Training to Through Hike the Pacific Crest Trail: Part 1
I’m not an expert on thru-hiking, as the upcoming PCT will be my first long thru-hike, but I am very familiar multi-day hikes, and with training and training methods. I’ve been a North Face athlete for the past 10-years in Singapore, and I’m on their roster of Outdoor Trainers, and my specialty is training for hiking.
These are the steps I’m taking. You may find them useful to guide you on your own journey, but please keep in mind that the opinions expressed are my own, and while I do my best to provide accurate information, I urge you to use your discretion, and check all facts, before using any of the information I present.
Planning to Train
The first things to do are:
1. Take stock of your current physical condition and limitations. If you are overweight, have heart issues or other serious physical conditions, you should seek a doctor’s approval before starting any training program. For myself, I bike and climb a few times a week, so I’m pretty fit, but I don’t hike. My body isn’t used to walking and needs to the trained for that. I have some injuries which I broke down into ‘Priorities’ and ‘Limitations’. Priorities are injuries that need to be fixed before starting my thru-hike, and for me, these are tendonitis in my elbow and a stress fracture on the ball of my left foot. Limitations are long-term injuries like a torn disc in my lower back, which won’t heal and have to be managed – like making sure my core remains strong.
2. Determine how much time you have til the start of your thru-hike. I had 6 months til the planned start of my thru-hike in April, and I broke that up into 3 training phases:
Building (3 months) – gradually ramping up training volume to build endurance and strength
Peak and Taper (1 month) – maintaining intensity and reducing volume to finish strong!
One of the key elements of ‘pre-training’ is to strengthen the connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, fascia), and to get the body ‘ready’ for training. My muscles can adapt to training stresses perhaps over 3 months, but training connective tissue can take up to 6 months. Long distance hikers are prone to overuse injuries like plantar fasciitis, shin splints, ankle, knee, hip and or other issues. Usually, it’s a case of too much, too soon. For example, it’s easy for a fresh, undertrained thru-hiker to push more miles out of Campo than his training should dictate, and if the hiker doesn’t take an early zero day or two, the body doesn’t get a chance to recover. I’m prone to overuse injuries (that’s how the current situation with the tendonitis in my elbow developed). I climb and bike a few times a week, so I’m fit, but I don’t walk a lot, so in that sense, I’m starting my program off as a noob hiker. Here’s what I did and what I suggest doing:
I started hiking trails (without a pack at first), with the shoe and sock combination I plan to use. This not only builds up connective tissue strength, but also toughens up the skin on my feet for blister prevention. It also trains up ‘foot-eye coordination’, so trails are better than pavement. I killed two birds with one stone and walked my dogs at the same time. I also threw in a few short 1 mile-ish trail runs.
I added a light 9 lbs (4 kg) pack when I felt I was ready, being careful with my lower back issues, and added 6.5 lbs (3 kg) on the second week. I don’t train with hiking poles, and prefer to let my stabilizer muscles do the job.
I didn’t go long. 1, 2, 3 miles… whatever was comfortable. The key is consistency. A little every day is better than belting out a big one over a weekend which could leave me sore and require more time to recover. I added some simple bodyweight exercises to warmup with or at the end of the hike, like 10 bodyweight squats, 10 back extensions, 10 knees to elbows, 10 pushups and 6-7 pullups.
*Pre-Training for me took 2 months. After a month, I was able to hike 3 miles with my base weight about 3 times a week. After 2 months, I slowly transitioned to the Build Phase of training because lingering joint pain forced me to either scale back, or take a rest day. I’ll cut down my biking and climbing to about once a week for each activity, and do a scaled down Crossfit session once a week, and/or a strength session once a week. Eventually, the goal is to train 3 consecutive days, then taking a rest day. The condition of both my ‘Priority’ injuries have improved, and I’m feeling good and ready to start the ‘Build’ phase of training.