Early Hiking Season Training

Originally Published May 2020

I can't believe it's already Memorial Day Weekend! In Colorado, this is still what I like to call "early hiking season." What does that mean? Well, in short, it means it's not quite prime hiking time.

In the high country (our Colorado term for the "real mountains" - and yes, there is a difference), the snow is still melting, roads are still closed off to the back roads and trailheads, and it's still pretty chilly up top! And in the current COVID-19 times, many cities and parks aren't open yet to visitors. So, unless you're prepared to snowshoe or post-hole up to your knees or hips (in remote public lands), it's still too soon to hike at higher elevations.

That being said, there are still adventures to be had! In fact, I like to use this early season to prepare for my bucket-list hikes later in the summer and fall. What do I mean by "prepare?" Well, if you're smart, you don't just wake up and decide to climb a 14er from ground zero (literally, sea level). Even if you live in Colorado, most of the metropolitan areas east of the mountains are sitting around 5-6,000 ft. So, it's a good idea to train the body with a progressive approach so that you can enjoy peak hiking season to the fullest!

Specifically, you want to progressively train the body in a few different ways:

  1. Increasing Mileage (by a slight amount each week)

  2. Increasing Total Elevation Gain

  3. Increasing Starting Elevation

First of all, let's talk about increasing mileage. Not all hikes are created equal; this usually comes down to differences in distance, elevation gain, and terrain. One of the first and easiest ways to prepare the body for hiking season is to slowly increase the amount of miles logged on your feet. This can be further divided into your "per hike mileage" and your "weekly mileage." If this is your first time hiking, you might want to start with shorter distances (1-2 miles) a few times per week and slowly build up to adding in one "long hike" per week. How might this look? You might start with a few short hikes (1-2 miles) on Tuesday and Thursday with a longer hike on Saturday (3-5 miles). Each week, you would increase each of your hikes by a small amount to slowly overload the body. This is how we train our bodies to endure longer distances. Depending on your fitness level and time constraints, you can adjust this format pretty easily.

Next, we need to consider increasing total elevation gain. Most hikers look up trails in advance so that they know what to expect (distance, elevation, terrain, difficulty, parking, location, etc). In addition to looking at the distance of a hike, you also need to factor in the total elevation gain and terrain profile of the hike. Does the hike remain relatively flat? Are there significant hills and descents throughout? How many feet/mile does the trail climb? And most importantly, what are you prepared for? If you've been hiking in the foothills, not only are you starting at a lower elevation; you are also likely to gain less elevation over an entire hike. So, if you're only used to 500-1,000ft of elevation gain over the course of 3-5 miles, you might want to make sure your body is prepared for 100ft of elevation gain over the course of a single mile. It's very different, I assure you! So, take a similar progressive model when preparing for elevation gain; start small and work your way up to steeper climbs. The steeps also build a lot of leg strength and endurance; walking on flat terrain is more likely to wear out your feet (especially if they're not used to long hikes) and steep terrain is going to gas your legs. And remember, whatever you hike up, you're going to have to hike back down! That's a LOT of deceleration on the knees, so you want to make sure you're slowly building up tendon and muscle strength by practicing descending over time. Don't start with a super steep descent; your knees will likely not be happy the next day!

Finally, we'll talk about increasing starting elevation. This happens somewhat naturally as the lower elevation terrain is open in the early season and the higher elevation terrain starts to open up as the snow melts. So, in the early season, you're likely going to be stuck hiking around the foothills (5-8,000ft), and as the weeks go by, you'll be able to venture to the higher trailheads (starting at 9-10,000ft). If you want to make the jump as seamless as possible, make sure you're climbing pretty steep terrain at lower elevations. This will increase your aerobic and anaerobic capacity, enabling you to perform better at higher altitudes. Also, make sure you hydrate more before and while at higher altitudes. Your body will also utilize more carbohydrate at higher altitudes to sustain the anaerobic activity. So make sure you're preparing physically* AND fueling properly when venturing to higher elevations.

While the early hiking season isn't the time for me to check places off of my bucket-list, it is an essential period of preparation to set myself up for an enjoyable and successful hiking season! Remember to progress slowly AND systematically. This will ensure adaptation without overtraining or increasing your risk for injury.

Have a wonderful early season, and I hope to see you all on the trail!