Physical preparation may be one of the most overlooked areas of preparation for long distance hikers. Time constraints, weather, and other pulls on life make it easy for people to set this aside, with the plan to get fit while on the trail. It is not necessary to be at peak fitness level when you start a hike, but you will be happy with all conditioning efforts that you have put in ahead of time once you are out on the trail.
While you want to increase our cardio-vascular capacity and strength, you also are getting our body accustomed to the repeated walking day after day. If you can do your conditioning while carrying your loaded pack, all the better. It is good to hike with your loaded pack once or twice a week if possible, or even during all your conditioning walks. Doing so will allow you to get mentally and physically accustomed to carrying the load, as well as iron out comfort/fit issues. Your feet and knees may feel the weight difference when you are carrying the loaded pack. The idea is to get some of the ‘break-in’ of your body done prior to the hike.
Over the years, my pre-hike conditioning has had three main components: daily walks, long weekend hikes, and overnight trips. In all three conditioning exercises, I advocate wearing the foot wear that you intend to be using on the Long Trail to help condition your feet to those shoes/boots.
Daily walks: For most folks, conditioning is done at times while working a day job. I recommend getting out for a 4-7 mile walk/ hike 3-5 times/week before or after work. If you only have an hour, walk for an hour. If you are fortunate to live near some forest trails, excellent. If not, head out on some safe walking streets. There is even one well known hiker that does most of her conditioning on a treadmill. The point is to walk/hike on a regular basis. Often I find myself working into the evenings, so mornings work well for me – making sure I get the miles in before the day runs away from me.
Longer hikes: Each week, I will try to get in 1-2 longer hikes that will have me out for 5+ hours. These can be road walks, but if you are able to hike somewhere with some elevation gain and loss in the wilderness, all the better. A typical full day of hiking on the Long Trail is usually 8+ hours for most folks, and these longer hikes should push towards that as your time allows.
Overnights: The more the better, but to be honest I usually am only able to get in 1 or 2 overnight outings in the month prior to a longer hike. You’ll have your full gear load for this, so it is going to approximate your load on the LT, and hopefully mileages that you will do on the LT. The overnight trips also are a good testing ground for gear, and may help you eliminate some weight out of your pack. For those two reasons alone, doing at least one overnight trip close to the date that you begin the Long Trail is worthwhile.
Shin splints have plagued me a couple times. Once (quite seriously) on the Appalachian Trail and another short period when conditioning for my Pacific Crest Trail hike. I am not alone, so I will write a little bit about them here. Without getting into the medical causes shin splints, I think I can offer a couple thoughts on how to avoid them.
When I experienced shin splits on the AT, I was trying to outrun an approaching hurricane – essentially, I was trying to make it to a town with a motel, before the storm was forecasted to hit. I had 17 miles to make it to town, and it was mostly downhill. When hiking downhill, it’s not too hard to hit with your heel and then ‘slap’ the front part of your foot down. When jogging downhill, it is really easy to do this. Following over a dozen miles of this, I had done some damage. I took a day off, hike two days, took 3 days off, hiked 2 more days, and then took 5 days off. It was fairly painful.
I believe this is at the heart of how I have got shin splits – that slap of the front of my foot.
During some pre-hike conditioning for the PCT, I was doing some longer walks (20-25 mile) that were largely on paved and gravel roads. With this easier road terrain, I was walking quite fast. When walking fast, I have the tendency to increase my stride length, which then has me slapping the front of my foot.
Having had this problem a couple of times, I have read a decent amount of material on the subject. Most of the material that you will find discusses how to deal with shin splints, once you feel them – Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevate – and this is right in line with what physicians have told me as well (I actually wore an ankle brace higher up on my leg, and cranked down while hiking, at the suggestion of one physician during the AT shin splint episode). Some of the best articles that I have read actually addressed how to prevent shin splints. These were written with runners in mind, but I have found their suggestions to be completely applicable to hikers. Put simply: Take shorter strides. That simple approach has ended the shin splint issue for me. These two articles cover the topic well –
Loosening up your calves
Over time, tight muscles can create imbalance in your walking. There is a product for rolling out calves and leg muscles called ‘The Stick’. While I have seen hikers carry The Stick on hikes, your hiking pole can substitute as a rolling stick to loosen the muscles in your legs after a day of hiking. I have found that using the hiking pole works best for me when I have something on my legs (pants or long underwear), it can also work on your bare legs, just clean off your hiking pole first. The following video does a descent job of showing how the stick product is used to iron out several muscles in the leg. You can adapt the methods shown for use with a hiking pole.
Hikers who have experienced some pain in the legs, hips, back or feet may find some relief with trigger point self-massage therapy. Both myself and my wife have had significant relief using trigger point therapy in our feet, hips, lower back, and shoulders. Trigger point therapy has even helped my mother’s carpal tunnel. This therapy can often be done with your hands, the end of a hiking pole, or small ball. Here is the book on Amazon -> The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief