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Get in shape for the Appalachian Trail

Attempting this long of a hike requires serious training and some fun gear, too

POSTED: April 1, 2009 9:43 p.m.
/For The Times

Hikers can choose from a plethora of hiking gear, including trekking poles, backpacks and sunglasses, that might be helpful on a hike through the entire Appalachian Trail.

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  • Listen as Winton Porter reveals the secret to successful thru-hiking.

Before attempting to “thru-hike” the entire 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, most people spend months planning the logistics of the trip.

But rarely do they try to get their bodies in shape for the arduous journey.

“I didn’t do anything to prepare physically,” said Matt Owens, a ranger at Amicalola State Falls State Park near Dawsonville, who thru-hiked the A.T. in 1996.

“Once you get out there for a few weeks, your body naturally conditions itself. But for a while you’re going to be hurting all over, and you’re taking a lot of ‘Vitamin I’ (ibuprofen).”

But some don’t make it through that agonizing early stage. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, in 2008 about 1,250 aspiring thru-hikers started off at Springer Mountain, the trail’s southern terminus near Amicalola. At least 100 dropped out before reaching Neels Gap near Blood Mountain, just 30 miles away.

“The Georgia part (comprising the first 75 miles of the trail) is much harder than people give it credit for,” said Owens. “It’s up and down, up and down the whole time.”

If they can make it as far as Neels Gap, they’ll probably encounter Winton Porter, owner of the Mountain Crossings hiking store on U.S. 129. He does what he can to address their physical ailments.

“A lot of people think they’re in better shape than they really are. It’s a rude awakening,” he said. “The knees are usually what hurts the most, due to overuse and shoddy footwear. The other big problem is blisters on the feet.”

Porter does an assessment of each hiker’s situation, looking at their body weight, pack weight, and foot health. He often recommends orthotic inserts such as Superfeet inside their boots, and he strongly suggests trekking poles.

Resembling ski poles, trekking poles assist with balance and transfer some of the hiker’s weight from the feet to the hands.

“Almost all the thru-hikers who go all the way (to Maine) use trekking poles,” said Porter. “It takes some of the shock out of going downhill.”

He said successful hikers are also the ones who are able to put mind over matter and ignore their discomfort.

“Walking in the rain every day is going to strengthen you mentally,” Porter said. “A lot depends on the personality of the individual. Older people tend to make it because they’re more disciplined.”

But even though the spirit is willing, some hikers have to abandon their goal when their bodies betray them. Strengthening certain muscles may help prevent injuries, and can also help hikers enjoy the experience more because they aren’t suffering from so much pain and exhaustion.

Clint Watson, a personal trainer at Bodyplex Gainesville, said hikers should make their knees a priority.

“Concentrate on step-up exercises (such as stepping on and off a box) and lunges,” he said. “Do all of the reps on one side, then the other, rather than alternating legs, because that builds more strength.”

Watson said women should be especially careful to work all of their leg muscles because they are more prone to knee injuries.

“They tend to have really strong quads but weak hamstrings,” he said.

Watson said there’s no piece of gym equipment that accurately duplicates the action of hiking. “The closest thing would be a ‘step-mill,’ which works kind of like an escalator,” he said. “But you’re probably better off just going up and down actual stairs.”

To better simulate your body’s posture on the trail, Watson said it’s a good idea to wear a loaded backpack as you work out, and gradually increase the weight.

The natural tendency is to bend forward when carrying a heavy load or going up a steep hill. But spending too much time in that position can lead to low back pain. The solution, Watson said, is to use your stomach muscles to keep your back straight.

“Abdominal work can strengthen your core muscles so you’re not hyperextending your lumbar spine,” he said.

As for exercise to increase heart and lung capacity, Porter said runners seem to do better on the trail than cyclists. “They’re using muscles that are more similar to ones you would use for hiking,” he said.



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