Have any of you noticed gaps in your personal training schedule lately? You are not alone! It is officially vacation season, and many clients take advantage of the warm weather to leave town, escape from work and embrace the great outdoors.
While some families favor tropical locations and posh resorts, many of our younger clients choose a more active getaway. Camping and hiking adventures often prove to be cost-effective, which in part may account for their rise in popularity over the past few years. Some individuals simply thrive on the adrenaline of an arduous challenge. When a client tells us of such an upcoming trip, we can help them train appropriately so they are ready to don a backpack and boots and hit the trails with confidence.
As fitness professionals, we are very familiar with the many advantages associated with hiking. Depending upon the pace the climber keeps, as well as the incline of the trails, hiking very quickly becomes an aerobic activity. Keeping in mind the backpack being hauled, this adventure also packs a powerful punch in terms of weight-bearing exercise. Spending several days outside in the sunshine ensures an adequate supply of Vitamin D entering the body.
Perhaps one of the most enticing aspects of hiking is the psychological “escape” it provides. After only a few miles, one can begin to allow the mind to drift, relaxing as the tensions of everyday life melt away. As your client becomes one with the natural flora and terrain, this type of getaway offers a way to quiet the mind and stir the soul. However, if a hiker does not feel prepared for the trek, or is nervous about energy supply and endurance, he will be robbed of this gift of mental tranquility, and his entire experience will be diminished. This is where the personal trainer comes into play.
When a client mentions plans for an upcoming hiking adventure, our first step is to encourage him to get a doctor’s approval, especially if the climb is a challenging one. There is a vast difference between being fit for the gym and sufficiently trained for a weeklong uphill and downhill hike.
Once this piece is in place, the safest way to design such a prep program is by starting the client out with fast-paced distance walking. Educate the client on how to determine Maximum Heart Rate (MHR), easily done by subtracting age from 220. Knowing that the optimal range for conditioning muscles lies between 60% and 70% of one’s MHR, taking the result of the subtraction and multiplying that number by 60% or 70% will provide a target HR. If the client is already accustomed to long sessions on a treadmill, suggest that he gradually increases the incline of the treadmill. Another way to simulate a difficult hike is to introduce the client to a step mill. If you are unfamiliar with this unique piece of equipment, imagine climbing up a never-ending escalator that is going down. The speed of the stride can also be adjusted, adding a new dimension with which to vary the training.
At this time of year, I sometimes notice one of our members toting a pack on his back while briskly walking on a steeply inclined treadmill. There is little doubt in my mind that a hiking adventure is in his near future! By gradually adding weight to the backpack, a client can ease into the adaptation that will be required on the climb. Learning to pace oneself in terms of stride length, respiration rate and weight bearing will prove to be a valuable tool during both the ascent and the descent.
A key aspect of conditioning that must not be overlooked when designing a hiking prep program is balance. Flexibility, too, plays a major role in the success of the adventure. Single-leg squats are an ideal exercise for developing balance as well as quad strength. Back extension exercises, such as the Superman, encourage both flexibility and strength in the lower back. Side plank raises help to prepare the core stabilizing muscles for the balance that will be called upon when hiking up a significant incline while carrying a backpack. Proper stretching at the end of each day’s hike will ease the muscles and allow them to recover and be ready to face the next leg of the climb on the following day. Each stretch, regardless of the body part, should be held for at least 15-30 seconds for maximum benefit.
If you have been working with the client for some time, he is no doubt already familiar with the basics of strength training. In preparing him for his hiking trip, particular attention should be paid to developing leg strength and shoulder/upper body strength. Dumbbell shrugs are an ideal exercise to incorporate, as are walking lunges and squats. Push-up’s are always a good choice for chest strength; try varying the hand placement to put more emphasis on the triceps. For the more advanced client, suggest he wear his backpack while performing the push-up. Another compound exercise ideally suited for hiking prep is a push-up with hands placed on dumbbells. After each push-up, alternate rows with left hand and right hand. Focus should be placed on squeezing the lats while maintaining proper core alignment.
In considering the age of a hiker, it is interesting to note that endurance performance reaches its peak by our late 30’s. Maximum heart rate drops as a result of aging/stiffening tissue, and this can interfere with a client’s ability to tackle steep inclines. In order to compensate for this, suggest that the client increase his stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped through the body with each contraction of the heart) and efficiency with endurance training. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends increasing exercise to at least 150 minutes per week, at 65 to 85 percent of the target heart rate.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers, the type that come into play while sprinting and executing power moves, decrease between 4 and 10 % per decade beginning at age 40 in sedentary adults. But slow-twitch muscle, the type used in endurance training, remains strong. To harness this power, train the client with hill workouts. Fast climbs up short, steep hills (anaerobic exercise), followed by slow descents (aerobic exercise) will force fast-twitch muscles to work on the way up, while measured descents will invoke the slow-twitch muscles.
Hiking up a rugged mountain is one of those situations in which nothing should be taken for granted, and this includes the face and surface of the mountains. Slippery slopes and vertical walls often present themselves on an arduous trek, courtesy of Mother Nature. Thus, a strong grip is important for hikers to develop in case they lose their footing. Being comfortable in a prolonged hanging position can go a long way in thwarting off fear should such an unexpected surface present itself. Introduce your client to a pull-up bar and have him imagine such a scenario. Encourage him to try hanging on for successively longer amounts of time over the weeks and months leading up to the hike. Sometimes just a few seconds of grip strength can make all the difference in pulling oneself up to safety.
Although we are adept at physically conditioning a client’s body for any variety of activities, we must not overlook our role in helping the hiker develop psychological stamina for his approaching trip. Mental visualization techniques are valuable in keeping the mind focused on what lies ahead. If he can see it, even in his mind’s eye, he can achieve it. Before each new level of training, ask the client to imagine the challenges awaiting him before he even enters the gym. By rehearsing movements in his head, he will have a much easier time actually performing the exercises. As the client’s cardio sessions increase in length and intensity, encourage him to “see the summit” and believe in his ability to conquer the trail. A clear vision to the summit will be rewarded with a spectacular view; and the client will have you to thank for his ability to have arrived safely!!!