Three ways to get more out of the average walk in the woods
The mountains are the go-to haven in the winter for fitness-minded people craving exercise in the great outdoors. But, activities from mountain biking to ultrarunning are attracting tourists to typically cold-weather destinations in the spring and summer.
However, you don’t have to run 26.2+ miles or even bring your bike to enjoy the mountains year-round. “The beauty of hiking is that you just need pair of shorts, a shirt, and shoes,” says Stephen Szoradi, managing director of Aspen Alpine Guides in Aspen, Colorado. Supplementary to training or treadmill workouts, hiking, Szoradi adds, “offers diversity and change for not just for your body but for your mind.”
Today, athletes are pushing the boundaries of the sport, challenging their brains and bodies with excursions that double as cross-training, treks that require weeks of commitment, or ascents that push their hearts to the limit. Here, three hiking trends on the rise.
The gist: Hiking groups, hotels in the mountains, and yoga studios are blending day hikes with zen, curating hiking excursions to a destination, to complete a fitness class like yoga, before hiking back to the starting point.
The benefits: Hiking tends to target your lower body and cardiovascular system, but supplementing with yoga turns the outing into a full-body workout, says Wesley Trimble, program outreach manager for the American Hiking Association. Pre-yoga hikes might also help busy minds power down more easily, too. He says: “Doing a hike before you get to a yoga class can allow you to find that calm and be present in the yoga component more easily.” One study in the journal PNAS found that time in nature significantly reduced negative, anxious thoughts.
Planning a trip: Mohonk Mountain House in the Hudson Valley of New York offers guided yoga hikes where guests explore local trails and stop at scenic areas for short yoga sequences. Local outdoor retailers are also a good resource for finding this type of organized outing, per Trimble. And companies like Ketanga Fitness offer inclusive retreats that combine yoga, hiking, and more.
The gist: Books like Wild brought through-hiking to the forefront—and a surge in visitors to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Tour organizers have amped up their hiking package offerings to meet the demand of athletes who want to conquer terrain for days or weeks at a time.
The benefits: “With longer-distance hikes, your body has to go through a lot of adaptation,” says Trimble. “You have to continually build up muscle strength to do long miles day-in and day-out.” Muscle fatigue in the calves, quads, and hip flexors is common, he notes. These hikes also provide a cardio and fat-burning workout. “Sometimes, day hikers will hike fast and get their heart rate up into a peak zone. Long-distance is much more slow and steady,” says Trimble. “Outside of the physical benefits, there’s also a whole slew of mental benefits,” says Szoradi of longer hikes. They can be an opportunity to find mental strength and discipline.
Planning a trip: The Triple Crown hikes—the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian, and the Continental Divide—get a lot of ink and require plenty of preparation. But it’s best to first determine your goal and how much time you can take away, says Trimble. The 200-mile John Muir Trail, which starts in Yosemite, offers plenty of elevation gains and can be completed in two to three weeks (or faster). The Long Trail, which coincides briefly with the Appalachian, will take a couple of weeks, too. Another: The Colorado Trail, just shy of 500 miles, which might take a little more than a month. REI also has shorter, week-long trips set for the coming months to destinations like the Grand Canyon or the Portugal Coast.
The gist: For years, elite athletes have flocked to mountain towns, from Boulder to the Kenyan peaks, to live and train high for competitions at lower levels. For hikers, hills and thinner air provide a cardiovascular challenge that you simply won’t get at sea level.
The benefits: “Your body is going to be working harder at higher altitudes because you have less oxygen,” says Szoradi. “Someone at sea level could do a 12- to 15-minute mile hike speed. At altitude, they might be doing 18- to 20-minute miles and still have similar benefits. Beyond reaching a higher peak heart rate than you might with a hike that's flatter but longer-distance, hilly terrain also requires more leg strength, engaging different muscles and working your core, says Trimble. “With steep inclines, your body has to work some of those core muscles to stay balanced and maintain a proper posture.” (Make sure you make time for recovery and stay hydrated at altitude: Less oxygen means less power to your muscles, less rejuvenation, and a slower recovery from exercise, notes Szoradi.)
Planning a trip: If you haven’t spent much time in altitude, you’ll want to adjust slowly, spending a night in a destination like Denver that’s about 5,000 feet before ascending further. Szoradi also suggests going with a guide who can steer a hike toward any adventure you’re craving and can keep tabs on how you’re feeling as you climb higher. (REI also offers a host of programs to high-elevation locales, like Machu Picchu or Kilimanjaro.)