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There are few things more serene than an outdoor hike. Consider the dappled sunlight that shines through the tree canopy during the spring and the showy leaves of autumn -- and the intense burning sensation in your muscles after a long walk over hilly terrain. Hiking is one of the richest and most rewarding exercises that we undertake, both mentally and physically. However, there's a difference between good exercise and deep fatigue.
To combat discomfort on the hiking trail, it's a good idea to prepare by training ahead of time. The amount of training will depend on the length and type of hike you're planning. That said, there are some good basic techniques that apply to any type of hike training, which focus on the heart, the thighs and calves, the back and your shoulders. With these exercises, you'll go from a citified schlub to a hiking superstar in just a few weeks. At the very least, you won't die of exhaustion on the trail.
The best exercise to prepare for a hike is good, old fashioned walking. Walking provides both a cardiovascular workout and strengthens the same muscles you'll use on your hike. Begin by walking 30 to 45 minutes three days a week to train for a five mile (eight kilometer) hike. On a fourth day, take a longer walk and increase your distance each week until you're walking about two-thirds of the length of your hike [source: Spilner and Robertson].
You can increase the intensity of your workout by walking over hilly terrain as you train. A walk along a flat stretch will help your heart, but it won't work out the muscles you'll use on the trail. While natural hills are preferable, people training for a hike in flat areas can train on stairs or an aerobic step machine. If you plan on taking along a backpack, carry it with you on your walk workouts. Start with a little weight at first, then add to your pack each week until you've reached the weight it will be on the trail [source: Logue]. You should feel your walking workout; your target heart rate should be around 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, which is 220 minus your age [source: Musnick].
Stretching and balance exercises are also beneficial to your training regimen. Stretching will help train your muscles for the long uphill and downhill climbing ahead. A good simple stretching exercise is the figure-4 stretch. Sit on the floor with your right leg extended in front of you and the sole of your left foot pressed against your inner right thigh. Lean forward with your torso, bending at the waist. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch legs. Repeat for three stretches per leg [source: Spilner and Robertson].
A simple balance exercise that will help you keep your footing on the trail is the front leg lift. Standing parallel to a wall (in case you need to steady yourself with your hand against it), lift the leg furthest from the wall and hold it above the floor extended in front of you for five to 30 seconds. Change position and repeat with the other leg [source: Mayo Clinic]. Try for three stretches per leg.
Weight training, like lunges and squats, also help develop endurance. Try eight to 12 repetitions two or three days a week for three to four weeks before your hike [source: Spilner and Robertson]. You can also add dumbbells to the other routines and carry them with you as you walk.
Ultimately, trail experts maintain that the best way to train for a hike is to take shorter hikes before your planned trip. These exercises and training regimens can go a long way toward preventing a perfectly pleasant hike from becoming an exercise in pain and humiliation.
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