Interval training for hiking and backpacking

When preparing for something like the Bob Open, I know for experience that two things will slow me down: my aerobic limits and sore feet.  This is in contrast to most folks, for whom muscular fatigue or connective tissue issues almost always form their distance and duration ceiling while backpacking.  I have enough base fitness built over years that for me these things usually aren’t an issue anymore, unless I really push things.  If they do limit your hiking, the following will only be of limited utility.  Interval training is an enhancement for, rather than a shortcut around, lots of lots of miles on the feet.

I wrote a more comprehensive article about training for backpacking last spring at BPL, which I’d suggest if you’re closer to starting from scratch.  I consider it one of my better pieces.

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The only way not get sore feet after 30 miles of trail hiking is to hike a lot in the months prior.  So far as I can surmise, there are no shortcuts here.  This year, like every year, I’ve addressed this via high mileage trips on the weekend, with many hours (8+) of continuous walking on consecutive days the goal.  In the past I’ve effectively augmented this by walking to and from work and school rather than cycling, but our current living arrangement and my job demands driving, so that is out.

I enhance my aerobic capacity via interval training, which I do in the early morning mid-week.  While out in the Bob I want to be able to power up a steep climb or keep my speed up through a postholing section without building fatigue which will linger into the next day.  To do this I find a nice hill, like the one pictured above, and do repeats.

I’m currently in the middle of my second interval block this spring.  By mid-March my hiking fitness was such that each Wednesday I started visiting this hill, and hiking up the steepest section five times.  Each ascent takes 70-90 seconds (my times have dropped as I get fitter), and walking back down to the base takes about twice that time.  With a leisurely 20 minute warm-up walk to get to the hill, and the 15 minute walk back to the car, the whole outing is well under an hour door to door.  I did four weeks of one interval session every Wednesday, took a week off, and am currently 3/4 done with a second sessions where I’ll do two weeks of one session a week and two weeks with two a week.

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These intervals are quite painful.  In the doing they don’t stress my muscles too much, but my lungs feel torched by the end of the third ascent and fully on fire by the end of the fifth.  A few hours afterwards, when I’m usually on the phone and computer at my desk, the twinging of sore legs starts to make itself known, and I have to take a few strolls around the building to keep the blood flowing and discomfort at bay.  For the first time this spring I’ve been sleeping with calf compression sleeves the night after these sessions, which has sped up recovery significantly and kept me from waking up at 2am with the crawling cramps.

I’m beginning to notice significant benefits from the last few months work.  This past Sunday, after an 11 hour day of hiking around looking for bears, I carried a 60 pound pack 18 miles out in 6.5 hours.  I was tired by the end but able to keep my speed up the whole time, and most importantly my feet felt 95% normal the next morning.  You never know for sure how training will come together, but generally if you put in consistent and intelligent work the results will follow.

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