When people prepare for a hike a lot of emphasis is placed on what goes inside your pack and how much it weighs. I find that carrying lightweight, minimal, and functional gear makes it much easier to hike high mileage days. But it isn't a magic solution. Plenty of physical, mental, and emotional prep work goes into a successful hike. Intensify that by 10 and you have what's needed to hike a trail in a record setting fashion. Learn what it means to train–as well as the multiple facets of training necessary–to do something extraordinary from Brand Ambassador Heather "Anish" Anderson. She is currently attempting to set a new self-supported record on the Appalachian Trail.

Heather Anish Anderson

Athletes Train, Thru-Hikers Walk, right?

When we talk about athletic training, what comes to mind? Stretches and sprints at a track? Endless reps in the weight room? Tedious, sweaty, difficult… No Pain, No Gain mentality?

I never set out to be an athlete. I discovered about 12 years ago that I simply loved moving on my own power through a landscape. I started with day hikes and jogs. Rapidly I found myself in the midst of a thru-hike, even though I'd only slept outside a handful of times prior. I had managed to lose 40 lbs in my "training" which consisted of long jogs and some evenings at my college weight room, but I still had plenty to go. I made those physical gains while walking from Georgia to Maine.

Anish thru hiking the Appalachian Trail

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail back in 2003

From Couch to Trail to Racing

When I got it into my head in the fall of 2001 that I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail two years later I really had no idea what I was doing–from a backpacking standpoint, and from a physical standpoint. I weighed 200 pounds and had never exercised–much less trained–outside gym classes. But, once I had the desire to hike 2,179 miles, I became my own greatest experiment in the journey to athleticism.

Backpacking involves leaving your vehicle behind and carrying everything you need with you. It allows you to experience parts of the world you wouldn't be able to otherwise. It was this idea of adventure that intrigued me so much that I was willing to train my body to do it.

At first, yes, it was hard. Very hard. It was tedious, and sweaty, and painful. Over time my body adapted and the type and intensity of my exercise changed. I delved deeper into endurance running and with that came a new array of difficulty, pain, and tediousness.

I first conceived the idea of attempting a Fastest Known Time hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2008, but I didn't commit myself to it until four years later.

Fastest Known Time (FKT) refers to speed records set by hikers or runners of various trails and routes. All of these are unofficial and based on the honor system, although people do various things to document their journeys such as using a GPS or tracker as they hike. Typically the person (or group of people) will announce their intentions beforehand.

Ever since I had first thru-hiked in 2005 and met David Horton on his Fastest Known Time attempt I had always wondered just how fast I could complete the trail if I was in optimal shape and optimally efficient.

I decided the pursue the self-supported Fastest Known Time category because I wanted it to be a pedestrian journey that I undertook solo, rather than with a team of people to support me. There are three styles of Fastest Known Times established and maintained on fastest known time proboards:

A supportedhike means you have a support team that meets you along the trail to supply you with the food and gear you may need. A supported hike is a team effort and makes it possible for the lightest trips, generally allowing for a faster time.

A person hiking a self-supported trail means you don't have a support team, but you don't carry everything you need from the start as you will resupply yourself along the trail.

To hike unsupported, you must do so with no external support of any kind. Typically, this means that you must carry all your supplies right from the start, except any water that can be obtained along the way from natural sources. This approach is typically done on shorter long distance trails such as the John Muir Trail. An unsupported hike is also unaccompanied.

Training tips are discussed in part 2 of this article

anish pct thru hike

On a self-supported thru hike of the PCT

In the months leading up to my departure I knew I would need to train even harder. Yet, my decision to attempt an FKT hike coincided perfectly with yet another in a string of injuries I sustained from logging so many running miles.

I ran more than 10 miles exactly twice during the 6 months prior to my hike. Mostly, I didn't run or hike. I did strength training at home and that was about it. In the time I should have been training the hardest for the most difficult endeavor of my life I was sidelined.

Now, perhaps the wisest thing for an athlete to do in those circumstances would be to postpone. Elite ultrarunners pull out of races prior to the start or in the early miles if they aren't feeling anything but their best. Football, basketball, baseball players and other pros sit out a game (or more) until injuries are rehabbed. Perhaps that's what I should have done too, but I don't believe that. Remember? I never set out to be an athlete.

I have only ever set out to expand my personal limits. To experience the landscape under my own power. To allow the beauty around me to supersede pain, tedium, and weakness. Every step of my journey from Mexico to Canada was fueled by desire. Now then, am I advocating a zero training, no exercise life? Absolutely not. I myself don't believe that is healthy. So much so that I chose to obtain a Personal Training Certification from the American Exercise Academy in order to work with people in meeting their health and exercise goals.

Training is Preparation

I believe that if it hadn't been for 3 prior thru-hikes and 4 years of endurance training in the world of trail and ultramarathon running I would not have been successful in 2013. Desire can indeed take you through physical hell, but for only just so long. A body without training and muscle memory cannot adapt to the demands of 18 hours of hiking daily with no days off for two months.

ultramarathon running

Competing in an ultramarathon

There is a very complex relationship between the physical, mental, and emotional sides of training. It was all of the years of honing each aspect of these that enabled me to perform, even when I couldn't physically train like I wanted.

To prepare for an intensive long distance hike you must train in several ways. You need physical training, as well as mental, and emotional. Your body can do anything, if your mind is strong enough to make it keep going. Your mind can be strong enough only as long as you can emotionally hold yourself together in the face of challenge for a prolonged time.

What I learned from this experience was how to keep training as precisely that. Training is preparation for performance, not constantly pushing yourself at a performance level indefinitely. This was the error that I made over and over during my racing years. Since I stepped onto the PCT in 2013 I have yet to experience another physical injury. I believe it is because I have an understanding of what level I need to push when I am preparing, and what level I need to push when I am performing.

Putting It Together

For those considering a challenge like this take the time to adequately prepare the non-physical components. In the end, they will be the ones that make or break your attempt. My desire is what pushed my body through the adaptation phase (the first 10 days) as well as the breakdown phase (the last 14 days). If you consider my hike was only 60 days you will see that my body was really only the strongest of the trifecta for 36 days.

anish pct record

Anish on the PCT

The ideal training for an intense hike involves physical training in the realm of cardio, strength, and stability. It involves mental training that comes from choosing to push hard in your workouts, sticking to your training plan, and completing tasks despite discomfort. It involves emotional training by visualizing yourself in your worst case scenarios and seeing them to resolution and engaging in mind-body exercises such as Tai Chi or Yoga to bring internal balance. The more equal your preparation in each, the better off you will be.

What About Other Hikes?

99.9% of people will never try something as intense as a Fastest Known Time, or hiking long days for weeks without a break. Most will never do a 2,000+ mile thru-hike. Even so, everyone can reap the benefit of training as preparation. Approach it with the mindset of preparation, not performance. It probably won't be the drudgery you imagine!

thru hike training

Training hikes

If you are anticipating a long distance hike, taking the time to prepare your body, mind, and emotions beforehand is beneficial. Though the trail itself can be an excellent trainer, realistically evaluating your areas of strength and weakness and addressing them before setting out not only increases your chances of success, but makes it more likely you will enjoy it from the start.

Heather "Anish" Anderson is an ACE Personal Trainer and devoted lover of hiking. She is currently on the Appalachian Trail for the second time, attempting to find her limits in that terrain.

August 24, 2015 — Brian Fryer