ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If the majesty of the mountains is calling you, maybe a hike is what you need. Getting into nature is typically a good idea: Recent scientific research even shows outdoor exposure boosts physical and mental health.
A series of studies at the University of Rochester published in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that even accounting for the good feelings that arise from physical exercise and social interaction, being outside for 20 minutes a day significantly improved energy and vitality.
But before you strap on your boots, throw your compass into a backpack and head for the great wide open, experienced hikers say spending a little time getting into shape will make the experience so much more majestic.
Kathleen Stabler, an avid hiker and trail runner who coordinates practices for La Luz Trail Run, says, “I do it because it feeds my soul. Even when things aren’t going well, hiking is a joy. It’s a joy-filled experience. There are so many opportunities right out our door.”
She suggests going slow and trying a variety of terrains to challenge and strengthen your body.
“Walking on a loamy mountain trail is different than tackling a trail in the foothills. The healthier and stronger you are, the more you will enjoy your Sunday hike. If you come home and your back is sore, maybe you put out a little more effort working out through the week.”
Michael Grady, past president of the New Mexico Mountain Club who has hiked in the state for about 40 years, says the best way to prepare for a hike is to start hiking. He likes spending time off-trail, often in Ojitos Canyon in the Chama Wilderness.
Grady says knowing your physical limits is the best way to build and challenge them. Strength, stability and endurance are necessary for a long hike. Walk on uneven terrain and stick to the trails on the east side of the Sandias until you feel able for a greater challenge, he advises.
Practice with pack
Stabler likes yoga to improve flexibility, body awareness and balance, and Pilates for building dynamic core strength. Walking throughout the week with a backpack and increasing the weight inside the pack will help develop strength necessary for mountain climbs.
She often hikes on long trails with her hiking buddy, Charlotte Spencer, who coordinates biking, hiking and other outdoor activities through an informal e-mail list. Spencer, an Albuquerque physical therapist and fitness trainer, says “the most obvious thing to prepare for hiking is walking. Spending time in your athletic shoes moving forward with intent to cover similar distances to those that you wish to hike is a great start.”
She recommends carrying a pack with several liters of water, snacks and layers of clothing to build strength and develop a habit of preparation.
Walking outdoors helps condition the body for the uneven terrain of the mountains and can offer uphill and downhill experience, she says. But walking on a treadmill at the gym is better than not preparing, she adds.
Spencer likes squats and lunges, step-ups on a bench or stool and even training on a stair-stepping machine to increase strength in the legs and lower torso.
“Good flexibility will allow the body to move easily up and down over rocks, leaping over streams and stepping over obstacles such as rocks, downed trees and lizards that dart unexpectedly under your feet,” she says.
She says she likes balance training on special equipment like air disks or even standing on one leg in yoga poses.
Yoga and Pilates are good for strengthening the core and can help relieve posthike stiffness, she adds.
In addition to physical preparation, hikers need to be prepared for bad weather and carry the right equipment, the veteran hikers say.
If you plan to hike on a steep trail for more than an hour or so, Spencer says good hiking boots with good support and good traction are a “must.”
Simple precautions can also relieve stress that might arise from venturing into the unknown, Spencer says. Hike in a group or make sure someone knows your hiking plans. If you get lost, plan to sit still because finding people is easier when they stay in one place.
Also, know what to do if you encounter something wild and unexpected. And, “leave only footprints and take only photographs,” she says.
Grady says most people don’t prepare for the real dangers of the trail.
“People are worried about rattlesnakes, mountain lions and bears,” he says. The real dangers are “injury and bad weather.”
Tackling the tall ones
Angela Welford, member of the New Mexico Mountain Club, a hike leader and a seasoned hiker of the Colorado Fourteeners, the highest peaks of the Colorado Rockies, offers this advice to get into shape for hiking them:
Know yourself: Assess your physical condition, endurance and strength. Time yourself walking a mile. How many miles an hour can you walk? How long does it take you to walk a mile? Do you breathe heavily when you exercise? How are your ankles and knees? Have you spent time above 10,000 feet recently?
Depending on your physical condition begin where it seems appropriate, but start steady and slow: Week 1: Walk one to three miles twice a week without a pack. Set a goal of walking three miles in an hour. Weeks 2 and 3: Steadily increase the length of your hikes until you are able to comfortably hike five to six miles in about two hours, carrying a small daypack. Week 4: Steadily increase the weight of your pack until you are comfortable hiking with a 15-pound pack. Week 5 and beyond: At this stage, you should hike in more challenging terrains with greater vertical gain. Steadily increase the vertical challenge and/or distance of your hikes to improve endurance. Try to get in at least two hikes a week. Walking for consecutive days is different from single-day hikes with periods of rest between them. Train yourself by taking hikes on consecutive days.