Training to hike 20-plus miles a day for five or six months is a difficult thing to do, particularly when you don't have hours and hours each day to exercise.
Before the AT and PCT, I tried to train in some way for at least two hours a day in the weeks leading up to the hike.
Running is great, both for endurance and for overall fitness, and also for trimming excess fat. Reason and I ran a half-marathon just a few weeks before the PCT. This April we ran a 10K.
This time around, though, I've come to the conclusion that squats and stairs are where it's at.
I've always known that squats are good for me, just like I know that veggies are better for me than cookies. But squats are hard, and I've avoided them.
I came around on the PCT. The PCT is not a difficult trail. It's nothing like the AT with its constant grinds up and down mountains. I didn't develop the musculature on the PCT that I'd hoped, so I started adding squats to my day. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that squats are a great way to strengthen - and tighten - the major muscles of the lower body. Which is to say, squats seem like the perfect way to get strong, lean legs and a strong and lean rear end.
Further, squats seem like a great answer to a problem I've long wanted to solve: how do you train to go downhill? I once asked a personal trainer why there aren't any gym machines that provide a downhill scenario. "Going downhill is bad for your legs," she said. But we go down stairs, if we go up mountains we come down. Personally, I find hiking down mountains much harder than hiking up. Sure, gaining elevation taxes the lungs and the heart, but losing elevation punishes the knees.
Ross Enamait suggests one-legged squats in his excellent Underground Guide to Warrior Fitness. Reason is quite good at these. Then again, Reason will climb anything you dare him to. I've been sticking to the two-legged version, and I think it makes a big difference. I need to woman up and try the one-leggers. They seem like the perfect training exercise for the steep descents of the Appalachian Trail.
In addition to squats, I've been training on stairs. I have access to a great exterior double staircase. Two sets of stairs lead up to a landing and entryway from either side, making a perfect circuit. I take one set up and the second set down. I've worked up to taking this circuit for 45 minutes while wearing a 20 lb weight vest. I started with a duration of 10 minutes and worked up from there. I suspect that this kind of exercise is great for conditioning the tendons and ligaments which are otherwise vulnerable to the sudden demands of thru-hiking.
I must also add that stairs are a great way to develop the glorious gluteus medius. I never knew I had these muscles until I hiked the AT. After a few hundred miles on the trail, I rested my arms akimbo and was stunned at the rock-hard formations atop my gluteus maximus. This perky pair of muscles seems to be my personal hiking powerhouse. They are quick to develop on the trail and sadly quick to deflate once off the trail. They seem to respond to stair circuits, though, so I'm going with it!
Did I mention that I love the sheer physicality of working out? I love hiking hard for months at a time. I love having a strong, fit body.
I'm neither a doctor nor a trainer. Check with your doctor or trainer before attempting these exercises.