There’s a lot that goes into preparing for a long distance hike: Resupply strategy, getting to the start, gear, and perhaps most importantly…how to prepare your body for the physical challenge of walking everyday. This, without a doubt, can be one of the most fun steps in the whole experience. It doesn’t involve running or starving yourself. But rather, alternative means of transportation and bulking up dat ass.
First I’ll state the obvious best way to prepare: hike as much as possible. To optimize the benefits, hike the steep stuff with a pack on. Familiarize quads, hamstrings, glutes and hips to carrying weight and routine movements. Building up lower body muscle is incredibly helpful in preventing injury and discomfort in the first days and weeks on a hike. I tend to focus all of my strength training in those areas, along with shoulders and core.
It’s easy to assume that running would be the best cardio activity to train for a hike, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Unless someone is already a runner, I would NEVER advise them to use that as a training tool. Trail running with some vertical? That’s a different story. The best methods: Surprise! Walking and biking. Incorporating these forms of exercise as means of getting to work, school, coffee shop, etc. is the single best way to keep the muscles you’ll be using strong. Running is tough on your joints, whereas cycling and walking isn’t. So the way to get a significant burn is in distance. Hence, why using it as your transportation is the most efficient bet.
So here’s the best part: gaining weight. The good kind of course.. mostly muscle and some extra body fat. That is, of course, assuming your within a few pounds of your ideal weight. I’ll share some numbers here and then explain the rationale. When I finished the AT in 2015, I barely broke 100lbs, but my ideal/fit weight is about 110-115. I started four months previous about 20lbs heavier, coming off a college sports career. At this point in my experience, I believe gaining between 5-10% on top of your “ideal” weight puts your body in a better position for enduring the distance. For me, that means starting anywhere between 120-125lbs. The tricky part is that this is a narrow window.. any more than that and you’d risk injury from carrying TOO much extra weight (knees, feet, ankles). So for someone already significantly over their target weight, they’d want to try and lose some before a hike of this length. But otherwise, this method has proved effective for me and many other hikers.
Ok, how exactly is this helpful? It’s safe to assume the average day on the trail, we’d be in a caloric deficit (burning more calories than we can consume). Which means we’d be burning fat. It sounds like an ideal weight loss strategy, and it certainly is. The problem? A thru-hike is a multi-month endeavor; the ultimate test of your body’s endurance. With hardly any body fat to burn through, our body’s would start to eat muscle mass. You’d need to carry 5,000+ calories of food per day to fuel properly, or rely on making up for the depletion with meals in towns. When our bodies are fat depleted, there’s no energy stores to help us perform at optimal levels, leading to energy plummets and fatigue. Further, there’s no fat to provide insulation to help our bodies maintain temperature in cold environments. Because brrr, there can be some chilly nights up in the mountains. This excess can be achieved through eating extra calories consisting of protein, carbs, and fat. The bottom line: Weaker muscles lead to poor recovery and performance (possibly injury as well). The best way to avoid that is to go into a distance hike with some stored energy on your body, so you don’t reach this point in the beginning.
Now, let that sculpted ass do the walking.