In this episode, I discuss EXACTLY what a hiker or trekker can do in their training if they always get out of breath during ascents.
One of the most common questions I hear from trekkers is
"I am fine while hiking on the flat. But the second I come to a bit of elevation, I turn into a red-faced, sweaty, out of breath mess... What can I do to stop this?"
Well if this is you, I have some bad news for you... no matter how much you hike, this probably isn't going to change.
But that doesn't mean you have to accept it!
If you follow the advice in this episode, you can turn those ascents from a heart-pumping, gasping affair into your strongest section on the trail!
You will learn:
Want to learn how to create your own strength training workout?
Check out this article: Creating Your Own Strength Workout
Hello, hello guys. Today we are talking about probably one of the most common questions people ask me when they're reaching out to me about their hiking or trekking preparation. It's how to train if you're always getting out of breath when you're going up hills. Now, I always, always, always hear this question. Generally people will be like, "Hey Rowan, look, I'm in training for this particular venture coming up. I'm usually pretty good when I'm walking on the flat. Don't have any issues. I can walk all day, but the second that I find some type of ascent, whether it's a hill, whether it's a mountain or whatever, I'm just huffing and puffing and I'm getting out of breath really, really quickly. And no matter what I do is, I just don't know how to improve that." And I hear this question in one form or another, probably once a week. And it's something which today, I just want to explore a little bit and tell you exactly what you need to be doing if you are in this situation, to help yourself deal with this.
Now the big thing I need to make very clear today is if this is you, if you're sort of always huffing and puffing at the top of hills, if you really, really struggle to hold a conversation whenever you find a little bit elevation and if you're always just find yourself dropping off anytime you get a bit of incline, no matter how much you hike, this probably isn't going to change. If you already have this issue and you're hiking and hiking and hiking, sure it might get a little bit easier, but it's probably not really going to change dramatically. But that doesn't mean you just have to accept it and just deal with it.
And as we always say, you know, these things that happen on the trail, a lot of people like to accept it and a lot of people like to think, "Hey, it's just what I have to deal with." But you don't. There are some plenty of things you can be doing off the trail, which can turn these ascents from that really, really massive struggle into a really, really strong part of your hiking game and make them a lot more enjoyable, a lot less nasty, and just be able to get a lot more quality, adequate general hiking.
So to start with, we're going to be talking about Aerobic Training. Now simply put, aerobic means in the presence of oxygen. And the Aerobic Energy System, this word gets thrown around a lot, but it's basically the NG system which your body creates energy while using oxygen as a fuel source. Now, this is relatively important to know because the aerobic energy system is the single most important thing you need to develop for hiking success. And if you're not training this enough and you're, you know, you love your hit training and doing short, sharp bursts of energy, it's probably no wonder that you struggle on hills. Now when we're training this, there's two different ways you want to be hitting this. In your weekly training plan, or at least the way I like to go about it. Now, the very first thing is a Aerobic Capacity Training.
Now, Aerobic Capacity Training is really, really simply designed to make the body more efficient and exercise in this aerobic zone. Meaning that you can go for longer at higher intensities without having to move, shift into your other energy systems. Which tend to happen when you start getting out of breath and you start churning through a whole bunch of energy. And it's just not really an ideal situation when you're out on the trail. Now, this is predominantly what people are already doing when you're out on the trail. So when you're hiking, hiking, hiking, you know you're working on your aerobic capacity that you know, tends to happen every time you're out there.
However a lot of people, particularly weekend warriors, they neglect this throughout the week. And in any type of training, if you're only getting one type of exposure to training or stimulus ... So if you're only particularly working on this aerobic capacity training once a week with six other days in between where not really touching it, it's not really going to improve a huge amount. It will improve a bit, but it can be a lot more effective if you simply fit in another session throughout the week.
Now obviously, you know, our hiking training is going to be longer sessions because you know, it's very rare we can dedicate two, three, four, five plus hours to training during the week, unless we're retired. But doing shorter sessions of this during the week can be very, very effective. Now this can be a whole bunch of different things. You know, it can be loaded pack walking, it can be walking, being on the step machine in the gym. It can be inclined treadmill walking. It can be like cycling, it can be swimming, it can be on the elliptical, it can even be jogging, if you're already a regular runner and it's not too strenuous for you.
The idea behind this is just choosing any type of exercise which you can sustain for a long period of time in which you can work at a level where you are not going to get outrageously out of breath. And what you want to be working towards is basically start off with 60 minutes of continuous exercise of any of these things. As I said, it doesn't have to be high intensity. It can be as low as he wants or you just want to be moving continuously for that 60 minutes. You want to be keeping that intensity at a pace where you can breathe through your nose consistently. Or if you struggle to breathe through your nose in general, just so you can maintain a conversation throughout.
What you want to be doing is just putting this in once a week into your regular routine. And then every single week, as always, we needed some type of progression. The easiest way to progress this is just to add another 10 or 15 minutes of duration onto that exercise. So first week will be 60 minutes, week two it'll be seven minutes, week three it'll be 80 minutes and just keep on building up. Eventually, obviously you're going to run out of time, but that thing will more or less serve you pretty well for awhile.
On top of that in our aerobic training, and we also want to be doing something that's called aerobic power interval training. Now aerobic power has a whole bunch of different names, but it basically refers to the maximal energy output your body can create while using oxygen as a fuel source. So this is very, very different from, you know, maximal sprint training where you're getting huffed and puffed and absolutely getting out of breath. What we're doing here is finding that maximal limit where you can still breathe and still utilize that oxygen that you've taken in as a fuel source. So by training and developing this aerobic power, you can train your body to better be able to produce energy at a higher work rate. For example, when you're walking up hills while using oxygen as a fuel source and not getting outrageously the out of breath.
Now this is the type of interval training which I find will get the most benefits for you going up the hills. And in general for hiking and trekking preparation. And this tends to be a part of more or less every single one of my preparation programs and for my clients. Now, the way that you do this is you want to try to choose some type of aerobic exercise again. So a few great options here are doing and finding a very steep hill, a very steep set of stairs. Again, if you're a regular runner, running can be pretty good here. The step machine in the gym, an inclined treadmill, pushing a sled, absolutely love whether that's in a gym or around an oval. You can make a very easy homemade sled with a tire and a rope and a little eye bolt and very, very simple or the elliptical at the gym or anything where you can get a relatively high intensity worth of exercise. You know, that can get you relatively huffed and puffed.
Now the idea of this workout, how you're going to do it. To get very, very specific, you're going to do the exercise for about three minutes. So you want to set your timer on your phone or timer on something, go for three minutes relatively hard out. So it doesn't have to be, you know, absolutely outrageous and it'll absolutely kill you and end up lying in a pool of your own sweat at the end of each interval. But by the end of the interval, you should be pretty huffed and puffed. And it's very important here that you'd be finding a resistance or an exercise where your breath is the limiting factor as opposed to your legs just cooking out. So some people might, you know, might be doing a load of pack walking and their legs might get super, super tired. That's really, really good for another aspect of fitness. But for us, we're looking at trying to be the breath being the limiting factor.
So you're going to do this exercise for three minutes pretty hard out. You're going to rest for 90 seconds. So your rest can be literally just walking around, big breaths in, big breaths out, have a bit of a drink, just take it easy. And then you repeat that about five times. That won't take you a huge amount of time, maybe 30, 40 minutes, something like that, depending on how long you warm up for. And you're going to do this once a week and every single week you're going to add an extra repetition. So, the first week you're going to do five times. Next week you're going to do six times. Next week, you know, seven times and every single week add an extra repetition. I tend to with my clients every four weeks, change the type of exercise they're doing just so they get a little bit of variation. Doesn't get too dull and might incur a few bits and pieces there. But that's very, very simply a really easy way of progressing that and that can be very, very, very effective if you are struggling on those hills when you're on the training.
Now beyond the aerobics side of things where that's our cardiovascular training and the next step is strength training. Which you know if you've been listening to this podcast for a while, I absolutely love for trekkers and hikers. Every single hiker and trekker should be doing it in some portion of their preparation program. But in particular for hiking uphill strength training is beneficial for developing something that's called your strength reserve. Now, very, very technical name, but basically it means the difference between the maximal amount of strength that your body can produce and the strength required for a given task. Now to put this into an easy example, like say you are climbing up a very steep set of stairs and every step you take requires about 30% of your maximal strength. So you're stepping, stepping, stepping. It takes about 30% of your maximal effort to go up each step.
You're going to get tired super, super fast. Like that's just going to cook you out really, really quickly. However, if you say you did eight weeks of strength training and you came and hit the gym a couple of times a week, worked onto some particular things, the next time you went to do that hill, every step that required about 15% of your maximal strength, it's going to be a whole bunch easier. And it's going to require a whole bunch less energy, whole much less concentration, and it's just going to feel so much better. And that is sort of the example of what strength reserve can be doing for you. Now obviously these numbers that I just throw out there, they're completely random numbers that have zero science behind them, but it's just an example to get your head around it. And the more maximal strength you can develop, the less no greater strength reserve you're going to have and the less effort climbing up hills is going to cause you.
Now strength training is a very, very complicated thing. You know there's been talk about this for hours and hours and hours. But I usually recommend to my clients trying to fit in two strength sessions between 30 and 45 minutes, working predominantly on their legs and you know, legs, mobility and core. Now diving into the weeds of how to put together a strength preparation program is a little bit too much for today's episode of the podcast. But what I'll do in the show notes, I'll leave a link into an article I wrote about how to create your own strength workout. It gives you a really simple rundown of what you need to be doing to make, create your own workout. And as always, if anyone does have any questions around that, please do send me an email, at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'm more than happy to help you there. But strength training is very, very essential if you are struggling going up hills.
Next we want to be talking about sprint intervals and this is a final thing we're going to be talking about. A second final thing actually. Basically sprint training is those type of exercise where you just go 100% maximal intensity and get yourself absolutely huffed and puffed and absolutely knackered. Now I've said many, many times in the past, this type of training and hit training is not ... Should not be the main focus of any hikers and trekkers preparation and spending, you know, multiple sessions a week purely focused on this is not a good use of your time. However, if you are struggling going up hills, small amounts of these high intensity intervals can be quite beneficial for getting a bit more comfortable going up the hills. Now, I wouldn't recommend you spend a whole training session doing this.
I don't think, again, I don't think it's a good use of your time. But for my clients I like to use it as a bit of finisher at the end of another workout. So usually this fits in at the end of my strength workouts where we might do, you know, 30, 40, 45 minutes of strength work and then we might fit in about six, seven, ten minutes worth of these sprint intervals at the end. So what do they look like? It's really, really simple. You're going to choose some type of exercise where you can absolutely go hard out, which isn't going to stress you out too much. This is usually easiest done in the gym, but there are a few different options. So absolutely love sled pushing. If you're in the gym or outdoors, sprinting not on the treadie, but if you do have a standing treadmill or if you're a good runner, you can do this outside on an oval or a track.
If you're on a bike, whether it's on a bike outside or in the gym, if you're on the elliptical, if you're on the rower, just whatever you can get a really high intensity effort in. And you can go 100% out for a certain amount of time and not obviously put yourself at a risk of injury. And then a really simple way of doing this, there's a billion ways of putting this together. But a really, really simple way of doing this is you sit on the bike or wherever you are, you should go 100% for 15 seconds. So this doesn't mean, "Hey, I ease into it for a few seconds. Then go quick for ten seconds and ease out." This needs to be 100% from start to finish to get the best benefits out of this, and by the end of it, you should be huffing and puffing. Everything should be burning and you really shouldn't want to do any more.
You're going to have 15 seconds. Super, super, super quick rest for 45 seconds. So your 45 seconds is complete rest. In this time you're going to think of big breaths in, big breaths out, just trying to get yourself gathered and controlled. And then you're going to repeat that about five times. That's actually 5 minutes at the end of the workout, but that means 100% intensity. Now you're going to perform this once a week at the end of a strength session. You probably don't need to do a huge amount more, maybe twice a week if you really love this stuff. And then each week you're just going to simply add an extra interval. And every four weeks you might change the type of exercise you're doing or the interval timing or something like that. But very, very small amounts of this can be relatively beneficial for you going up hills.
And then the final thing that I want to talk about today as you're going up hills is, how you can be breathing to help you feel a bit more comfortable. So as I've said previously in other episodes, I'm a massive fan of abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing for hikers and trekkers. And what that involves is basically breathing in through the nose and as opposed to breathing air into the chest and the shoulders breathing into the belly. Now this is a really, really effective technique for a whole bunch of different reasons. But when you're particularly on the trail, if you hitting tough sections, if you can concentrate on this, it can just help the body feel a little bit more relaxed. It can help you utilize oxygen a little bit more effectively and it can just stop you getting to that really huffed and puffed state.
Or alternatively, if you do find yourself getting to that huff and puff state, having a little break breather. Taking 30 seconds to two minutes, stopping, going through this breathing can just get everything under control and then you can head off again. Now the way that you do this, as I said, "Breathe in through the nose, try to focus on that belly expanding and coming out." This type of thing is a skill and it does take a while to practice. So I always, always, always recommend you practice at home first and the more you can practice it, the better. So I usually tell people, look first thing, practice it while you're lying in bed. So put your hands across your belly. Just spend five minutes just breathing through your nose, just trying to feel your ... Put your fingers across your belly button and try to feel those fingers come apart as the belly expands and as you breathe out, feel them come back together and just literally concentrate on that. It's a really nice thing to do before you go to bed and can just usually knock you out.
Number two, you start doing it when you're just standing around. So you might be standing waiting for your coffee to make and the kettle to boil. You might be standing on the train, you might be standing, you know, at the printer at the office or something and just concentrate on that for a few minutes. The next one is to concentrate it while you're walking around. So when you're on your training walks or whatever, just concentrating on that. The next one is to start concentrating it in between intervals. So in between your aerobic power intervals and in between the sprint intervals, concentrating on that and it can really help you get control. And then the more you practice it in these increasing periods of oxygen demand, it's going to get a lot easier for you to do it when you're actually walking up hills and it's going to be a lot more effective for you.
So I highly, highly, highly recommend you put that into action because it makes such a difference for your time on the trail. But that's about it for me guys. So my highly recommendations here is put these workouts together. Put them into your week and you're going to have a really, really good effective training program to not only conquer any hill that the trail throws at you without getting out of breath, but it's also going to help you in so many other situations on the trail. Now follow this thing for about six weeks and you probably will notice a massive, massive difference. As was everything, if you only do it once or twice, it's probably not going to change. But if you do string it together for about six weeks, it's going to make a big difference. So just to recap, you want to be doing your aerobic capacity training. That along with steady state training once a week during the week.
You want to be doing that aerobic power training, so it's three minute intervals, roughly once a week. You want to be doing strength training once or twice a week and you want to be doing a little bit of sprint training at the end of your strength sessions and also concentrating on that abdominal breathing. Put those steps together and I 100% guarantee you, it's going to make you so much more comfortable on those ascents, so much more in control and it's going to really greatly increase your enjoyment on the trail.
So I really do hope you've enjoyed this episode today guys. I hope you got a little bit about value out of it. As always, if you do have any questions around this, please do send me an email at email@example.com If you have been enjoying this podcast, please do share it around to your hiking friends. Share the love a little bit, and if you haven't already, please go to iTunes and leave me a five star review. It really goes a huge way into help me grow this podcast and reach more people. So I hope you've enjoyed that episode today, guys, and we'll talk to you very, very soon.
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Rowan is a personal trainer who specialises in training hikers, trekkers and mountaineers for their bucket list adventures.
Summit Strength is a personal training service created specifically to help trekkers have the best chance of a safe, enjoyable and successful bucket list adventure.