Throughout much of the 90’s, most winters went the same way for me. Hang up my cyclocross bike by December, relax for a few weeks and then start training for next year. Given I lived in a very rural area that often got a lot of snow, doing lots of riding could be tough. Any one I coach knows I resist massive trainer workouts – that’s because I’ve done my share of 5 hrs stints, on basic bag trainers. I just don’t want to do that to another human being – I got into coaching to help for crying out loud! Ha! Occasionally you have to do what you have to do, but overall, avoiding massive hours on the trainer is a big score towards lowering the odds of suffering training related burn out.
So, what’s a guy to do during a cold new England winter. Cross country skiing works some years… but many other years, it’s to sporadic to really become a big training tool. Snowshoeing is similar. Great, but not something you can count on. Hiking on the other hand works – any time.
As a result, hiking became a stand-by training strategy winter after winter. You could do it any place, or you could travel to any of the local hills or smallish mountains to increase the vertical you had to climb. Sometimes I’d carry a back pack with 30-40# of weight. Sometimes I would ride the trainer for a while after the hike, or I’d ride before. Sometimes the hikes would be really, really long, exceeding 6 hrs. The common thread, was that the hikes clearly improved my general fitness, and shifting into gear for longer bike rides as the weather improved worked quite smoothly. I could see that these big hikes helped… But let’s take a step back before getting into the specifics.
As I became focused on coaching in the late 90’s and early 00’s, I struggled with watching athletes try to run at highly aerobic intensity ranges. This low intensity work is really valuable to improve endurance performance. On the bike, it can work out thanks to the mechanical advantage of gearing and the bike itself. Swimming, you can include additional tools if needed so you can perform lower intensity work. But running… well, gravity is tough to avoid!
Because of that, three primary scenarios occur when trying to run at very aerobic intensities.
1.) The athlete has a strong training history and has great fitness, thus they are able to run at low intensities comfortably and can enjoy the benefits of doing this work.
2.) The athlete believes they are fit, but ultimately is not fit enough to run at low intensities particularly well (mechanically). This is not skill failure. It’s fitness failure. In this scenario the athlete can run – often for a long time – but it’s more stressful than it has to be and can result in fatigue that hurts overall progress.
3.) The athlete is fit, but not fit enough to run at low intensities with quality mechanics for extended periods. There is still value to running at low intensity for this athlete, but doing the durations needed for long course athletes can be tricky and can create problems because the athlete is braking excessively.
So, with those challenges in place, what’s an athlete to do? You likely guessed it based on my lead in to this post – go hiking!
It certainly helps general endurance, but it also builds some of the resilience needed to spend long periods on your feet – as you do during a marathon or a half IM, IM or ultramarathon.
The beauty though, is that everyone can hike at rates that are not as metabolically taxing as running – especially if you are not really fit enough to run long durations at a highly aerobic pace. Hiking is also not as mechanically taxing as running, which can be a huge bonus to anyone who has an injury history.
It is not a glamorous as doing a long run, but it can work fantastically to prepare you to do long runs better!
How do you determine how much hiking to do? My mentality is to view hiking duration as being 50-100% greater than the expected duration of the long run you are doing. So if you are doing 1.5hrs as a long run, doing 2.25 – 3hrs is very reasonable. If you have not done much hiking yet, or will carry significant load (more than 5% of body weight) in a pack, err to the low end. If you have been hiking several times, you can safely go to the high end even with a bit of added pack weight.
I’ve played with some heart rate based options, but in the end, feel that one value of hiking – beyond those noted, is that you can just go, be outside and trust how you feel. That’s a skill that’s gradually eroding among endurance athletes given the accessibility to various tracking devices today. So when it’s time to hike vs long run or bike for that matter, just go and cruise briskly. At times you may work harder than you would on a long run (if steep terrain is encountered) and at other times you will do less work. But overall you will gain fitness and improved pacing. And if you really want to analyze the data (this does have value) stick the device you are using in a pocket or under your coat so you can’t see it. The data will be there later, but in the moment, you are just trusting yourself, and building endurance outside.
How far can this go? I’ve seen athletes who are strong IM and marathon athletes (sub 3hr marathoners and sub 3:45 IM marathoners) use a surprising amount of hiking in their training – replacing as many as 50% of their long runs with hikes. I’ve seen IM athletes who will do slower than 3:45 do ALL of their long “runs” as hikes and have strong IM runs. In straight marathoners, I’ve seen a few folks do about 70% of their “long runs” as hikes and run their races strongly.
So, while this post is mid-winter, if you race IM Wisconsin or plan to run the NY Marathon, hiking can still be a great tool in your training tool box!
I know it’s not for everyone. But if you have challenges due to injury, indoor training volume or fitness, consider hiking as a really good and enjoyable training tool this year. It can really help!
Love to Train!