"How do you train for hiking 2650 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail?" A lot of people have asked me this, including many of my colleagues in the fitness industry.
Many of my fitness expert friends were all too eager to give me some (rather opinionated, not to mention unsolicited) advice on all the stuff I should be doing in the gym to prepare to hike from Mexico to Canada ... farmer's walks, stepmill with a weighted vest on, walking lunges for an hour a day, core training, core training and more core training, yoga (including on the trail), and a lot more... (nevermind they had never hiked a day in their lives, let alone thru-hiked).
Others, including highly skilled and knowledgable trainers, had no idea how you'd prepare for a trek like this. They never had a client who was trying to get ready for something like this.
I think the answer is simple. You follow the same two primary principles of conditioning that apply to any sports training or fitness endeavor:
If I'm going to have to hike 20 to 30 miles a day carrying 20 to 30 pounds on my back over rough and steep terrain to make it through this 2650 mile trail, the best way to train is not to do a bunch of "functional" stuff in a gym, the best way to train is to go hike 20-30 miles a day carrying 20 to 30 pounds on my back through rough and steep terrain, right? That's the principle of specificity, isn't it?
In fact, the ultimate (specific) way to train would be to go hike on the Pacific Crest Trail itself, with the same pack I'll be hiking it with, in the same conditions I'll be hiking in (including desert heat and or snow). But since I live on the east coast, the next best thing is the Appalachian trail, so that's exactly what I've been doing.
In the past month and a half, I've section hiked almost all of the NY and NJ part of the Appalachian trail (pictured: when your hike starts with "Agony Grind" you know it's going to be a good one!)
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm the biggest advocate of resistance training ("pumping iron") you will ever meet! I started lifting weights in my parent's garage when I was 14 years old and have never missed over a week of planned workouts in the 34 years since! (including 28 bodybuilding competitions between 1989 and 2005).
I believe strength training and other work you do in the gym is only going to help a hiker, not only to perform better but also to avoid injury. But I don't think any specific exercises you do in the gym will be a substitute for time on the trail. The best way to train for hiking is hiking.
Principle two would suggest: Don't try to start with 20-30 miles a day with a 20-30 pound pack or you are going to be hurting, or even cause a serious injury (possibly one that is hike-ending). I've been applying this training principle by progressively building up the distance, packweight and elevation gain.
In the past week I finally built up to "26 with 26" - 26 miles with total pack weight of 26 lbs (combined with over 4000 feet elevation gain/loss). That puts me right on schedule because my goal for the Pacific Crest Trail is a "marathon a day" and the pct sure isn't level (490,000 feet of total gain and loss, according to the most recent data from the pcta.org website)
As I write this, it's Just 3 weeks until I start my 2650 mile hike from the Mexican Border to Canada, and thanks to my training I feel 100% prepared physically to cover the distance and elevation. The only thing I haven't trained for is the desert heat and the snow.
Maybe even more important than the purely physical readiness is that being out on the trails for shakedown hikes has given me the chance to test out all my gear including shoes, socks, pack, shelter, sleeping system and everything else I have to carry with me. Plus I've experienced, cold, heat, rain, mud, rocks, climbing, descending and what it feels like to trudge through these conditions from sunrise to sunset.
By the way, go ahead and tell me it's not going to happen because I'm going to be too tired, (like everyone else on the hiker forums and facebook groups has told me), but I still plan to lift during this trek. I might be the only person who has ever done it... but that will be the subject of another post...
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