Help me get up the mountain!
October 27, 2009 11:39 AM   Subscribe

What sort of training should I do over the winter in preparation for some intense day hiking?

So, I have this goal of climbing a mountain next spring / summer. (Camel's Hump in VT will be first.) There's no real rock climbing, it's mostly just a 5 mile hike up a big hill. We also won't be carrying anything heavier than Camelbacks and hiking poles. I need to know what I should be doing at the gym to make this happen. Treadmill? Elliptical? Walking / jogging on the indoor track? Swimming? Weights?

Complicating factors are:
I live at around sea level and when I tried this hike about a month ago, the elevation made it hard to breathe.
I have arthritis in my hands and knees. (I'm only 28, so I think this can just be countered with a knee brace or something.) Are there knee-strengthening exercises that I can be doing?
I have weird balance issues which make it hard coming down the mountain. Are there exercises I can do to work on this?

I know, YANMD. But I don't have health insurance and feel like this is something that I should be able to tackle on my own.
posted by youcancallmeal to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Walk on a treadmill every day. Nothing else you really need to do. If you're feeling ambitious, raise the speed and the incline until it feels uncomfortable, then back off.
posted by killdevil at 11:44 AM on October 27, 2009

General fitness will help, so running on a treadmill, whatever you like.

But, stairs. Walk up lots of stairs.
posted by teragram at 11:45 AM on October 27, 2009

Camel's Hump isn't going to give you altitude issues, nothing in New England will. You might get winded if you move too fast, but not from the altitude.

Use the stair stepper, do some cardio stuff, but really the best training for hiking is to hike. Walk as much as you can, take stairs when you can, do some local hikes. Carry ten or twenty lbs while you train.

Vermont trails are rugged, so find some rugged trails to train on.
posted by bondcliff at 11:48 AM on October 27, 2009

My 58 year old, not-at-all-in-shape mother prepared for a 2-day Grand Canyon hike by walking around her neighborhood with a backpack for a couple of months, and she did fine.
posted by something something at 11:49 AM on October 27, 2009

one thing i did to help my climbing is stairs. not stairmaster stairs, but an actual stairway. one benefit from real stairs is going down--which will work on the same muscles you'll use hiking down.
posted by lester at 11:51 AM on October 27, 2009

Definitely stairs. They're great exercise generally, but especially if your activity of choice is walking up and down inclines, walking up and down stairs is the best practice. If you can get yourself to the point where you can climb your desired distance (and back down again) without much trouble, you should be much better off even at higher altitudes.
posted by decathecting at 11:53 AM on October 27, 2009

Agree on the walking thing, and might add low-speed stairclimber as well if you have access to one. The tough thing is that it's a full body activity that requires cardio, quad/calf strength, and strength in obscure parts of your legs for stability purposes. There are lots of exercises for strengthening the muscles around your ankles, knees, and hips that you can do at home.

Another approach is to wear a (gradually increasing) weighted backpack when you're walking around or even puttering around the house.

Mostly though, I'd suggest gearing up with warm-up hikes. I live near Camel's Hump, and I usually try to do 3-5 shorter hikes each spring before heading up above treeline...if for no other reason than avoiding mud/snow, which usually clears out around Memorial Day. I actually just moved back here from Baltimore...don't have too many hikes to suggest around there, but maybe one last one before you come up would be Maryland Heights, which is just across the river from Harper's Ferry.
posted by GodricVT at 11:59 AM on October 27, 2009

I know you said there is no rock climbing on this hike you want to do, but is rock climbing, specifically bouldering (no ropes/harness and a short wall with pads at the bottom) something you'd be interested in?

I'm 30, and broke my femur years ago, and felt like even after years of exercise, I was still a little unsteady and unsure on the leg in rocky/steep/sketchy terrain, despite not having any pain or actual weakness. Then about 18 months ago I started going to a bouldering gym twice a week. I think the rock climbing helped my balance and proprioception enough that now I am quite comfortable scrambling up steep slopes covered with boulders or scree, even with a fairly heavy backpack.

So that's something to consider.

Another idea would be the exercise aid that is a small platform that you stand on, and there's half a basketball-sized ball underneath. You have to do an upper body workout (small weights are fine) while trying to balance the small teeter-totter you are standing on. I have read some reviews and articles that say these can really help your balance.
posted by MonsieurBon at 12:17 PM on October 27, 2009

Get some practice with the trekking poles. Once you get comfortable with them I bet they will help a lot with your balance. It's like having four wheel drive! Basically you want them to move in the same rhythm as the opposite leg. It took me a surprisingly long time to get used to them so I'd start early.

Also, if the poles are adjustable, you might think about making them shorter for uphill and longer for downhill.
posted by exogenous at 12:18 PM on October 27, 2009

I would agree that general fitness will help you the most here. Trekking poles will assist with balance issues coming down. I'd also advise staying very hydrated - you may want to carry a water filter or purification tabs if you can refill your camelback at a stream on the way down. And try hitting the trail as early as possible - get as much of the hike out of the way before you get direct hot sunlight. I did a 14+ mile hike up to the top of Cloud's Rest in Yosemite last month, and I started at 6 am. I was able to do all but the last mile to the summit without heavy sunlight and it really helped a lot.
posted by handful of rain at 12:26 PM on October 27, 2009

Go do Old Rag (it is out by Chancellorsville I think). It is not an easy hike at all (maybe 12 miles total), but it isnt particularly challenging, there are lots of little spots to step aside and take in the views and if you can do it you can reasonably expect to handle anything in NE.
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:37 PM on October 27, 2009

All the advice above sounds great. I would add two bits:

1) Absolutely use a walking pole, or even two. They are invaluable for balance, esp. hiking downhill. A pole has saved my butt on some hairy descents (steep slope + gravel + balance issue = oh shit.)

2) Get a head start on treating the arthritis by taking Glucosamine, Chondroitin, and MSM. Take them every day, and take enough to do the trick. (Call your doctor to find out how much.) This often helps, and helps a lot. It did wonders for me, though it took a couple of months for the full effect.

[The usual disclaimer on medical advice from a community blog.]
posted by shifafa at 1:30 PM on October 27, 2009

One more thing: my 50 year old sweetheart swears that nothing can prepare you for hiking except hiking. And he would know. To train for a stint in the Andes, he would put several gallons of water in his backpack, plus the odd rock or three, and hike. Uphill. Yeah, he's an animal. But he's ready for anything!
posted by shifafa at 1:34 PM on October 27, 2009

These few exercises helped me TREMENDOUSLY in preseason training for skiing one year and should translate well to any lower body oriented fitness goals.

Find any flight of stairs. Begin at the bottom step and stand on the edge of it on your toes with your heels hanging over. Do ten "toe-ups" (raise up on your toes and then descend so your heel is lower than the toes. Repeat), step up to the next step and do ten more, etc. until you have reached the top. Turn around and touch your toes for ten seconds and even endeavor to reach the next lower step, then step down and repeat on each step until you're at the bottom.

Then do some "Wall Sitting". Approach an empty and appropriate wall and place your entire spine against it with your feet bracing you against the floor. Your thighs should be horizontal with the floor and your calves should be vertical with the wall. In effect, you are indeed sitting, but without a chair. This one is a little intense. "Sit" for as long as you can and increase the duration for as long as you can maintain it.

I have witnessed whole soccer teams doing the TOE UP in pre-game warm up which is most amusing. These exercises will increase your leg and foot strength.
posted by Oireachtac at 2:40 PM on October 27, 2009

Hey, I'm planning a minor mountain climb in a few months too! So, as above, I am walking lots of stairs.

To add to the suggestions: I found the biggest hill in my neighborhood and I spend several evenings each week walking up and down it, even though it has a sidewalk instead of a rocky path. I don't have any nearby places to practice hiking that are any kind of mountainous, so this is the best I can do. Thanks to the tips above, I'll add a backpack and continue these, plus the Toe-ups.
posted by CathyG at 2:51 PM on October 27, 2009

Can you give us a better idea of where you're located? (I know you probably don't want to get too exact on the internet, but are you closer to Baltimore or closer to DC?)

Along the lines of GodricVT's suggestion of doing local hikes, here's some more in the Maryland area that have nice elevation change and would give you a chance to practice with your trekking poles (in order from less-hard to more-hard):

*Catoctin Mountain Park in northern MD
*Sugarloaf Mountain in Frederick County
*Maryland Heights in Harper's Ferry, WV
*Appalachian Trail (heading either north or south) at Snickers Gap, off Rte. 7 on the MD/WV border

The toughest thing around here is finding hikes that actually go up or down, rather than staying pretty flat. I can throw out some more if you're in the DC area and you don't mind heading south or west to hikes in Virginia. Shenandoah has some great hiking with significant elevation change, but that could be quite a schlep if you're nearer to Baltimore than to DC.
posted by iminurmefi at 3:03 PM on October 27, 2009

If this is going to be your first hike ever, or in a long time keep a few other things in mind:
In addition to the water and food you bring up with you, bring water and a light snack to leave in the car. You'll definitely want the snack for when you get back.

Eat. If you aren't used to this, it will be excersize and your body will need to burn lots of fuel. You may not notice your body handle things badly if your engine isn't operating properly. Cary a few bags of trail mix and some bars. Eat a handful every hour or when you are hungry - which ever comes first.

Don't plan on doing much the next day. Don't plan on driving long distances. Don't plan on getting up off the couch. Don't plan on getting on a plane. Plan on hanging out. If you aren't used to this: Day 2 is couch potato day. If you feel better, great - but don't count on it.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:06 PM on October 27, 2009

Oh, and also: hiking up and down stairs is great for conditioning, but don't discount the elliptical stepper, particularly if you have joint issues. Doing a 5-mile uphill hike requires equal parts cardiovascular conditioning and muscle strength; the elliptical stepper is a great way to start building up your ability to go and go and go without getting totally winded, even if you don't have a ton of leg muscles yet.

If it were me, I think I'd do a combo of stairstepping (where the lack of muscle tone in your legs will probably be the limiting factor in how long you can go, at least at first) and elliptical stepping (where the capacity of your heart/lungs will be the limiting factor), maybe alternating workouts during the week--Mondays and/or Wednesdays, do 20 minutes of elliptical stepping, then on Tuesdays and/or Thursdays do 20 minutes of stairclimbing. The weekends are for hiking or at least walks around the neighborhood, weather permitting.
posted by iminurmefi at 3:13 PM on October 27, 2009

Don't go to a gym. Don't use flat, stable equipment. If you want to be able to walk up a steep incline, you need to emulate that.

Someone recommended stairs... do that. I'd also recommend walking in sand if possible.

If you actually want to workout, I would recommend calf raises (nothing hurts more after steep climbs than your calves and your ankles).

As for the hard breathing... you need to do some cardio to get your heart in shape. Quit smoking too, if you do that.

All in all, these things are not that hard. You can stop anytime you like to rest, so you don't really need to be in super amazing shape.
posted by phrakture at 3:25 PM on October 27, 2009

Lots of great suggestions here. I just want to add that as far as I am aware (I'm not a doctor, but I'm a graduate student at a medical school who has hiked many high mountains around the world and comes from VT) symptoms of altitude sickness such as difficulty breathing are not felt until approximately 7,000 feet above sea level at the earliest, and usually more like 10,000 feet above sea level (and not until 16,000 feet for others). Of course, everybody is different, but I think it is so improbable as to be impossible that you were having trouble breathing due to altitude, since the Camel's Hump is just over 4,000 feet. Much more likely is that the exertion of the hike made you out of breath, which is absolutely to be expected. However, while some shortness of breath is expected, you should never push yourself if you feel faint, ESPECIALLY on a mountain! If you feel like you can't breathe, slow down and rest.

As for training, the number one thing that you need is basic fitness. Flexibility, endurance, and strength. Just focus on getting in shape first - do something to increase your cardiovascular fitness (biking, jogging, swimming, etc), do some strengthening exercises like crunches and squats and pushups, and stretch. If you have basic fitness, you WILL be able to hike the Camel's Hump. Strength will get you up each rock, endurance will keep you going, and flexibility will allow you to navigate your way up the mountain more comfortably. After you're fit, you can begin more specific training such as stair-stepping, practice hikes, that sort of thing.

Although you may have a balance issue (I don't know), you should know that MANY hikers experience wobbly legs and poor balance and coordination when coming down mountains - it's often called "spaghetti legs", and it's a result of tired muscles. It's totally normal, and decreases with practice and fitness. But you should still be careful to protect your knees and ankles, and not to run down the mountain - it's easy to get out of control!

As for your knees, taking hiking poles can significantly reduce the stress on your knees.

Good luck! The fragile alpine zone on top of the Camel's Hump (the only other place you can see it in VT is on Mansfield) is really amazing and I'm sure it'll be worth it.
posted by Cygnet at 3:42 PM on October 27, 2009

Oh yeah, learn how to do a proper Rest Step for when the going gets steep.
posted by bondcliff at 4:27 PM on October 27, 2009

Some other things to add:

When I do my stairs workouts, I am trying to make the downstairs part just as much exercise as the upstairs part. So I've been going down very slowly - extend your foot til it is just above the next lower step and pause there for a second or two. Experiment with the shape/angle of your back/hips/thighs when you do this, and you can feel the burn in different places on your legs/glutes.

I've seen folks do the stairs two at a time, or jog up/down them, but I can't do that yet.

For the Toe-ups, I'm really out of shape so I need to start slowly. I've found that if I do them in the swimming pool in waist deep water, I can do about 50-75 heel raises before it starts to burn and I change to the other foot. Repeat two more sets. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think this is getting my muscles up to a certain level, at which point I can move to dry land.
posted by CathyG at 7:33 AM on October 28, 2009

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