Training For a Long Hike: Yoga
As I begin my training schedule for the JMT, I thought I’d post a little about what I’m doing physically to prepare my body for hiking more than a week at high altitudes. I personally have to do a little more strenuous training because I live at 3,000 feet and there is very little in my state of Arizona that goes above 10,000 feet. It can be found up in Flagstaff and that works for a weekend, but not for the daily training a hike of this nature really requires. So I try to come up with a training regimen that helps me get ready for altitude as well as hiking daily. I’ll be posting the different things I do over the next few weeks, starting today with my yoga training.
The muscle groups that are essential to long distance hiking are the core and leg muscles. The muscles that are essential to carrying a pack are upper arm, shoulder and back muscles. That makes training with any one type of exercise hard. One of the best disciplines I think a hiker can do to target their core, back, legs and arms while also improving balance, circulation and breathing is yoga. Yoga may seem like a crazy exercise fad that is sweeping the country, but it is the cheapest and best way to get the body ready for almost anything. It even improves my sleep and keeps me from becoming as stiff when I find sleeping on the ground is unavoidable.
The right breathing technique and the ability to control your breathing is essential to a good yoga routine and can’t be finagled or fudged at all. It’s not all about just breathing slowly either. I get my heart rate up and get breathing pretty hard depending on what I’m doing in yoga, but I’m always in control of each breath. The first thing to learn is the way every human is supposed to breathe. When I was a kid I used to breathe the worst way a person can; by lifting my shoulders. This expands the chest and does allow air in, but it increases your chances of injury, especially if you’re carrying a backpack. Anyone who plays a wind instrument (or took singing lessons), like I did in middle school, will have learned that the best way to breathe is to push out your stomach and allow your diaphragm to do the work instead of you back and shoulders. Sure, this is not the most visually flattering way, but it will help you get a deeper breath and prevent injury to your back and shoulders.
When you are trying to lower your heart rate, a good way to begin or end any yoga routine as well as any meditation, you want to slowly take the deepest breath you can and hold it for about 5-10 seconds. Then slowly push all the air out of your lungs and hold that for 5-10 seconds. You can actually feel yourself slip into an almost sleep like state. What I’ve found is doing this for about 30 seconds to a minute at the beginning of my day helps my muscles loosen up which makes my day better and my muscles ready to engage in what I’m asking them to do. I’ll do this for about 5-10 minutes just before bed and I sleep so much better. I personally take this time to get my prayers in because I am focused on nothing else.
One of the other important things to do slowly and steadily is the transitions between positions. Just like when you work with weights or other strength training exercises, flopping or collapsing can cause injury, so it’s important to move at a steady pace from one position to the next. While you do want to push your muscles a little bit harder every day, if you don’t have enough gas in your tank left to release your muscles and move into the next position, you’re going to increase you chance or really hurting yourself. This is where the steady control of your breathing can really help as well. It helps focus your mind and gives you a good pace with which to move without hurting yourself.
3. Positions for Beginners in Order
With each position you really want to try to focus on stretching or engaging whatever muscle group that position is targeting. When I’m stretching, I like to lift out of the stretch slightly when breathing in and then go into the stretch a little further than the breath before it while breathing out. When I’ve stretched as far as I can stand, I hold it for at least one full breath or more. When I’m engaging muscles, like you would for a plank, I try to slow my breathing and not huff and puff as much.
1. Lotus Position – 30 seconds
2. Butterfly Pose – 30 seconds
3. Seated Two Leg Forward Bend – 30 seconds
4. Seated One Leg Forward Bend – 15 seconds per leg
5. Boat Pose – 20 seconds
6. Corpse Pose – 10 seconds
7. Happy Baby – 10 seconds
8. Half Happy Baby – 10 seconds each side
9. Reclining Knee to Shoulder – 15 seconds each side
10. Reclining Half Ankle to Knee Pose – 15 seconds each side
11. Reclining Eagle Twist – 15 seconds each side
At this point I roll onto my stomach
12. Cat Pose – 10 seconds
13. Cow Pose – 10 seconds
14. Plank Pose – 10 seconds (to begin with work up to 30)
15. Side Plank Pose – 10 seconds each side
16. Upward Facing Dog Pose – 15 seconds
17. Cobra Pose – 15 seconds
It’s easy to roll your hips up as you extend your elbows to transition from Cobra to Downward Dog!
18. Downward Dog Pose – 15 seconds (working up to 30 seconds)
19.Warrior I Pose – 15 seconds each side
20. Warrior II Pose – 15 seconds each side
21. High Lunge – 15 seconds each side
22. Low Lunge – 10 seconds each side (drop into Lizard Pose before switching to the next side)
23. Lizard Pose – 10 seconds each side
24 Eagle Pose – 10 seconds each side
25. Chair Pose – 15 seconds
26. – 50. This Sun Salutation sequence.
The whole thing takes between 20-30 minutes depending on how long each pose is held and the length of your transitions and I usually play some relaxing music while I go through these positions. My playlist is music I consider to be my favorite worship music, mostly consisting of very old Jennifer Knapp and Jars of Clay with some Mumford and Sons thrown in, but you can pick whatever relaxes you. I do this every morning and will be continuing to start my day off with my yoga on trail. If you try this just once, I guarantee you will be able to tell just why yoga will make you a better hiker and athlete in general.
I like to add in this series of positions as well if I have time or at the end of my hiking for the day but before I sit down and get stiff. It’s a great 5 minutes of stretches to do during hiking breaks as well.
All of the pictures used here are from Mind Body Green. Please check them out! They have the best collection of yoga and natural fitness pages I’ve come across. If you are confused on any position or want to find some more challenging positions to try, check out their yoga for beginners page. It’s got everything from the basics posted here to some really difficult stuff that I wish I could do!