Monday, August 29, 2011

Training for the John Muir Trail

Really these suggestions could be applied to training for any long-distance backpacking trip, thru-hiking, (or even short distance.) There are different schools of thought for physical challenges such as the JMT. One is: "I'm fine, I like to hike, I will just adjust and train on the trail." The other is: "Holy crap this is going to be hard, I have to train with a weighted pack, work on my injuries, and make sure I don't give-up and go home mid-hike."
Both cases have stories of success...but I went with the second school of thought. I had a knee injury I had never really addressed, and I liked going on afternoon hikes, but not for 100+ miles with a 40lb pack. So I decided to train extra hard, and make sure I had everything I needed to keep my knees and shoulder safe. Looking back, I can see what played the biggest part in training for endurance, altitude, and joint-safety.

Dealing with Past and Recent Injuries:
Thinking that pesky knee strain won't bother you on the trail may be denial. If it bothers you on a short hike or run, it will bother you on a 2,500 ft. altitude gain with a 50lb pack. Take many practice hikes before you go, and bring a weighted pack. I started with a small one, and kept adding weight and miles. Then you start to see what injuries flair up. That old shoulder strain from baseball may become a very present annoyance. So be honest with yourself about you limitations, and have them evaluated before you go.
Where to find advice on your injuries: 
Physical Therapy: If you have health insurance, check with your doctor and get a prescription for physical therapy. Be very honest about the hike, and ask them advice. They can tell you what braces you should wear, how to make makeshift braces out of ace bandages, and so on. They can also give you exercises to do before you go, to strengthen any weak areas. I found out I have a specific muscle weakness in my quad that was affecting my knee, so I devoutly did the weights and movements necessary to strengthen it before my trip.   
Yoga Therapy: So let's face it, in this country of private and expensive health care, we don't all have insurance. Luckily, there are alternatives to full-priced physical therapy. Some PTs have private practices, sometimes out of their homes, so they charge decent rates. Another option can be "Yoga Therapy." There is a system of certified yoga therapists, that help heal injuries with a gentle yoga practice. If you have a serious injury, just remember that they are not doctors, and you should seek medical help. But a pesky muscle problem can be truly helped by this specialized practice. To find a therapist in your area, you can look on the official website. If you live in the LA area, I specifically suggest a yoga therapist, Sherry Brourman, who is also a certified physical therapist. She's a body-mechanic genius, and I give her full credit for making my knee trail-ready. (Much more so than the traditional doctors and PTs that I saw.) More about her techniques and classes below...
If you don't live in SoCal, there's another teacher named Jill Miller that has DVD's and video blogs specifying different muscles and joints. She has great articles and videos about hurt knees, tight hamstrings, and core strength. To check out her articles, videos, and order her DVD's just visit
Gait Analysis: 
Available on Amazon
Often an imbalance in the body starts with the way we walk. The way our feet press into the ground and direction our toes point can affect the knees, which affect the hips, which affect the low back, and so on. So an excellent step is getting your walking gait analyzed. This is another thing you can see your physical therapist about. This happens to also be Sherry Brourman's specialty. (The yoga therapist mentioned above.) If you live in SoCal, you can go to her "Walking Yoga" workshops held at exhale in Venice. If you live far away, she has a book called "Walk Yourself Well," which has a TON of awesome information. She also holds semi-private yoga classes in Santa Monica, (4-5 students with one teacher and 1-2 assistants.) She will discuss injuries, and hold a yoga class while correcting any imbalance she observes. You can see her class times and locations at  
During the hike, I would start to have knee pain (or simply be tired and sore), and I would think about the gait corrections Sherry made. I was able to adjust my step and posture, helping my shoulders (by knowing how to engage my core to hold my bag, instead of dumping into my shoulders), and my knee pain would drop significantly. So if you can, find someone to analyze your walk to optimize your hiking performance.

Endurance Training/Strength/Flexibility: 
As mentioned above, the best training for a hike is hiking. If you have trails available to you, hike them as often as humanly possible. Any hike you have time for is good, but getting some decent mileage is optimal. And bring a weighted pack, so your shoulders don't have a rebellion when you're suddenly stuck carrying it for 15 miles straight.
If you don't have ample trails near you, (or if you live somewhere with weather), there are alternative ways to train. Just don't forget the holy trinity of training: Strength, aerobic/endurance, and flexibility.
Aerobic/Endurance Training:
Fitness Classes: I took a bunch of circuit training "boot camp" style classes before the trip. We would get our heart rate up by stair climbing, sprinting, and more, then alternate with strength training. In relation to the JMT, the strength training proved important for: steep climbs, lifting the backpack, and scrambling up rocks. And if your muscles and joints are strong, there is less chance of injury. My favorite classes were the "Missions" with Jenna Phillips, who I wrote about in my blog about Santa Monica. I never left those classes under-worked or disappointed.
Photo by Cimm
Dance Classes: This may seem like an odd suggestion, but the different steps in my dance classes really prepared my legs for the different terrain of hiking. In my Samba class, the steps would take us in all directions (sideways, forwards, backwards, in a circle). This really prepared my legs for all sorts of movements, instead of just the forward movement of walking. The terrain on the JMT changes constantly (steep uphill, steep downhill, grass, sand, stone, snow, crab-walking), and I was happy my legs were conditioned in many ways. Instead of partner or choreographed dance, the fast-moving pace of Samba or Zumba fits the bill nicely. As a bonus, it can be an intense aerobic workout, which is needed for long-distance hiking. If you can find these classes in your area, awesome. If you live in LA, Gisella is my favorite teacher. She teaches at Your Neighborhood Studio, (I love this place), and the Brazil Brazil Cultural Center.  
Strenth Training:
Weights: Good ol' fasioned weight training can prepare your muscles. But please, please get someone to show you the proper alignment and movement for the free-weights and machines (even if you've been lifting for years.) Whenever I walk around the gym, most of the people are lifting with bad posture and alignment, which can actually hurt instead of help you. (Same with the treadmill, which is why a gait analysis is great.)
Photo by Edson Hong
Pilates: Reformer pilates has to be my favorite strength workout. (Pilates on the reformer is on a machine, opposed to on a mat.) It works both sides of your body equally to keep from muscle   imbalances, and equalizes the different muscle groups. The classes are ussually smaller, so the teacher can give more individualized attention to assure you are using the proper muscle for the exercise (like your core instead of your back.) Having a strong core helps in almost all movements, even hiking. In the LA-area, I like Pilates Plus, which has many locations. (These classes can be pricey, but look for deals and on-line coupons!)
Of course, the easiest way to gain flexibility is through yoga classes. But not all classes are created equal...some teachers have turned it into a strength workout, and there's not that much stretching involved. Try going to a yin yoga class for deep stretches, or a Forrest yoga class for structural muscle opening. Vinyasa flow yoga is NOT the best for stretching, it's usually too fast paced.
Also, your PT can give you some specific stretches to do if you have the dicipline to do it on your own. Pilates also has a flexibility aspect.
Ankle Strength: Another yoga benefit comes from balancing poses. Standing on one foot in the different yoga postures can be great for strengthening and balancing ankle muscles, a key part of safe hiking. I often have problems with "rolling my ankles," which has led to weeks on crutches. Building ankle strength can help with this issue, so don't skimp on Warrior Three poses. 

Altitude Training:
The only real way to train for altitude is to be at altitude. This can be difficult for those of us that live at sea level. If you live within a few hours of a trail with altitude, go as often as you can to hike there. If that isn't an option, than try going to Yosemite (or wherever your hike starts) and spending a few days there before you begin hiking. Sleeping, walking, and breathing at altitude may prep your body for the hike. You may think this is trivial, but altitude sickness has some really unpleasant side affects. 1.) It is harder to breath. Your body is taking in less oxygen, so a hike that wouldn't be a problem at sea level may leave you heaving. 2.) Altitude sickness can leave you feeling nauseous and dizzy, and you may have trouble taking in enough calories.
I was not able to train high up, so I suffered from altitude sickness almost the entire time. I did some different things to deal with it, which I'll outline in my next blog post about backpacking food.

No comments:

Post a Comment