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Optimize Nature’s Fitness Center

Bednar, Joanne M.S., ACSM-CEP, EIM-II

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 7/8 2021 - Volume 25 - Issue 4 - p 4
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000673
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Although hiking has been around forever, the pandemic has caused its popularity to explode. It is no surprise hiking surged in popularity as fitness centers closed and families flocked to the great outdoors to escape the confinement of their homes. However, hiking is so much more than a walk in the woods. Hiking puts unique stressors on the body, which can leave an inexperienced hiker sore, or worse yet, injured. The following hiking fitness tips may help protect the body to optimize the trail experience and to ensure that your miles bring you smiles.

HIKE LONGER

Before moving your fitness walk from the sidewalk to the trail, it is a good idea to make sure you walk or exercise regularly enough to meet the ACSM Cardiorespiratory Fitness Guidelines. Every slanted surface, rock, and root you encounter will require more energy than your flat treadmill walk. Having a foundational level of fitness is important before hitting the trails because the highly varied surface, rolling ups and downs, and steep hills are sure to send the heart rate soaring. Transition to the trails with short hikes and gradually increase distance and difficulty as your conditioning progresses.

HIKE STRONGER

Regular strength training provides a protective factor against the forces exhibited on the hips, knees, and ankles, thereby preventing injury. Strength training also will make your hikes feel easier, likely making them more enjoyable. Although subtle, there is a lateral component to hiking, so it is important to train in both linear and nonlinear patterns. Including exercises like diagonal lunges, glute bridges, and multi-directional band walks can help combat the stress on the joints. A strong core also is important and can help the hiker safely transfer energy to and from the upper to the lower body and side to side. It is important to include single-leg balance exercises as well as training with unstable surfaces such as sand, a half-foam roller, or a balance training device to help prevent ankle rolls and knee sprains. An ACSM Certified Personal Trainer can assist you in setting up an individualized program and provide instruction in proper technique for each exercise.

MOVE EASIER

Hiking may leave your body sore in places you have never felt before. To help match the forces of trail variability, it is important to preface every hike with a dynamic warm up including heel raises, hip swings, and lunges to prepare the tissues for activity. Start the hike slowly and pace yourself appropriately for the hike’s distance and terrain. After a hike, it is important to stretch the entire body to help promote recovery. Stretch the hip flexors, calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps before heading home. Using a foam roller under proper guidance may assist in mobility and recovery.

HIKE SAFER

Consider trekking poles as an additional form of protection for the knees and ankles. Trekking poles give you an extra set of “legs” and can provide support, especially when hiking on rocky or steep terrain. Trekking poles can be especially helpful for balance when crossing creeks and streams.

Bring plenty of water and snacks when you hike. Hydration packs make staying hydrated easy, fit seamlessly into your backpack, and include a straw for easy dispensing. It is not uncommon to not feel hungry or thirsty during the hike, so it is important to eat and drink small quantities at regular intervals before your energy runs out. Nuts, granola, dried fruits, and crackers are all great choices. Water is the fluid of choice.

To stay comfortable, dress in layers so you can shed them as your body heat rises. Wear sunscreen, insect repellent, and a hat to keep the sun off your face and keep bugs and ticks off your scalp. Wear wool hiking socks and proper fitting, supportive hiking shoes/boots. Bring a second pair of socks in case the first pair gets wet. Remember a flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries in case you find yourself out after dark or, worst case, lost in the woods.

Bring a fully charged cell phone and backup battery charger, but note that many trails do not have cell service. Download trail maps ahead of time, and always let someone know when and where you are hiking. Consider using a GPS personal beacon if you plan to hike remote trails. Hiking alone is not recommended.

To carry your gear, use a proper fitting backpack. Local adventure stores are great resources to help you find the right gear and the right fit for your hike.

Copyright © 2021 by American College of Sports Medicine.