Hiking and your Cardiovascular Health
Hiking and your Cardiovascular Health

Back in April we mentioned that cardiovascular training always starts with walking at its most basic level. You may recall that the way we walk (known as our “gait”) makes up one of the seven human movement patterns (for a review, visit our article titled ‘The Seven Primal Movement Patterns’). We then went into a little more detail and covered the effects of walking, the difference between jogging and running and introduced sprinting and the concept of supramaximal training velocity. This is all to say that, when it comes to cardiovascular training, the spectrum is wide ranging and how you train should precisely reflect the event for which you are preparing.

This month we wish to come back full circle and cover a new form of cardiovascular training, namely the somewhat extreme version of walking, and that is long distance hiking.

Why do we hike?

As members of Alpha Company Training who emphasize the effects and benefits that come with the rigours of outdoor training, the idea of hiking cannot be overlooked. If you are someone who is preparing for a military career, basic training is something you will be required to complete regardless of what occupation you pursue. During this time, long marches in full gear are the norm and if your desired military career pursuit involves any physically strenuous activity, you will need to maintain your fitness year in and year out.

In response to meeting the standard set by the Canadian forces, Alpha Company Training includes monthly hiking trips that vary in distance and terrain, as well as in other aspects like timing our pace, reducing and maintaining stricter break times, and completing day long, overnight and multi-day hikes. These trips are an incredible experience for those that choose to participate and it exposes us to a form of training that most urbanized city types rarely experience, if ever.

Benefits of hiking

Few people would label hiking as both a full body strength and endurance workout. This of course is due to the fact that it all depends on the conditions. The endurance component is simple enough to understand but in order to turn a hike into a strength and endurance event, the ground you choose will make all the difference.

In choosing a location that includes plenty of hills and that ‘off trail’ experience (we’re talking forested areas with many rocky ascending and descending sections), combined with that full load of gear you are carrying (again, depending on the nature of the trip), the kind of strength gains you can expect are substantial considering that this is a cardiovascular activity. And herein lies the point:

Hiking is practical and functional training at its finest!

And that’s what Alpha Company Training is about. One of our objectives is to leave the concrete training grounds of big city life and pursue and explore places that increase our cardiovascular endurance and resistance to fatigue, strengthen our joints (especially the ankles!), and challenge us mentally as much as it does physically. Covering 40-50km or more in a day over varying terrain is as much a mentally overwhelming task as it is a physical one. One that few people can achieve in this modernized world of ours.

Of course we cannot overlook the fact that hiking is an extremely beneficial activity for the heart, lungs and surrounding organs and systems (including the brain, endocrine and digestive tract). Prolonged hiking stimulates blood flow to virtually all parts of the body, improves blood sugar levels, increases insulin sensitivity and consequently makes for an effective weight management system (assuming your nutrition is on track).

What to pack for a hiking trip

Suggestions on what and how to pack for a hike can vary greatly and depends largely on the nature and conditions of the hike, expected weather and experience level, just to name a few. I find that as I hike more often, the items that make up my standard hiking kit never leave my backpack. These include a compass, whistle, rope/string and knife. Lately I have added to it a rain poncho, fire starter kit, some tinder and a battery pack. Once out on a hike, I add to it the remaining items, food, water, extra socks and clothes, sunglasses, headgear and so on.

Progression & Preparation: Where and how to start

As already mentioned, cardiovascular training takes on many forms and if you are not a fan of the other forms available (ie. swimming, rowing, biking, running, etc), we highly suggest you give hiking a try. And we do recommend setting ambitious goals. Perhaps your goal is to spend a week hiking in the Andes one day, or explore the Australian outback. Whatever the goal, understanding the progression and preparation is key:

  1. Start off with small hikes (3-5km) in the city
  2. Scale up to 5-8km, then 10km and so on
  3. At some point you may choose more difficult ground. That’s when you will want to reduce your total distance.
  4. As both strength and endurance increase, you will be able to increase both terrain difficulty and duration
  5. As terrain and endurance increase, foot health will become paramount. You will need to know how to deal with blisters and possible infections. Having the right footwear will become more and more important.

To scale up even further to multi-day hiking trips, you will need to prepare in other ways:

  1. Know how to pack and prepare for a multi-day hike
  2. Knowing how to pack a first aid, survival and SOS signaling kit is crucial
  3. Gain exposure to new elements (ie. night hiking, should you get lost or reach camp too late)
  4. Learn how to set up shelter, tie knots, start a fire, prepare food and filter water
  5. Learn and prepare about wildlife, heat exposure, cold exposure, rain, etc. etc.

And so much more!

Get out there and start practicing

Whoever said that fitness needs to be boring? We do not depreciate the value of resistance and strength training, but training does not need to revolve only around barbells and dumbbells. We invite people of all fitness levels to participate in our hiking trips, but remember again that if you are a beginner and know next to nothing about the things listed above, you should start with the short trips and work your way up.

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