Training for an A.T. thru-hike
An Appalachian Trail thru-hike is an enormous endeavor, but many hikers succeed with little to no physical preparation. After all, there is no way to train the body to hike ten or twenty miles on end carrying a heavy pack other than… well, hiking ten or twenty miles on end, carrying a heavy pack. If you start out slow and listen to your feet when they tell you to stop, it’s theoretically possible walk yourself into shape on trail.
That said, I’m getting as fit as I possibly can before setting out. I figure the more miles I cover before starting the hike, the smoother my transition from “normal” life to trail life will be, and the fewer pounds I’m carrying on my frame, the easier my feet will carry the pounds in my pack.
My situation is convenient for getting in shape for the AT in a couple of ways. First, I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of free time leading up to my hike. I left Morocco in December, and since Christmas I’ve been living at home and working only a few hours per week online. This has left ample time for training, which I’ve used… somewhat effectively (I’ve also spent a lot of it on the couch watching Netflix or playing with my parents’ new puppy). Secondly, I’m in a great location to prepare for the AT, since my family lives in the Appalachian mountains in Virginia, not too far from the trail itself. (Allowing me to hike up Angel's Rest with some White Blaze beer, pictured.)
So here’s a breakdown of what I have been doing since January to get ready for the challenge of hiking up and down mountains every day:
3x-4x a week: I work out at my local gym.
This usually entails 2-3 miles on the treadmill, alternating between walking flat, walking on a steep incline, and jogging. After this cardio element of my workout, I usually spend another 15-20 minutes doing strengthening exercises for the hips and legs that I learned when I was in physical therapy for a knee injury in 2016. The same injury resurfaced after my Toubkal trek in Morocco last year, but with rest and the same exercises, it eventually felt better. Now I’m hoping that by preemptively focusing on strength and stability in the muscles that keep my knee tracking properly, I can prevent this issue from hampering my thru-hike.
2x a week: I also attend a yoga class while I’m at the gym.
By improving my flexibility, balance, and strength, I’m hoping that the yoga will complement my PT exercises to reduce the likelihood of injury or soreness on trail.
1-2x a week: I go for a longer outdoor hike, carrying my pack and using my trekking poles.
So far, these have been anywhere from 4-10 miles on a hiking trail nearby, including McAfee’s Knob and Angel’s Rest on the A.T. itself. I know I should be hiking outdoors in all types of weather, but thus far I have been cherry-picking the nicest days for these, and working out on the gym when there’s been rain or snow. Bad-weather hiking is on the agenda for my remaining month before hitting the trail.
1x a week: I either swim at the gym or go rock climbing.
I don’t really enjoy lifting weights, but I don’t want to completely leave my upper body out of the equation, so for some semblance of a balanced regimen, I make it a point to swim or climb about once a week. I was a competitive swimmer for about 8 years. When I swim at the gym, I spend about an hour in the pool practicing all four strokes, usually for a total of somewhere between 1200 and 1500 meters. I am new to rock-climbing, but a gym in a nearby city has a special on the weekend that includes slacklining and I’ve been several times now. My forearms and hands are always satisfyingly sore afterward, and I like the slackline for balance and knee/ankle stability. Plus, in a bittersweet way, it makes me feel connected to Morocco where I learned slacklining at the beach in Casablanca.
So that's it, and here's to hoping my feet can carry me 2200 miles! About three months before my start date, I took my vital signs and measurements, and I’ll do so again at the start of my hike, halfway point, and the end. I’m curious to see how the Trail shapes my health and body, because I have never undertaken such a massive physical challenge before.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for updates about packing, shakedown hikes, and the occasional throwback travel post. Happy hiking!