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Backpacking Fitness

Tired of Exercising For Hours? Try These Quick Cardio Workouts

Stop picking between your fitness and your free time. These aerobic conditioning workouts are just as effective and take less than an hour.

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Aerobic conditioning for hikers might mean long and tedious workouts, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. There are ways to boost your cardiovascular or muscular endurance without going stir-crazy on hour three of your workout. Shorter, interval-based training sessions are just as effective and also keep the mind engaged. Try to fit these workouts in one or two times per week as training time allows for it.

Aerobic power intervals

Purpose-built to boost endurance by ramping up intensity followed by a slower pace to recover, aerobic power intervals work with you and whatever level of cardio fitness you currently have. These intervals build each week at a sustainable pace, so you are less likely to overtrain or get injured. During the working interval, move (run, bike, walk, hike, elliptical, whatever you prefer) based on effort; if you can’t speak in short sentences, reduce the intensity a tad. For the recovery walk, slow the pace but keep moving forward. Repeat this cycle of effort and recovery for 45 to 60 minutes. Don’t forget to warm up for a couple minutes first with a brisk walk followed by calf, quad, and hamstring stretches. 

Week 1: 1 minute interval, 1 minute recovery walk
Week 2: 2 minute interval, 1 minute recovery walk
Week 3: 3 minute interval, 1 minute recovery walk
Week 4: 4 minute interval, 1 minute recovery walk

After completing this format for one month, bump things up again for the next phase.

Week 5: 5 minute interval, 1 minute recovery walk
Week 6: 6 minute interval, 1 minute recovery walk
Week 7: 7 minute interval, 1 minute recovery walk
Week 8: 8 minute interval, 1 minute recovery walk

At the nine-week mark, return to the first four-week interval times but add a 10- to 15-pound pack. Once that week is complete, move on to the second four-week interval time, keeping the pack weight the same.

Stair and hill intervals

Love them or hate them, stair and hill intervals are excellent at building strength and endurance for hiking while offering a nice dose of cardio. This is perfect for Flatlanders with big mountain adventures ahead: Train on a StairMaster or on a treadmill set on an incline. Don’t have gym access? You can still go up stairwells in apartment buildings or parking garages.

The goal for this workout is to start with about 20 minutes ascending and, each week, add one extra interval. For example, if it takes 3 minutes to ascend the stairs, the first week, perform seven intervals. The next week, ascend for eight intervals, then nine, and so on.

Week 1: 21 minutes (7 intervals)
Week 2: 24 minutes (8 intervals)
Week 3: 27 minutes (9 intervals)
Week 4: 30 minutes (10 intervals)

If time permits, consider adding a brisk 20 to 30 minute walk after each session to have the total workout time be around 45 to 60 minutes. Also, after the first four weeks, add a 10- to 15-pound pack. Start back at seven intervals, and add one interval weekly for another month.

Lee Welton is a physical therapist assistant and personal trainer in Southeast Idaho. He thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018 and trekked through the Dolomites in Italy. He can typically be found hiking and exploring the trails in Idaho and Wyoming. For more information, videos, and resources from Welton, visit trailsidefitness.com.


From 2022