CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dear Cindy,
I want to learn to hike. I love the outdoors, and as a new resident of West Virginia, it seems the perfect activity to do here. I come from a state without mountains and hills. Can you give me some pointers? I work out in the gym and am healthy and eager to venture out into the woods. -- Sandra
Welcome to wild, wonderful West Virginia! You are right about our terrain -- the hiking possibilities are endless. With our beautiful scenery, hiking is a great way to challenge your body while enjoying the outdoors. It can also add adventure and prevent burnout in the gym. I am all for using the outdoors as your fair-weather health club. Fall is the optimum time to put your hiking boots on and get moving.
Groundwork for hiking
Let's look at what you have been doing. Regular weight training and cardiovascular work will undoubtedly give you a leg up, so to speak. Strong muscles and a conditioned heart are necessary to carry you up the hills and back home again. But if hiking is your primary goal, you might have reaped all the benefits you are going to get from the gym with regard to hiking preparation.
Hiking is specific to its environment, which makes it difficult to replicate it in a gym setting. Jogging or walking on a treadmill is great for your heart, but less than ideal for training to climb because the grade of incline must be extremely high. Stair steppers can mimic an uphill hike, but the steps are more regular than what you will find on a trail. The outdoors is a dynamic environment and, therefore, the path you took last week will not be the same next week.
What goes up must come down
The limitation with cardio equipment is not the "going up" but the "coming down." Downhill movement stresses muscles differently than going uphill. When you are trekking uphill your muscles shorten and act as an engine providing power. Going downhill, muscles lengthen and tighten simultaneously acting as a brake to control your descent.
Standard cardio equipment in the gym won't prepare you for this. Doing weighted exercises such as leg presses, squats, lunges and concentrating on lowering weights slowly back down -- negative work -- would be the closest thing to preparing for coming down hills and climbing over boulders.
Take to the hills
Experienced hikers will tell you the best way to prepare to hike is to practice hiking. Starting slow with short hikes and progressing gradually to acclimate your body to the new activity and environment is the best way to become a good hiker.
More trekking tips: