At this time of year, hiking along beautiful trails in the Rocky Mountains may seem like a faint memory—unless you’re a diehard who enjoys climbing mountains through freezing conditions and deep snow (and we know there are plenty of you out there!). Whether you’re planning to conquer some mountain summits this year or navigate some rigorous trails, just because hiking season is currently paused doesn’t mean it’s time for you to slack off. The effort you put in over the winter season to keep your body (and mind) healthy and fit will pay off big time when it comes to hitting the trails this summer. We know, we know…maybe you’re still recuperating from a hectic holiday season or maybe the current state of the world is doing a real number on your nerves…we’re here to tell you it’s mid-January and yes, the world is crazy right now…that’s all the more reason why it’s so good to get up off your couch and get out there!
Since hiking is a labor-intensive activity requiring both muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance, it’s crucial to maintain a regular fitness schedule during the off season, so you won’t find yourself crumbling or gasping for air on your first trail hike of the summer. Here are some helpful ideas for exercises that will condition and strengthen the specific muscles used for hiking. There’s no better time than right now to train for your next hike! (As always, please consult a physician before starting a new exercise regimen.)
Crank up the Cardio
Okay, so our climate is fickle—January in Colorado can be bone-chilling cold or give you serious spring fever. Let’s be honest, this past December wasn’t the winter white holiday season most of us had hoped for. But let’s look at the silver lining—this unseasonably warm winter (thus far) is a perfect time to take full advantage of outdoor exercise opportunities. Get outside and get moving. Go for a run/jog/hike for great cardiovascular conditioning. Even better, when training for mountain hiking, do an incline or stairs workout. This is personally our favorite way to train for hiking over the winter and spring months as it pumps up your heart rate to increase cardiovascular endurance, while also strengthening your posterior chain which includes your spine muscles, glutes, hamstrings, calves and ankles. These muscles all play a key role in giving your body the stamina and strength needed for challenging hikes. Here are some locations around the Front Range where you can get a stellar stair workout:
- The Manitou Incline in Manitou Springs is perhaps the most widely known incline not just among Coloradans, but around the country! Attracting tourists from other states, as well as Olympic athletes, this difficult-rated, steep incline features 2,744 steps, a 2,000-foot elevation gain over 0.9 miles and will get your heart rate soaring. Reservations are required and there is a fee for parking. Check the following website for more information before going: manitousprings.org
- Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison has become a popular place for fitness fanatics offering 315 total steps. Be sure to check their website before your planned visit for open hours and closures of the amphitheater due to concerts and events: redrocksonline.com
- The Mother Cabrini Shrine located along 1-70 in Golden is known for its “stairway to prayer” which leads to a 22-foot Sacred Heart of Jesus statue that was built in 1954. This free experience features 373 stairs. Check the website for more information: mothercabrinishrine.org
- The Challenge Hill at Philip S. Miller Park in Castle Rock is fondly known as “The Mini Incline” and offers 200 steps with a 178-foot elevation gain. While it is free to do these stairs, this incline is part of a larger park and sports complex with playgrounds, sports fields, picnic areas, a zipline course and surrounding hiking/mountain biking trails so it does get crowded especially on weekends. crgov.com
- Newer to the scene is the Rueter-Hess Incline Challenge located in Parker. Opened in November 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, this incline option is free, open from sunrise to sunset seven days a week, features 132 steps and numerous surrounding hiking trails. rhrecreation.org
And when it does finally snow this winter—bundle up and bust out your snowshoes or skinny skis for an excellent winter cardio workout. These heart-pumping activities are wonderful for cardiovascular endurance, burn lots of calories, relieve stress and strengthen those lower body muscles (quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves) needed for strenuous hikes. At the very least, if you’d rather stick to an indoor workout on especially cold days, you can always get on a Stairmaster at the gym or bump up the incline level on your treadmill to experience the benefits of an incline workout.
In addition to the previously mentioned exercises that work to improve both cardiovascular health and muscle vitality, incorporate strength training for specific muscles that will help prepare you for longer, harder hikes and help power you up a mountainside. Choose exercises that target major muscles that hikers rely on such as legs and core, as well as muscles in your shoulders and lower back to help support the load of your pack during all-day hiking. Also be sure to incorporate exercises that help with balance, which will assist you when trekking across uneven terrain. Here are some excellent strength exercises to try:
- Squats, jump squats or squats holding a kettlebell or free-weight are a great all-around exercise to strengthen your hips and legs. When you add a jump to the squats, it helps engage muscles to help give legs more power.
- Step Ups are another great exercise that will build strength and endurance in your quads and glutes, preparing you for the endless amount of “stepping up” you’ll do on an uphill climb. If you partake in the recommended stair climbs suggested above, you’ve got this covered. If not, you can use a step or other stable platform at home to step up onto, alternating legs each time.
- Lunges are a fantastic exercise overall for hiking but will also help prepare your quads and knees for the downhill portion of your hikes. While most hikers focus on the strength needed for the uphill climb, many tend to underestimate how much the downhill process works the quads. It’s typically the descent that leads to sore thighs and knees. Doing lunges, and especially lunges on a slight downhill, will prepare your quads for steep descents. Building strength in your quads will ultimately help support your knees also on the descent.
- Also try kettlebell deadlifts to help strengthen your hamstrings which are another important muscle for hikers. Strong hamstrings will help alleviate pressure on the knees as well as lower back on the descent.
Upper Body & Core
While the most obvious muscles used for hiking involve the lower body, it’s important to strengthen upper body muscles and core too. Strong core muscles will help steady you while hiking on unstable terrain so incorporate core strengthening exercises like planks, side planks, crunches, leg lifts and Russian twists to name a few. Also include upper body strengthening exercises that target your shoulders, upper back, arms and chest—all muscle groups that if strong, will help support a heavy pack as well as assist you with any scrambling (using the hands and arms to pull yourself up very steep terrain) you encounter on more challenging hikes/climbs. Some great upper body strengthening exercises to integrate into your strength program are pushups, pull-ups, shoulder press, dumbbell front raise, dumbbell lateral raises, triceps dips, biceps curls and reverse flies.
Don’t Skip the Stretch
It’s perhaps the most common excuse: “I don’t have time to stretch!” The reality is, even if you simply spend 5-10 minutes stretching post-workout, that’s all you need to help give your muscles the elasticity to help avoid injury and recover faster. After your workout, when your body is warm and limber, spend some time stretching your quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, arms and core muscles—this will not only improve flexibility and reduce risk of injury, but it will also help flush lactic acid build-up out of your muscles making you feel less sore after intense workouts or rigorous hikes. And we think it goes without saying, be sure to drink plenty of water while exercising to stay hydrated and help reduce muscle fatigue and soreness.
Once you start your mid-winter workouts, stick with it! If you find yourself losing motivation, browse through some old hiking photos from last season. If you don’t have any, look online—social media is full of hiking fanatics who enjoy sharing picturesque scenes from their hiking adventures around the globe. Make some goals and get psyched about your upcoming hiking plans this year. With the right preparation—both physically and mentally—you’ll be ready to tackle those summits as soon as the snow melts. Remember if you put in the sweat equity now, you’ll be thanking yourself come hiking season.
See you on the trails! ~KM