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The Green Life: Tips From the Pros: Top 4 Hiking Exercises

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June 12, 2013

Tips From the Pros: Top 4 Hiking Exercises

Mark WestmanWhether your sport of choice is paddling, climbing, hiking, or surfing, we'll help you improve your outdoor experience with training tips from the pros.

Four Exercises for Hikers 

Mark Westman knows what it takes to reach the summit. A Denali National Park ranger who has climbed throughout the Alaskan Range for 20 seasons, Westman conducts high-altitude patrols when a hiker — or nature — takes an unexpected turn. Searching for some exercises to rescue your hiking-related goals? This search-and-rescue expert has your answer.

1. Stairmaster / Stationary Bicycle

In addition to a proper warm-up, Westman says that a staple for every hiker and technical climber is a solid foundation of aerobic fitness. No mountain? No problem — you're doing a few of the next best moves to hiking itself when you hop on the StairMaster or a bike. An even easier way? Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Plus, all of these exercises put less stress on your knees and joints than running. Go for an amount of time (Westman advises longer, moderately-intense durations) that mimics the distance of a true climb.

2. Backpack Training

But hold on, you might be saying. I'm ready for the big hikes now!

You could be the StairMaster King, but graduating to big climbs like Denali means you'll be travelling with a heavier load. To simulate the monster climbs with heavy packs, carry a backpack filled with gallon containers of water up a trail with significant elevation gains. If you really want to go for it, Westman suggests an elevation of more than 2000 feet. At the high point of the trail, dump out (or drink) your water weight and descend back down with a light pack. This saves your knees from taking an unnecessary pounding. Besides, your body deserves a well-deserved break after a climb like that, right?

But before you even think about picking up that weight, Westman reminds us that an accurate assessment of your abilities is key for a successful climb. No one should rush recklessly into unfamiliar physical territory.

"The important emphasis is that different things work for different people owing to varied metabolisms, body shapes and sizes, and genetics," he writes via email. "Older people, especially those who have spent their lives being inactive, should be really careful about diving into any exercise program."

In short: Be realistic. Everest wasn't climbed in a day, and you won't impress anybody if your first official trek is to the emergency room.

3. Hanging Leg-Raises

If you're hiking Denali, chances are you won't always have a clear path to the top. You'll Denali National Park and Preserve need a strong core to overcome unexpected terrain like snow or ice. For that, Westman recommends hanging leg-raises, which increase both muscular strength and endurance. Simply hang from a bar and repeatedly raise your knees to your chest, like you're sitting in an imaginary chair. Perform the move in a calm, controlled motion. This ab exercise may not have the same popularity as the common crunch does, but it's just as important for mountaineers — if not more so.

"Hanging leg raises are in my opinion a superior and safer alternative to sit-ups for increasing core strength while mimicking the repetitive and strenuous motions of hiking, especially hiking in snow," Westman writes.

Mix up the movement when raising both legs at the same time becomes too easy. Twist both legs at different angles. Lift one leg at a time and alternate. Lift your legs straight out so that they're perpendicular to your waste. Try raising your legs above your head. Keep getting stronger by implementing different variations.

4. Hanging from Ice Tools

Hiking up a rugged mountain means that you can't take anything for granted. What if all that's standing between you and your summit is an unexpected wall of vertical sleet? Or what if you take a slip down a muddy ravine (hopefully not), and you're scrambling to grab hold of anything your frostbitten digits can find? Needless to say, a strong grip is important for hikers when they lose their footing. Pick a safe height and hang from your ice tools for as long as you can. Don't have any ice axes? Head to a pull-up bar and use just your hands. Always try to hang on for longer than what you could for your last attempt. Those few seconds could make all the difference in pulling yourself back up to safety.

Westman cites each of these exercises as beneficial for the budding climber and the expert mountaineer alike. These shouldn't be your only tools, though.

"It's also worth emphasizing the importance that for every muscle group that is trained, be sure to train the opposing muscle group," he writes. "For example, training the quadriceps (pushing) muscles in the legs should always be done with a concurrent training for the hamstring (pulling) muscles. Neglecting the oppositional muscles in any group can lead to imbalance and injuries."

Today's exercises should help you stay safe on the mountain. Check out our previous tips for paddlers and rock climbers. Tomorrow we'll help you improve your surfing skills.

--image by Roy Leggett/NPS

--image by andyKRAKOVSKI

Davis Jones is an editorial intern at Sierra. His love for the outdoors began when he stepped on a fish hook as a 12-year-old and cried, in a burst of epiphanic clarity, "I'm too young to die." He attends the University of San Diego and enjoys camping, hiking, backpacking, and other activities that more or less benefit the mosquito population.


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