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How to Prepare to Hike Rocky Mountain National Park as a 40-something Suburbanite

 
After a decade away from mountains, I suddenly find myself needing to get in shape for hiking again. Follow along as I train for hiking Rocky Mountain National Park. And maybe learn some new exercises to prepare for hiking yourself, too. And let me know what you are training for! #hiking #openwidetheworld
 

A dad at the bus stop laughed when I told him why I was wearing a backpack full of weights. “You’ll be fine,” he said as he motioned to his own —ahem— less than toned midsection; “I did it.”

Remembering my first National Park trip as I prepare for an upcoming one. Circa late 1970s.

Remembering my first National Park trip as I prepare for an upcoming one. Circa late 1970s.

He’s right. If I were dropped in Colorado today and asked to do some hiking, I would be fine. But I’m making my neighborhood walks with my backpack full of weights because I want to be more than just “fine.”

You see, treating Colorado like a big deal is part of an ongoing journey into reclaiming myself.

After a lifetime of above average physical fitness that allowed me to focus on outdoor adventure, a decade ago I suddenly found myself with a newborn, in a harsh climate, and facing a complicated illness. My fitness level took a nosedive.

Side note: In recent years, I have reclaimed enough fitness to easily jump into any new sport at any time, like whitewater kayaking or luging. But not without relying on James the photographer to help me carry my kayak or Bill the instructor to help carry my sled.

Eventually, the newborn grew up, I adapted to the climate, and the illness became manageable. But that last one, which greatly impacted both my cardiac functioning and my nutrient absorption, thus my energy levels, can leave me feeling like a shell of my former self at times.

So when an opportunity arises for something like two days of hiking in the Rockies, I want to do everything I can to participate like my former, truer self.

I’m hoping Homer and Mag will join me in some of my training —although neither needs it as much as I do. So how are we preparing?


How to prepare to hike a mountain

Here’s how I’m getting ready for my hike, and how you can train for yours, too:

Step One: define your mission

Can you really train for your mission if you don’t know exactly what i is? Probably not.

My mission is to leave the Rockies feeling as if my “former” self had been there.

Step Two: identify your challenges

Especially if you were drawn to the article for the words “40-something” in the title, don’t skip this step! Understanding your body’s current strengths and challenges, and working with them, could mean the difference between a great hike and a great trip to physical therapy.

Myself, I anticipate two main challenges; one in the training phase, the other during the enactment phase. See next section.

Step Three: set appropriate short-term training goals

My initial goal is simply to complete daily neighborhood walks. That’s about all I can commit to mentally at the start. But these walks will increase in duration and intensity (i.e., amount of weight carried) over the first several weeks, ideally allowing for more specific goals after Week Four.

Step Four: adjust goals if/when necessary

After four weeks of building the habit of daily walks, I will evaluate how that phase has gone, then determine what goals are appropriate for the remaining four weeks.


Step One: defining My Mission

Mission: to make the most of our two days in Rocky Mountain National Park

Success will look like:

  • the accomplishment a goal-worthy hike, which will allow me to feel like my “former” self was the one who had been there

  • avoidance of injuries of over-use and/or under-training


Step Two: Identifying MY Anticipated Challenges

I anticipate one challenge during the training phase, and another challenge during the actual hike:

Calories/weight maintenance

With a history of disrupted nutrient absorption, I typically shy away from calorie-burning exercise, as this type of workout can make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.

Plan: begin with minimal work and build up only slowly, while closely monitoring for weight changes.

Altitude

I have no recollection of past issues with altitude. But the development of low blood pressure has me wondering if the lower oxygen levels of high altitude hiking could present a challenge now.

Plan: work up to training with greater weight loads than will be carried during our hikes.


Step Three: setting My short-term goals

During the first four weeks, my goal is to “just get out there.” I need to reestablish a daily routine of walking. Distance/duration/weight will increase during this phase.

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Training Progress

→Week One

  • Sunday & Monday: “zero” days (That’s hiker-speak for no miles walked.)

  • Tuesday: 20-minute neighborhood walk-brisk, with 2 hills, carrying 6 pounds of weights

  • Wed-Fri: a few trips up and down the stairs of the house with 6 pounds of weights; nothing formal, just grabbing the weighted backpack when I was going up/down anyway

  • Saturday: 20-minute neighborhood walk-brisk, with 4 hills, carrying 10 pounds of weights

Weekly notes:

This didn’t become an actual plan until the Saturday walk. So specs should improve in the coming week, now that a plan is conceived.

Mag seemed pretty motivated to participate. Her new Merrell hikers might have been a factor. Hopefully this enthusiasm endures.

 

→Week Two

  • Sunday: 40-min neighborhood walk-brisk, 1 hill, 10 pounds

  • Monday: thunderstorms and tornado alerts most of the day only allowed for a 15-min neighborhood walk-brisk, 0 hills, no weight because I’m not about to carry metal weights with lightning going on! 2-minute sprint to beat the storm home

  • Tuesday: 22-min neighborhood walk-brisk, 4 water-logged hills, 10 pounds

  • Wednesday: 60-minute yoga-restorative

  • Thursday: 25-min neighborhood walk-moderate (slightly slower pace than “brisk,” as it’s getting hotter and more humid), 6 hills, 10 pounds

  • Friday: 25-min neighborhood walk-moderate, 6 hills, 10 pounds

  • Saturday: 20-minute airport walk-brisk, through ORD with the weight of a carry-on bag

Weekly notes:

Monday’s storms turned our walking path from a sidewalk to this creek in less than an hour, thus our short Monday walk.

And with rain continuing all week, I got lots of practice in wet shoes. Something that almost feels like a hiker’s rite of passage!

After a decade away from mountains, I suddenly find myself needing to get in shape for hiking again. But sometimes the weather makes training a challenge; like today, when a flash flood washed through our neighborhood walking path! #hiking #openwidetheworld
 

→Week Three

  • Sunday: 2 x 30-minutes wave-jumping and ocean play, which is apparently good for working stabilizer muscles

  • Monday: leisurely tourist walking and resort pool play

  • Tuesday: 11 hours of theme park walking in extreme heat and humidity

  • Wednesday: leisurely resort pool play

  • Thursday: 8 hours of waterpark walking including numerous flights of stairs climbed

  • Friday: 11 hours of theme park walking in heat and humidity that was even more extreme than Tuesday… which we hadn’t thought possible!

  • Saturday: 5 x 30-minutes airport walking to pass the time of a 6-hour layover in DTW airport with the weight of a carry-on bag

Weekly notes:

Formal training was not a priority during our vacation. However, the normal activities of a Central Florida vacation allowed for incidental training, particularly endurance!

After a decade away from mountains, I suddenly find myself needing to get in shape for hiking again. This week, we’re taking a break from formal training to hit the beach. But plenty of endurance training in the waves and theme parks! #hiking #openwidetheworld
 

→Week Four

  • Sunday: recovery day after too many 1am bedtimes and long theme park days

  • Monday: a second recovery day. Yikes, I did not see this coming, but my body is insisting I need it.

  • Tuesday: 30-min neighborhood walk-brisk, 6 hills + 1 hill in reverse (aka, walking backwards, which works muscles differently, important for stabilization and injury prevention), 11 pounds

  • Wednesday: 30-min neighborhood walk-moderate, 3 hills + 3 hills in reverse, 11 pounds

  • Thursday: 30-min neighborhood walk-moderate, 3 hills + 3 hills in reverse, 12 pounds

  • Friday: zero day due to traveling to visit family

  • Saturday: 30-min neighborhood walk-moderate, 3 hills + 3 hills in reverse, 12 pounds

Weekly notes:

Things I have learned this week:

  • Central Florida vacations exhaust the body! I was not expecting to need two recovery days. Yikes!

  • Walking hills in reverse is vastly more difficult than normal, forward-facing hill climbs and descents.

Visiting my parents this weekend was a fun chance to reminisce about early hikes together. Circa early 1980s.

Visiting my parents this weekend was a fun chance to reminisce about early hikes together. Circa early 1980s.


Step Four: adjusting My goals

Being married to a kinesiologist, I know that I need to be training not just for performance (i.e., accomplishing the hike), but also for injury prevention. To achieve performance and injury prevention, I will spend the remaining 4 weeks training in:

Strength and conditioning for hiking

Adequate strength and conditioning for a hike reduces the likelihood of injury-inducing compensations (i.e., recruiting muscles that aren’t designed/prepared for the task).

Plan: By the end of these 4 weeks, I need to be:

  • making daily neighborhood walks and hill climbs for 45 minutes with 20 pounds of weight

  • completing longer, multi-hour hikes weekly at area state parks, carrying 6 pounds of weight

Stability for hiking

Adequate core stability enables a hiker to both maximize power output and minimize unhealthy compensations.

Plan: By the end of these 4 weeks, I need to be able to complete:

  • plank and/or side planks for a combined 2 minutes

  • 20 reps of single leg towel slides in each direction: forward, backward and laterally

  • 20 reps of single leg glute bridges on each side

Mobility for hiking

With good mobility, a hiker is able to traverse an irregularly shaped landscape more safely and efficiently.

Plan: I began this process with adequate mobility. Thus, during these 4 weeks, I simply need to maintain mobility.

I plan to participate in yoga-like* activities 3 times/week.

* I say “yoga-like” instead of “yoga” because true yoga involves a spiritual component I am not participating in. I move through the poses simply for the purpose of maintaining joint mobility.

 

Training Progress

→Week Five

Strength + conditioning

Sun: 40-min neighborhood walk, 12 lbs, 3 hills + 3 hills in reverse

Mon: 30-min neighborhood walk, 14 lbs, 3 hills + 3 hills in reverse

Tues: 35-min neighborhood walk, 14 lbs, 2 hills + 2 hills in reverse

Stability

Sun: 1 minute combined plank

Mon: 1:15 combined plank; 10 reps single leg towel slides; 5 reps single leg glute bridges

Tues: 1:16 combined plank

Mobility

Sun: 20 minutes yoga-like flow sequence

Mon: mobility off day

Tues: 10 minutes yoga-like flow sequence

 

Are you training for an upcoming trip, too?

Or maybe you’ve overcome an illness to reclaim your life?

Tell us about it in the comments!


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