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Backpacking Fitness

4 Ways to Build Lungs of Steel (Without Running!)

Low impact does not mean low intensity. Try these exercises to stop huffing and puffing on the trail.

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Want to be more efficient on the trail? Start by developing your aerobic base (how well your body uses oxygen to burn fat), which allows you to do sustained cardio without gasping for breath. Hiking sometimes requires anaerobic fitness—short bursts of effort where your body produces energy without oxygen—but by and large, it’s an aerobic endeavor. During aerobic training, your heart rate should be elevated above resting, but not so high that you have to catch your breath.

Running is the easiest way to improve your aerobic capacity, but it’s not for everyone. These exercises offer low-impact alternatives, but if you can, it’s never a bad idea to mix some long jogs at a conversational pace into your training.

In the Gym

Set an interval timer for 60 seconds of work with 10 seconds to rest and transition between exercises. Complete as many rounds of the following circuit as possible in the time you’ve selected for your workout (beginners should start with 35 to 40 minutes, building up to an hour). Add a load to increase the intensity, but remember to keep your exertion level in the aerobic zone (60 to 80 percent of your max heart rate). Check that by maintaining a conversation, even if it’s with yourself. If you get too breathless to finish a sentence, take a rest until you catch your breath.

(Illustration by Peter Sucheski)

Irregular Height and Surface Routine

  1. Place five or six plyo boxes and balance balls (like BOSU balls) next to each other. Add in balance pods or stability discs if available. The layout of the equipment is not important: Use a straight line, an oval, or a zig-zag shape. Place each piece next to another one of a different height.
  2. Walk through your layout—emphasizing stability by tightening your core—as many times as you can in one interval.
(Illustration by Peter Sucheski)

Low Hurdle Shuffle

  1. Place two hurdles (or any object that requires you to pick up your knees to step over) about 20 inches apart.
  2. Move laterally to the left and then to the right, placing two feet in each space created by the hurdles, including at the ends. If you’re comfortable with a bit of impact, add a hop. For a challenge, increase the height of the hurdles. Remember to keep your work intensity in the aerobic range.

Suspension Trainer

Suspension trainers (like a TRX system) are a great way to spread the workload among muscle groups. Choose from the exercises listed below, creating your own personal sequence.

Alternating Drop-Step Lunges

  1. Start with your feet in line with the attachment point of the suspension system, holding one handle in each hand with the straps at your mid-thigh.
  2. Step away from the attachment point so the straps are nearly taut. Drop your right leg about a stride and a half behind you. The depth of the step will vary based on your height.
  3. Bend both knees, keeping your torso upright, and gaze forward. Be mindful to keep your front knee over your ankle. Step back to the start, using your arms and shoulders to assist as you rise out of the lunge. Repeat on the other side.
(Illustration by Peter Sucheski)

Alternating Curtsy Lunges

  1. Start with your feet in line with the attachment point, with straps at your mid-thigh and one handle in each hand. Step away from the attachment point so the straps are nearly taut.
  2. Drop your right leg back, crossing it behind you so that your foot falls on the left side of your body.
  3. Drop into a crouch (or curtsy), keeping your front knee over your ankle. Step back to the start, using your arms and shoulders for leverage. Repeat on the other side.

Squats

  1. Position your feet hip-width apart, with the strap handles in front of each shoulder and your elbows at 90 degrees. Keep your thighs parallel and the weight mostly on your heels.
  2. Push your butt back as you bend at the knees and hips and straighten your arms. Aim to get your thighs parallel with the floor. At the bottom of the squat, keep your weight back, butt low, and arms extended in a pulling up position.
  3. Ease out of the squat, pulling with your arms and shoulders.

Alternating Dumbbell Jabs

  1. Grab a pair of light dumbbells (1 to 5 pounds). Stagger your feet and bend your ankles, knees, and hips in an athletic or ready position. Bend your elbows so that the dumbbells are in front of each armpit.
  2. Jab by extending one arm straight forward from your shoulder; don’t cross your arm in front of you or rotate your torso.
    Once your arm is fully extended, snap back to the starting position. Don’t get lazy on this part of the jab as you bring the dumbbell back in front of your armpit.
  3. Complete two to four jabs with the right arm, then two to four with the left arm. Mix up the number, switching back and forth between arms. After a couple rounds of jabs, switch your feet so you are in ready position with the opposite foot in front. You don’t need to duplicate your first sequence exactly, as long as you’ve completed approximately the same number of right-handed and left-handed jabs by the end of the workout.