Training for a Thru-hike

Updated: May 9, 2019

How I have trained for the trail and why.



From what I can tell, you don't need to train for the PCT. Seems strange right? Many people simply start the trail and get into shape while on the trail. We all can get out today and walk/hike a little bit with a pack on. Given the time it takes to thru-hike 2,650 miles, anyone willing to stick it out will build their strength during the first part of the trail. Sure, it will take more time and there are more risks of injury, but if you know how to listen to your body, you'll be fine. And that's the key...know your body, know your limits.

Once you are confident with your limitations, you enable yourself to make better judgement calls.

It can take several years to figure out your limitations and how to listen to your body. It is less about X amount of miles before you are tired and more about knowing the difference between good pain and injury or fatigue and heat exhaustion. It's physical, it's mental, it's environmental, and certainly emotional. Thru-hiking the PCT will demand your attention to these...and in the end, it's not the trail that changes, it is you. I think this a unifying desire for every hiker; to beat yourself up along the trail and grow from it.


HYOH

We've heard it once, and we'll hear it again...Hike Your Own Hike (HYOH). I'm kinda concerned we have this idiom for the trail...is everyone doing ok out there?! Seems like a polite way to say "Don't tell me what to do - Piss off!" But apparently, people do try to dictate other people's journeys. If we were to get into it, I think we would find a grey area where people are just trying to help and they are projecting doubts and fears.


But nobody can ever know your ability, limitations, and judgement better than yourself. With that, I will lead into the PCT being a place to find your grit where people set goals that suit them; Three miles a day, 40 miles a day, pizza every seven days, vegan all the way...doesn't matter what it is.


My Training

A goal for me is to average 30 miles a day and hike the PCT in 100 days or less. If I don't hit that goal or I decide I don't really care about that goal after I start...that's ok. It's just some statement I don't have to live up to. But, right now, I want this for some reason. I like a challenge; and for me, that's a challenge. So, I've been training pretty hard. I'd like to be in fairly good shape upon starting the trail. I'd say I'm there, but I realized early on that I need to learn about my body's "appreciation" of day to day long distance hiking. I mean, five to ten hours of hiking every day and I'm bound to find some ergonomic kinks and tight IT bands.


Let's back up...

I have a history of running and hiking. I think it is important to note this...I'm going to share my workouts with you and I think some context will help with understanding, [1] this doesn't happen overnight and it's tailored to me...so don't take this as a recipe and start baking, [2] know this is not "the way" to train for the PCT, just "a way," [3] this is fun for me.


I've been running my entire life, through and past Division I College Track and Field. I'm used to workouts that test my limits to the bitter end. It was normal (hmmm about twice a week) to run until your vision tunnels, or deciding to be more concerned about vomit or booty lock, eventually doing both, then selling your soul just to do another interval. This is how we got better as athletes. I'm not sure it was healthy, in hindsight, but we loved it?


After college, I got a job that requires hiking every day...usually 8 to 10 miles and often in the desert; after which, I usually went for a run. You learn to love the Mojave if you're not from there. Hot, tired from work, probably dehydrated, yet a run would break that stagnation off and feel...good? It does, and know that I speak for myself. The point is, I have learned how my body reacts hot and long physically demanding efforts. I'm very familiar with the onsets of heat stress and dehydration while physically exerting myself. And without describing more experiences, I understand my limits in the extreme cold and high altitude. Fast-forward eight more years and I'm doing nearly the same things, but now with dedication to hiking the PCT.


And so, here is what my general workout schedule in a week looks like:

  • Monday - Recovery run, slow pace about 6 miles

  • Tuesday - Core, pilates, body-weight based strength training

  • Wednesday - 6 to 8 mile run with hills and sprinting hill repeats to bring the heart rate up

  • Thursday - Core, pilates, body-weight based strength training

  • Friday - 12 mile run, fast or slow depending on how I feel

  • Saturday - rest day or 2 to 3 mile very slow" shake out" run

  • Sunday - 20 to 25 mile hike

There are two things not really "listed" here that are very important to note. [1] I alternate days working out my legs and upper body so that my legs can rest. Recovery is critical. Now let me put my foot in my mouth by linking you to my blog about injuries, and some of my struggles. [2] I am constantly rolling and massaging my legs, hips, feet, etc. to prevent injury. Along with it, I sometimes do some funky but effective little exercises on Tuesdays and Thursdays to manage tightness and strengthen things like my hips. See my post about one of my highest valued pieces of equipment for the PCT, the trigger point massage ball!


Final Thoughts

I enjoy training for something like this. I feel well prepared for the hike and ready to see that monument near Campo, CA. My training is a glimpse into the months to come and just a start towards learning more about myself. So far, it has helped me know some tweaks my body will sustain along the trail. As of right now...it is a tight IT band and tight calves. With this, I am able to give proper attention to these pains before they become impairments. As of now, I've done what I can to prepare and just need to start hiking north, we'll see what happens.

The point is, I don't know what to expect. I can train and prepare as much as I want, but at some time, I must accept unknowns and simply experience new things.

I think the ultimate take home point is when pushing through environmental stress, physical exhaustion, emotions (full spectrum), pressure from your own goals and expectations, and all things hard...knowing one's self/one's limits will be crucial for making good judgement calls when facing challenges of thru-hiking. And on an important self reflexive note, it's ok to not know your limits; just be honest with yourself when facing a challenge. For me, I've never backpacked for more than 5 days. A thru-hike is new to me and even though I've tested myself and trained extensively, I don't know my limits on a thru-hike.


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