A hiking fitness program – 16 weeks to get fit for a trip

It is really interesting reading your comments about how you get, or stay, fit for multi day walks.

When I got home from my first Overland Track (OT) trip I read lots of sports medicine research journals, to find out what I SHOULD have done to get myself fit for Marion’s steps.  (Marion’s is the first big uphill grunt on the OT and challenges many who are attempting it for the first time)

The research unequivocally argued that muscles should be subjected to specific sequences of levels of stress and rest to ready them for the demands of multi day walking – to get fit for the task, and without injury.

The without injury bit appealed, as I do a lot of physical work on our hobby farm  and although I want to be fit for walking, I don’t want an injury that would slow me down, even for a short time.

You might see this program as a bit slow, especially if you feel you are fit.  But  research suggests anyone not doing regular workout-level fitness sessions for at least eight weeks should not assume a good fitness level, and that it is important to train and condition muscles over time, using specific regimes to build muscle base, strength and endurance.

Research also suggests muscles can go from wobbly to wow! in just 12 to 16 weeks.  Unless you are a gym junkie, consider starting at the beginning to build wow! muscles, condition the heart and increase lung capacity.  It’s easily done with a bit of slog, but no injury.

How good does that sound!

Training program for hiking

Over the next two weeks we will look at how a slow and easy start, increasing endurance walking, and a bit of heart thumping interval training works.

But remember, I am not a qualified healthcare professional, and you should check with your GP before following this, or any other, exercise program. This information is intended as reference only and not as medical or professional advice

The 16 week program can be adjusted by how fit you are at the start.

I am older and was not very aerobically fit, so I did Basic Fitness for 8 weeks before moving on to Endurance, with a few minutes of slower pace interval training.  And now I feel good.

An cautionary note on interval training.

Interval training involves repeated short and fast activity with big rest periods in between.  It can do great things for endurance, as it pushes muscles to work hard.    As good as it sounds, interval training can cause significant injury if done too early or with insufficient rest between bursts.  Don’t convince yourself that more is better with interval training, because too much burst and not enough rest will leave your muscles fatigued and injured.

Another cautionary note on exercises

When doing any exercise, don’t lock the joints, eg knees, elbows.  Keep them bent, by stopping movements while the joint is still bent – the muscles should work fluidly and not put tensile – pulling – pressure on tendons and ligaments at the joints. Tendonitis is an uncomfortable and preventable injury.

A bit about heart rates.

Heart rate monitor - fitness for hiking, backpacking or bushwalking

It's all about you heart rate

Get to know your  heart rate.  The optimal rate for muscles to burn fat and get stronger is 60- 70% of  maximum heart rate (MHR).  MHR is usually worked out with a simple formula, but not all research agrees this is accurate.

Men – 220 minus your age.
Women – 225 minus your age.

Basic fitness.
Brisk walking will get your heart rate up to 50–60% of MHR – and although this is great for your health by strengthening the heart, increasing muscle mass, burning body fat and lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, it won’t get you fitter – it won’t increase your strength or ability for endurance – like me on the treadmill.  You need to do lots of it.

Putting some low sloping hills into your brisk walk will increase your heart rate to 60- 70% , which is good for endurance training, but will still only result in a fairly low level of fitness.  The muscles burn stored fat for fuel, with oxygen, so you can walk all day at this pace and not get injured or over-tired – unless you are skinny and have little body fat to release.

Using the formula – for me this is 225 – 60 x 70%  or  115 beats per minute.

Intermediate fitness:
The next step up – 70 – 80% –  becomes a mix of aerobic and anaerobic – without oxygen – burning, and the muscles get fuel from both stored fat and carbs.  This rate will improve your functional capacity, by increasing your lung capacity and respiratory rate, but you need to eat beforehand, or you will get tired quickly.   You might feel a bit stiff the next day because the anaerobic waste by-product, lactic acid, makes muscles feel stiff and sore,  On the OT, my short legs were walking hard trying to keep up with my long- legged group and ran out of puff at the first waterfall – and had to be re-energised for the walk to Crater Lake with half a bag of sweet scroggin.

Advanced fitness:
When you take your  MHR higher than 80%, the muscles change to totally anaerobic burning of carbs, and no fat.  Muscles can’t keep this up for long – no more than an hour or so – before they tire and become damaged.

Next comes the biggie – interval training – with the MHR soaring up to 90-95%.  This exertion must only be done in very short bursts – a few minute, or a few metres – with a long recovery period in between.  Interval training hurts, and has the potential for damage, so must be done with great caution and only after building up heart strength from doing lots of  50-60% MHR.

If you are contemplating starting a fitness plan, take time first to get to know your heart rate.  Then prepare yourself to start by thinking how a good program is shaped like a pyramid – with the big base as a lot of time in aerobic preparedness, building to the great mass of endurance training in the middle, and the tiny pinnacle of interval training perched on top.

This coming week, go for a half hour walk with a difference every second day and a longer walk on the weekend.  The difference will be how you take your steps.  Remember this is getting fit for the task, and the following incline technique is quite different from street walking or running.

The incline technique requires you to lean slightly forward, push off on a small step and strike the ball of your foot on the ground first and directly under your hips.  Then push off on another small step with that foot, and place the ball of the opposite foot directly under your hips. You can put your heal down once you are stable.

At first it feels like a shuffle, but the idea is not to stride out using the bum and back of leg muscles– as we do enough of that in daily walking – but to use the muscles in the front of the legs to support the body and give energy to the next stride.  Your leg shouldn’t come out behind you – all the action comes from under your hip.  Picture the Johnnie Walker whisky man striding out – that is not what you want to look like!

Don’t let your heel strike the ground first, plant the ball of the foot directly underneath you.  Actively use that foot to push yourself forward for a small step, then plant the opposite foot to stabilise, then push off for another small step.  You will look like a little old thing shuffling along at first, but you will soon develop a good cadence and find it very easy and comfortable, especially going up hills.

When I first started doing this it felt like I was doing a slow jog or dancing, but still walking, with all the action happening underneath.  The added benefit of walking like this is that you will never fall over backwards with your pack on going up hills, as leaning slightly forward and the ball of your foot striking the ground under your hip gives you great stability.

While you are shuffling along, keep checking your heart rate – try to keep it under 70% MHR, but put in a couple of short 1 minute shuffly bursts uphill to take it to 80%.  The idea is to build your muscles and give them rest to recover – even if you are fit, it is good to do this for a week.

Do this for a week, and next week OHB will have a sample schedule of the first 12 weeks.

The following week we will see how to  progress to week 16.

Enjoy your shuffle – I mean – walk.

Heart rate image – Yersinia – via Flickr
Walking image – ZedZap via Flickr


  1. says

    Sounds like good advice…slightly confusing. I am training for a very active summer all accross the nation. I went simple and downloaded the “couch to 5k” app and started running…before long I got bad shin splints and the doc told me if I didnt stop I might break a leg. So now I powerwalk. I’ll try your incline technique and see how it feels.

    • Georgie says

      Hi MLO. I hope you managed the technique and are now enjoying using your muscles, rather than your bones. I have re-read my directions, and agree they do sound confusing in places, so I will re-edit them to simplify. Thanks for alerting me. The research I found said the only reason we should ever run as training is if we play running sports, such as the football codes. Every paper said the idea is to target those muscles required for the activity they are required to do, and as I don’t run when I hike, I don’t need to train my muscles for running. That was a Eureka moment for me, as it made so much sense to focus on those muscles I use to walk, climb and carry my pack. Hope your shins are recovered. Happy walking. G

      • says

        Awesome article I do prefer to cycle rather than run or if i do run its usually on a treadmill it seems that for some reason the treadmill is less impact than running on the street. I’ll have to give the incline technique a go sometime.

  2. john says

    I have to say for an over 50 it’s important to have a heart rate monitor especially if you haven’t done much aerobic training. Apparently a heart attack isn’t good for your health.
    I have done a fair bit of cycling before I decided to start bush walking and my fitness wasn’t too bad. But I found the weight of an 18kg pack quite a shock. I had what I thought were fairly strong legs but the joints didn’t like the extra weight.

    Walking up a hill with steadily increasing weight is vitally important for me and I have been doing just that in preparation.

    • Georgie says

      Hi John. Like all cyclists, you will have fabulous glutes, femoral biceps and vastus muscles. Using the glutes to push you up hills is not as efficient as lifting yourself up with your vasti, which are the muscles the incline technique targets. Think of when you ride how you push the pedals down with your glutes and then lift them up with your vastus. Also, your joints are much happier when you lift, as the tendons and ligaments love tensing against muscles, so they do the work, rather than the joints. Adding weight without changing your technique might just add more pain to your joints, so think about trying the shuffle. I don’t have chronic joint damage, as I am a swimmer and not a runner, but my knees have never been sore since I started using the incline technique. G

  3. Steve Cockburn says

    Hi sounds like very good advice . Possibly a little more methodical than what I am use to but effective .
    For me , regular walking with increasing levels of difficulty is effective.Hills every week are good and you need to push yourself to your limit then back off. a good guide is if you can recover reasonably quickly after a bit of an effort. Also when walking for multi-day walks, if you retain a basic level of fitness( I am 51) and cut down on your pack weights, you tend to walk into your fitness . The first few days are bad but gradually you get into the swing and fitness creeps back.However nothing beats the sound prep that Georgie has described.
    Happy walking/slogging!!

    • Georgie says

      Hi Steve. Thanks for your support. The idea of the articles is to make the first few days as good as the rest, by starting with aerobic work, building to the mix of aerobic and anaerobic, then adding the few agonising minutes of purely anaerobic. I am methodical with my equipment, clothing, boots and food, so I figured I should be as methodical in ensuring I am able to happily, safely and energetically do a multi day walk. Regards, G

  4. john says

    By the way Georgie I didn’t mention it before but that is a very detailed and well thought out program you have put together. It’s similar to the program I have used for my cycle training. I have reduced my body fat dramatically and increased my heart and lung capacity. I now have a resting heart rate of 57 which isn’t too bad.

    And you’re right that interval training really hurts.

    • Georgie says

      Hi again, John. Thanks for your comments. Also, I noticed you left it up to me to mention what a great bum you must have as a cyclist! You are obviously well advanced along the continuum of walking fitness, and once you get those vastus as strong as your glutes, you will go up those hills like Spiderman! 57 is an excellent RHR, well done. Have you done Tassie’s OT? Regards, G

  5. john says

    Hi Georgie,

    I am going to do a few other multiday walks before I try the OT but it is definitely on my list. I will give the shuffle a go. Thanks for the advice.

    Regards John ( notice how I didn’t mention the bum :)

  6. says

    Hi Georgie,

    Fabulous article on cardio & interval type fitness. I’d like to add a big shout out for some bodyweight or weight training for added endurance, recovery and hill climbing.

    I’ve had 20+ years teaching in the fitness industry and if there is one mistake that people make (especially women), it’s ignoring the benefits of weight training.

    For bushwalkers, I would suggest Body Pump classes 2-3 times per week. In only a month, your hill climbing ability (not to mention you BMR) will change and you’ll be surprised how you power up hills! I was astounded when I first started doing this kind of workout in 1997. As well, it helps you retain muscle mass as you get older – and you seem to recover a lot quicker than people who only do cardio.

    Just my 5 cents worth!

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