I’ll admit it, I was pretty overconfident in the weeks before I left for a recent trip to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. Frequently, I was asked “Have you been training or anything?” for the nine day, 19K-elevation-gain hike, and casually I would respond, “Eh, not exactly.”
Honestly, I assumed that my near-daily HIIT workouts sprinkled with Pilates classes would be more than enough to get me through. After all, the Kilimanjaro hike has a reputation for being incredibly accessible, and the particular route we were taking has the highest summit success rate of any of the different ways up Kilimanjaro.
An effective conditioning programs must contain aerobic activity that increase the heart rate for a minimum of 45-60 minutes four times per week. Strengthen leg muscles used for trekking by running, ski touring, bicycling, rollerblading, hiking with a pack, stair-climbing or working on equivalent machines in the gym. Since training is highly sport-specific, always include some hiking, running, or strenuous walking into your program.
However, I did little to no hiking because, well, Chicago is pretty damn flat. And while I’ve deeply wanted to get a pair of rollerblades in the past couple of years, it’s not incredibly realistic in a Chicago winter.
And were these classes enough to see me safely up a mountain? Well, I’d say mostly. I’m lucky enough to be a former endurance runner who now teaches group fitness classes and write for a health and wellness blog, so I’d say I had a leg up on most people training for this once-in-a-lifetime excursion. And even though I feel my senior citizenship settling in, the reality is that at 28, I had the advantage of being young and injury-free.
So, I arrived at the starting line of the hike in my typical shape, but without having done anything special to prepare. And within a few days, I realized that although I was recovering well in between day hikes and had the cardiovascular capacity to handle days with eight hours of hiking, there were definitely a few things I could have added to my typical strength routine to be even more ready for the demands of the hike.
Got a big hiking expedition coming up, or just want to feel a little less sore next time you take the stairs? Try these strength training exercises for hiking to condition your muscles.
Weighted Single Leg Step-Ups
Here’s something I’d never considered before I had only my thoughts to keep me occupied for hours and hours a day: hiking, like running, is a series of single-leg balances. I was gently reminded of this fact for long sections of the trail during which we were stepping up onto huge rocks (sometimes as tall as my knee) one foot at a time, and then eventually coming back down them. Balance, especially in unstable and often slippery conditions, was crucial.
What this exercise does: With the help of a box, an ottoman, a chair, or even just a set of steps, you can isolate muscles in one leg at a time to address any imbalances and inefficiencies (and #facts, we are all better at balancing on one leg over the other — so don’t feel silly if you’re a little more wobbly on one leg).
How to do weighted single-leg step-ups: Stand in front of the item you’ll be stepping up onto (for example, a box at your gym), holding a pair of dumbbells at your side or at your chest. Place your entire left foot on the box. Slowly step up onto the box with your weight in that left foot, keeping your torso as straight as possible and your head tall; your right foot should drag behind you alongside the back of the box. Come to a full standing position, then slowly bend your left knee and bring your right foot back down to the ground (slowly is key! Control your descent to work those muscles). Finish with your left foot back on the ground. Burn out one leg before switching sides.
What this exercise does: Same reasoning as above, with a little more of a focus on hamstrings rather than glutes.
How to do single-leg deadlifts: Start standing with feet hips-width distance, one dumbbell in your right hand (or, a dumbbell in each hand; you could also work with a barbell here). Extend your right leg straight behind you as you hinge your torso forward, starting the movement from your hips. Keep your back straight, you left knee bent slightly and your right foot flexed. Exhale to return back to standing. Burn out one leg before switching sides.
Lunges and Squats
What these exercises do: Lunges and squats are great bodyweight moves to build lower-body strength and improve range of motion. With or without dumbbells, these foundational moves are incredibly functional, especially when hiking a mountain.
How to do lunges: Keep your feet hips width apart or wider and sit back into a squatting position. Lunge one foot behind you into a reverse lunge, keeping your back heel lifted. Bring your back leg back to your squat and step your opposite leg back into a lunge. Lunging your right and left leg back one time is one rep.
How to do squats: Start with your feet hips-width apart. Lower down into a squat, keeping your toes slightly turned out, your weight in your heels and your chest lifted. Exhale to drive through your heels and stand all the way back up.
What this exercise does: While single leg step-ups and deadlifts help you establish a sense of balance, skaters are much more full-body and challenge your control from top to bottom. Plus, as a cardio move, skaters will get your heart rate up.
How to do skaters: Start with your feet together. Jump your right leg out to the side and land lightly on your right leg, crossing your left leg behind you. Power off your right leg to jump to the left and land softly on your left leg, moving back and forth laterally for the full round.
What this exercise does: As I struggled to lift my hiking boot out of a two-foot snowdrift, my hips aggressively reminded me of their existence. Anytime you’re lifting your feet up higher than ground level, your hips are working overtime to carry that weight.
How to do hip bridges: Lie on your back, feet on the ground and knees pointed up. Lift your hips up into a glute bride, squeezing your glutes at the top. Lower down to barely tap your hips on the ground, exhale and squeeze your glutes to raise your hips back up.
What this exercise does: Planks are the avocado of exercises: good with basically everything. A strong core sets the foundation for a strong every-other-body-part, and planks are preferred over crunches because planks won’t strain your lower back or spine. Plus, planks also activate your shoulders, glutes, and legs, giving you more bang for your fitness buck.
How to do a plank: On either forearms or palms, keep your shoulders hips and heels in one line and engage your core to hold your plank position. (Craving more core? Check out workouts from Sweatworking trainers Courtney Belcastro and Trista Greco)
(Disclaimer: This workout is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor is it a replacement for seeking medical treatment or professional nutrition advice. Do not start any nutrition or physical activity program without first consulting your physician.)