Pass/Fail: Train for the Trail Without Hiking

Can our writer get in the best hiking shape of his life—without doing a single hike over 10 miles?
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Hiking Fitness

Trail legs are like a superpower. With them, there’s nothing you can’t hike. You can go on and on forever. PUDs (pointless up-and-downs—an Appalachian Trail speciality) feel like speed bumps. At their best, trail legs make you feel like your body is not your own, but a self-powered machine you ride up the trail. And like a superpower, trail legs are surrounded by mythology. Some people say it takes two weeks on the trail to get them, some people say three. I’ve had trail legs twice in my life and if I had to put a number on it, I’d say it takes 300 miles.

But I don’t have time for that.

When I returned to the AT this past summer for the fourth chapter of my now-20-year section hike, I was trying to channel Triple Crowner and master fast hiker Heather “Anish” Anderson: I wanted to push myself to cover as much ground as I could, since life circumstances (namely a two-income, two-kid family) meant I didn’t have as much time as I had for previous outings.

In essence, I wanted to cover as much distance as my second section (240.3 miles from Troutville to Front Royal, Virginia, which I did in 20 days in 2007) but in less than half the time.

Now, a lot of folks will tell you, “There’s no better way to get in shape for hiking than to hike,” or, “Nothing can prepare you to hike 20-mile days.” Heck, I used to say those things, too. But, with the benefit of experience, I recognize those statements for what they are: one part laziness and two parts arrogance. I mean, would you ever tell a football player that the only way to get in shape for the game is to play it?

I am not a physically imposing person; my legs wouldn’t stick out in a lineup of flamingoes. But upon those fleshy sticks, I’d gone 1,523 miles (to Sheffield, Massachusetts), and upon them I planned to go 227 miles from there to Hanover, New Hampshire, in 9 days. I’d have to average 25 miles per day over the infamous mud of southern Vermont and then up the trail’s biggest hills since North Carolina.

So I trained—six days a week for six months. I started with a fitness plan we published in this magazine (Reach your Peak in the March 2019 issue) then mixed it up to keep the gym workouts interesting. I interspersed runs for cardio, but didn’t do a single hike over 10 miles. I’d never trained this way before (who trains for a long hike without hiking long?), but I made do with the time I had. And I got stronger; my endurance grew. I also focused on core strength, hoping that some fitness there would curb back and shoulder fatigue through demanding days, the longest of which would be 30 miles and end atop 4,236-foot Mt. Killington.

To give myself every advantage, I trimmed my pack baseweight down to 10 pounds before throwing in a thin novel (everyone needs a luxury item). And then I hit the trail.

The first day was rough. It was hot and I could smell the airport pizza I was stress-sweating out on my way up some nothing hill, worried if I’d done enough to prepare or if my itinerary was too aggressive. But the next morning, I was up with the hermit thrushes and I was off. The miles passed as though I only had to lift my legs and the world turned beneath them. I went on and on and up and over, and never heard the slightest complaint from my muscles. My third day was 22 miles; my fifth was 27. I’d take it slow for the first mile each day, then settle into my 2.5-mph pace, stopping only for a short lunch break or to fill water. I’d never made miles like this before, but I figured I wasn’t going anywhere if I wasn’t hiking, so I stopped stopping. Twelve miles by noon; 22 by 4 p.m. At the end of each day I’d stretch and put on compression socks.

Yes, I’d hobble around the shelters or campsites on sore feet, but my legs never felt a thing. I’d pass NOBO thru-hikers on their breaks and never see them again. I wasn’t the fastest, but by dark, I’d run down every single trail-hardened hiker 15 years my junior.

On my longest day, I pulled into the sadly vandalized Cooper Lodge atop Mt. Killington right at dark. That was 30 miles on my eighth day; the previous had been another 27. Only once before had I hiked farther in a day, and afterward I needed a week off to recover. This time, I was up with the thrushes again the next morning. We early birds catch our worms.  

The Verdict: Pass

Turns out you can train into trail legs, but a strong core is just as important as a firewall against fatigue. My relentless hiking schedule and an ultralight get-up didn’t hurt either.

Skill School: Train for the Long-Haul

Go for endurance. Forget those sculpted quads and calves. Work on endurance so your body can recover from the climbs while you’re on the flats. Think long efforts, not hard ones for cardio. Improve strength with interval workouts.

Take it slow. Give yourself plenty of time to ease into a new exercise program and help prevent injury. Six months is a realistic target if you’re planning to go big—ramp up your training routine every couple of months.

Stay dedicated. My body didn’t change much over the six months, so I relied on benchmarks like adding reps and sets (instead of weight) to keep me going.

Recover right. Knee-high compression socks squeeze fresh blood to your extremities, like an oil change. I stopped wearing my compression socks at the end of my hike in Hanover and my feet ballooned up the very next morning.