Taking time off from hiking now can prevent future injuries, says Gwen Buchanan, a physical therapist in Pennsylvania who is preparing to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. The most common hiking problems she sees include ankle and back injuries, as well as meniscal tears in the knees. Building strength, balance and endurance can help prevent falls and injuries once you return to your favorite trails, Buchanan says.
Lee Welton, a physical therapy assistant, certified personal trainer and owner of Trailside Fitness, suggests you use the offseason to address your weaknesses and any chronic pains. “If you can sneak in some exercises to target these problem areas, I think you’re going to be much better off come the next hiking season,” he says.
If you aren’t sure where your problem areas are, a physical therapist can identify the sources of any musculoskeletal issues. For example, a detailed gait analysis and movement-pattern evaluation might reveal that your hip pain is coming from your ankle or your back, Buchanan says. Once your physical therapist has determined the underlying issues, that therapist will give you the appropriate exercises.
Any winter workout routine will depend on a number of factors, including your fitness level, your goals and how much time you can devote to training. Below are a few suggestions to get you going — most of which can be done in the warmth of your home.
Try something different
Buchanan, 50, uses the offseason to experiment with novel activities, such as tap dancing. She discovered it at age 44 and finds it requires balance, coordination, ankle strength and cardiovascular stamina — all of which support the physical demands of hiking. Her primary motivation, however, is to have fun — and to leave her comfort zone.
“Try something you haven’t done before,” she suggests. The more experience you have with tolerating discomfort, Buchanan says, the better equipped you’ll be to handle the inevitable challenges on the trail.
Wear a weighted vest (even if you're not working out)
Wearing a weighted vest does more than prepare you to carry a heavy backpack. It works nearly every muscle in your body, including your core, Buchanan says. Plus, it offers an effective workout without taking time out of your schedule. She wears a 20-pound vest while seeing patients.
She suggests starting with an eight-pound vest for an hour each day, and gradually increasing to eight hours daily. Once that feels comfortable, try a slightly heavier vest, again working up to eight hours. (To avoid buying multiple vests, purchase an adjustable one.)
Add resistance training
Resistance training helps prepare your body for the rigors of the trail, whether you’re using your body weight, dumbbells or household items as stand-ins for traditional weights.
For a resistance-training sequence that hits most of the major muscle groups associated with hiking, Welton suggests the following: a set of 10 to 25 lunges per leg; a set of 10 to 25 door-frame rows per arm; and a set of 10 to 25 calf raises, resting as needed. Aim to complete this sequence three to five times, two to four times per week, depending on your fitness level and how much time you have.
To do a door-frame row, which targets your arms and back, stand in front of an open doorway. Grasp the door frame with one arm extended in front of you, and perform a squat, keeping resistance through your arm as you stand back up. Repeat, holding onto the door frame with the other arm.
Calf raises may be “unsexy,” Welton says, but they can prevent ankle sprains by working your calves, ankles and feet.
If you only have time for one move, make it a lunge, Welton says. “It’s just a perfect carry-over into hiking.” If you experience knee pain (or just hate lunges), do step-ups instead. According to Welton, you don’t need a weight bench or a plyometric box; a sturdy chair, picnic bench, coffee table or even a stack of garden pavers or cinder blocks will work. To increase the intensity, he suggests performing lunges or step-ups with weights or a backpack.
Aim for two to three strength-training sessions per week. If your packed schedule leaves little or no time for a dedicated workout, try sprinkling short, frequent sessions into your day. Welton and Buchanan suggest doing squats or calf raises while your leftovers heat up or lunging down the hallway between meetings.
Strengthen your core
A strong core helps improve your balance and body awareness, ultimately guarding you from falls and injuries, says Rue Mapp, founder and chief executive of Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit that connects Black people with nature. Hiking, she says, is “not just your legs. It’s your whole body.”
Core strength also protects your back, Buchanan says. Without it, hikers get “sloppy,” especially when they’re tired. Then, “they twist and they turn and they jerk a certain way, and poof: a back injury.”
Both Welton and Buchanan say planks should be a key part of your core routine, using modifications as needed, such as starting on your elbows. You can also incorporate variations, such as side planks. The beauty of planks, Welton says, is “you don’t have to get too inventive with these exercises for them to be effective.”
Improve your mobility
A well-rounded offseason program also includes stretching. According to Buchanan, an improved range of motion in your joints helps you safely navigate hilly, uneven, rocky and/or slippery surfaces. Otherwise, “when your body weight slides and slips” under a heavy backpack, “you’re going to snap something.”
Welton suggests doing a 20- to 30-minute gentle yoga class two to three times a week. If that’s too much, even once a week is “better than nothing.”
You can also stretch solo. One of Buchanan’s favorite stretches for your feet, ankles and calves is simply standing at the edge of a step and letting your heels hang down. Downward dog also targets multiple muscle groups, including the shoulders, mid-back and hamstrings, Welton says. For your back and arms, Buchanan and Welton suggest child’s pose.
Keep walking, weather permitting
Your winter workout doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective. “Walking is perfect,” Welton says. To add intensity and keep it interesting, he suggests “fartlek” sessions. During this unstructured workout, you vary your pace intermittently to “sneak in some of these little intervals.” This helps build cardiovascular fitness (while also giving you a chance to break in those new boots before hiking season starts).
Another way to spice up your walk: Wear your backpack or weighted vest. If you’re pressed for time, Welton says, hill repeats offer a lot of bang for your buck.
Although you might be tempted to turn your walks into jogs, Welton discourages non-runners from doing so, because of the potential for injury. “You may feel great for three or four weeks, and then all of a sudden, you start getting shin pain and foot pain and calf pain.”
Try an easy hike
Winter hiking certainly isn’t off-limits. According to Mapp, provided you have the right gear and knowledge of trail closures and weather, you’ll probably enjoy thinner crowds during the colder months. An easy hike can also serve as an active recovery workout to complement your harder sessions.
But hiking doesn’t just do a body good; the benefits extend far beyond the physical. Sharing a hike with one or two friends (in masks, of course), offers much-needed social connection. And there’s huge value in connecting with nature. As Mapp puts it: A gentle walk in the woods is “a balm for the soul,” which “we all need now more than ever.”
Pam Moore is a Boulder-based freelance writer, speaker, marathoner, Ironman triathlete and certified personal trainer. Visit her at pam-moore.com.