How Hiking Can Improve Your Running
People often assume that training to be a fast, powerful and efficient runner simply requires that you run a lot. And, to be fair, this is a logical conclusion. However, it’s also dangerously oversimplified. In reality runners – like all athletes – can reap some pretty dramatic benefits from a well-designed program of cross-training.
But… what’s that even mean? Cross-training can include a huge variety of different workout styles, ideally selected to complementing your primary goals. For runners, this can present an overwhelming range of options. One highly-beneficial yet woefully overlooked form of cross-training that runners could make use of is hiking.
How, though, can hiking improve your running? What should you know in order to successfully incorporate hiking into your regular training routine?
Cross-Training in General
As mentioned, hiking – when practiced properly by runners – can fall under the large “cross-training” umbrella. So, many of the benefits runners can hope for when they begin hiking are related to the strategy of cross-training in general. And, if you aren’t already performing some type of crosstraining, you’re going to want to start. Why?
Each time that you train, your working muscles endure a certain amount of structural damage – the degree of which will depend on the type of training, your fitness level and the intensity of your workout. While this damage does provide the stimulus that causes your muscles to get bigger, stronger and more efficient, those improvements occur during the recovery process. If you continue to subject your muscles to that type of stress over and over without giving them time to perform the necessary repairs, you risk suffering from a wide variety of potential injuries.
Cross-training, though, forces you to your muscles in new and novel ways. Depending on your usual training style and the exact form that your cross-training takes, you will likely also give your normal target muscle groups a little bit of time off.
Ultimately, then, cross-training really offers two very valuable benefits to athletes. First, it gives your muscles the chance to thoroughly recover while still maintaining some level of activity. More subtly, though, cross-training can also insert some necessary balance into your training routine. Endurance athletes, for example, might take this opportunity to do some strength training or focus on some other aspect of their fitness that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.
Again, though, the above information can apply to just about any form of cross-training. Which isn’t actually the point of this discussion. The real question is this: Why should you – as a runner – specifically start hiking as a way to improve your running?
Because of the varied terrain that hikers find themselves trekking through, hiking tends to have a focus on strength and balance that is simply lacking from many runs. This especially true if you generally run on the road or tracks. As a result, the muscles in your legs that typically receive an endurance workout will not have the chance to improve in their strength and coordination. During your regular runs, this can translate to safer, more efficient movements.
Of course, trail runners are not strangers to this type of terrain at all. In fact, this particular sub-group of runners can use the slower pace of hiking as a way to familiarize themselves with the trail while also enjoying the benefits of thorough recovery.
There’s also some very fascinating research regarding the psychological and emotional benefits of a good hike. According to an ever-growing mound of scientific evidence, hiking can decrease the symptoms of depression and anxiety while also improving creative thinking and memory retention. Considering that hiking gives you the chance to enjoy some new scenery at a slower pace, this makes a lot of sense.
Fitting It In
Now that we’re clear on why runners should start hiking, the question that naturally arises is how can you effectively use this form of cross-training?
Whether it’s cycling or swimming or hiking or yoga or weightlifting, the typical recommendation is to include one day of cross-training in your weekly routine. Because hiking is generally performed at a lower intensity then your usual runs, it would make sense to place this session after your most intense day as a form of active recovery. So, if your fast run is on Monday and your long run is on Friday, a solid hike on Wednesday would allow you to stay active while giving your muscles time to recovery from those sprints.
Like any new form of training, it’s important to start out gradually when finding a place for hiking in your routine. Begin with shorter, easier trails until you get a feel for the activity. Of course, what constitutes “short and easy” will depend entirely on your fitness level and training experience. Long-time trail runners, for instance, could probably handle a much more challenging route than those who rarely set foot on the trail.