A Couch Potato’s Guide to Training for a Thru-Hike

My not-so-secret secret is that I’m kind of a couch potato. I’ve never been what people would refer to as “active.” To give you an idea of what kind of kid I was, my experience with organized sports was limited to one much-hated year of cross-country in middle school and one season on a park district soccer team (also in middle school), where I sometimes actively tried to not have the ball anywhere near me. I was definitely more a band kid.
Today, I still am that kid in many respects. I don’t like playing any sports, and I utterly loath going to the gym. I’m not saying that I never exercise, I do. I’m just saying that when I’m sitting on my couch watching Netflix, it’s much more likely for me to stay on the couch than get off it. To put it simply, once I get going it’s fine, it’s the getting going that’s hard.

But, I’m planning on hiking 2000+ miles this summer. Admittedly, you can go on the internet and find people that say they thru-hiked with absolutely no training beforehand, but I can’t imagine their first few weeks were very enjoyable, so I do want to be in moderately good shape before I get on the trail in May. I have my first few weeks on trail roughly planned out, with me hiking about an average of 9 miles a day. I’m planning on letting the trail get me into crazy, thru-hiker good shape. My time now, pre-trail, is just to get me into 9 mile a day shape.
If you’re a fellow couch potato who is planning a thru-hike or other big physical activity is the coming months, use the tips below and you too can get into good-enough shape!

1. Find activities you actually enjoy
As I said above, I really hate the gym. But many articles you read about training for a thru-hike will go on and on about the stairmaster or walking on a treadmill with a backpack on. I briefly considered including frequent gym trips as part of my training regime, but quickly realized how much that would make me hate my life. Instead, I’m focusing on activities that I genuinely enjoy doing. Those include yoga/pilates, biking, and hiking. All of these strengthen muscles, biking and hiking can help with cardio, and yoga and pilates will improve flexibility. Nothing beats hiking with a loaded pack for training for a thru-hike, so the majority of my training revolves around hiking. For now, it’s just day hikes with increasing mileage, but later in March and in April I’ll be doing some 1 to 3 night shakedown hikes too.
Your activities could be hiking and rock climbing, or hiking and swimming, or hiking and Zumba (I’m assuming hiking will always be one if you’re planning a thru-hike). It doesn’t matter what the activities are, as long as you’re getting some exercise and you’re improving – which brings me to the next step.

2. Set small goals for yourself
For me, thinking about “training to hike the Appalachian Trail” was too big and scary to easily plan. I made quite a few plans over the past six months or so where I had week by week planned out for what activities to do or what muscles to work on. Not surprisingly, I usually followed these plans for maybe a week, at the most. Now, instead of super intense workout plans, I’m just trying to motivate myself to be more active in general and to increase how long/far I can go. One of the ways I’ve found to do this is to have small goals that I am working towards, along with the larger goal of being ready for the AT. For example, Amazon Prime Video has a surprising number of yoga videos, and I recently started a 30 day series. Wanting to complete the series has actually made me get my yoga mat out some days. Another small goal I have is going involving increasing the distance I can bike. In early April my mom and I are visiting my brother in Amsterdam, and we’ll be doing the classic vacation in the Netherlands move of biking through the tulip fields. So, before then, I need to be able to bike the 30 miles that we have planned for that day.
Small goals help motivate you in the short-term, and their results will help in the long-term.

3. Get other people to force you to exercise
This tip is pretty much just what is says. Surround yourself with people who will force you (or motivate you, I guess) to exercise. Sometimes, this can be as simple as telling someone you going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail and then using the doubting look you see in your eye as fuel during your next workout….. Or it can just mean a roommate or friend who texts you every day and reminds you to stop watching Netflix and instead go on a hike. I’m lucky enough that my parents, who I’m currently living with, quite enjoy hiking, so they (especially my mom) will often be the ones who suggest that we go on a hike. I also have a friend who’s planning her first backpacking trip this summer, and she and I are also planning to go on a few day hikes with loaded packs. She gets an idea of how it feels and I get a push out the door. Win-win.

Bonus tip – Spend money on something
I’m calling this a bonus tip because it’s not actually something I’m using, though I have used it in the past. It requires that you have a small miserly streak, but it can be really helpful if you do. Essentially, spend money on something (a gym membership, a fitness class, a 5K entrance fee, etc.), and you’ll feel like you have to use it so that you get your money’s worth. I didn’t get a gym membership this time around because I wanted to save money and of course, I hate the gym, but if I had, I would have gone at least enough times a month to feel like the fee was worth it. Those of you who live in really cold climates, where you can’t hike outside right now, or who are planning a NOBO hike where most of your training is in December through February, may have to use this tip. It’s the only way I would have been able to force myself to the gym.

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