, why should we need to get “fit” for something that is essentially our “fun time”? Perfectly good questions.

I also imagine you pleading, “Please, can we just leave fitness out of this one thing in my life? I worry about what I eat, what I drink, and how active I am every day…do I really need to think about how fit I am to enjoy the outdoors?”

Why it’s important to consider fitness for the outdoors

I totally get those questions. I totally share those sentiments. But, consider this: have you ever walked with a stone in your shoe?

Was it really possible to enjoy the company, the wildlife, the spectacular views, the clean fresh air, when all you can think about is getting that damn stone out of your boot?…Not likely.

So, here’s my point, everything is more enjoyable when you’re comfortable. You’ll be more comfortable if you are able to do the things you love to do with ease – to walk, hike, climb, camp, whatever you want to do for fun. And, you’re more able to do these things with ease if you’re in shape.

Woman wearing boots looking over sea cliff

When you’re in peak physical condition – you’ll be able to get more out of your adventures. Photo: iStock 

The 3 different types of fitness

For hiking, this means being fit in 3 different ways: aerobic fitness, strength, and stamina. Eliminating your physical discomfort by preparing and strengthening your body for your activities will heighten the enjoyment of your activity tenfold.

Now, your physical discomfort could be as simple as how hard you’re breathing.

Do you need to stop to catch your breath? Why is that? Well, essentially your body has evolved this response to avoid system-wide failure. It’s a sign that there is insufficient oxygen in your system to support the continual activity you’re doing. Keep it up, and your muscles will lose their strength, deteriorate in function, and eventually fail to function altogether (although you’ll probably faint first!)

The body’s best way to avoid this outcome is to stop, breathe through it, and restore those oxygen levels to the status quo. Stopping ‘for a breather’ on the track takes on a different dimension when you’re not fighting for air.

Men hiking up

If you work on your aerobic fitness, strength and stamina, you’ll be able to enjoy hiking more. Photo: Camelbak

1. Aerobic Fitness

I think this is what most people think of when they consider the concept of ‘aerobic fitness’. It certainly happens while hiking. Fortunately, we’ve been taught since we were kids that to improve our fitness you just gotta do it.

Being aerobically active conditions our bodies to be more efficient. More efficient at moving oxygen around. More efficient because we’re carrying fewer stores of fat. More efficient because our muscles are stronger and more capable of shuttling waste by-products away. More efficient in a thousand more ways, which are increasingly technical, biological, and un-bloggable.

Stopping ‘for a breather’ on the track takes on a different dimension when you’re not fighting for air. You now have time to appreciate the birdsong, take a photo or help your companion with something. It’s no longer a gasping, desperate experience which means you can now stop to smell the flowers.

Man hiking with pack and trekking poles out in the bush

Improved aerobic fitness means you won’t be caught out of breath as much. Photo: Ben Collaton

2. Strength

One of our biggest complaints on the trail is the uphill/downhill stuff. Let’s face it. Cruising along the flat ground is easy, but as soon as we start adding altitude, it hurts. Mainly, it’s the legs, and the muscles doing most of the work are those front quads.

We’ve all felt that aching, burning feeling after a few minutes hard slog up a slope, right? As we all know, this is the lactic acid build-up in our legs, due to the effort our quads are putting in, contracting hard to pull our hips up over our knees with every upward step.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with feeling the burn, right? But if it hurts so much that you’re stopping every minute to rest, or gasping in pain, or worst of all, cramping up, then it’s worth thinking about ways to mitigate the discomfort.

Two people hiking up tall mountains

For improved comfort going up or downhill, strength is what you need to work on. Photo: iStock 

How to mitigate discomfort mid-hike

When we stop, it gives our bodies a chance to flush the lactic acid out of our muscles, restore that oxygen to them, and allow them to reset for another slog.

What we find, however, is that by strengthening (or conditioning) our muscles beforehand, they are better equipped to handle the contractions. They’ll be more able to ‘flush out’ the lactic acid, and probably produce less of it in the first place.

Speaking from personal experience, the best way to condition your muscles to the rigours of the trail is to exercise them in a way that imitates the actions and stresses you put on them.

Do I use weighted leg exercises in the gym? You bet. Front barbell squats absolutely hammer my quads, as do seated leg presses. My aim is to increase the muscles’ capacity to push, to strengthen the muscle via simulation, and I do this typically with weights exceeding those that I would carry on the trail.

3. Stamina

While weight training is the best way to strengthen or bulk the muscle, it has its drawbacks.

Firstly, you can only do so much (let’s say, 10-15 repetitions) before you tire, and need to rest them. I don’t like this pattern because it’s not what I’m trying to replicate for the trail. If I conditioned my body to output 100% for 15 steps, but then it had to rest for three minutes, I wouldn’t get anywhere.

That’s why I also think it’s a good idea to develop the muscle’s ability to flush out waste by-product. So introducing steady but strenuous exercise like cycling has been my tactic.

Using the gears on my bike, I can make the work as hard or easy as I like, and the continual motion forces my body to flush out the lactic acid on-the-go, as opposed to in between weighted sets.

Taking a break by sitting down and looking at the view

If your stamina improves, you won’t be as tired on the trail. Photo: Coleman Australia

In Summary…

I’m no strength coach and no fitness professional. I’m a hiker first, and a gym-rat second. I’m not sure how many of us there are, but I’d love to hear from you if you’re out there.

Am I qualified to instruct you on getting in better shape for the track? No. But as this is a fact-based article based on my personal experience and learning, I hope you have found it helpful. And, I hope it gets you thinking about ways to enhance your ‘on-track’ experience by making some changes in your daily lifestyle.

Please feel free to share how you get fit and stay fit for your outdoor activities – I’d love to hear your experiences.

About the writer...

Peter Inverarity

Outdoor enthusiast, with experience in multiple-day trips hiking, canoeing, and kayaking and a passion for climbing, bouldering, sailing, caving and snorkelling.
But there is nothing I love more than getting others involved in the beauty of nature – especially the next generation.

Joined back in February, 2014

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