Training & Physical Fitness

How much you enjoy your Grand Canyon hike depends a lot one what kind of physical shape you are in. Most people don’t realize that they will be dealing with high altitude along with steep grades on the inner canyon trails. One thing you should be made aware of is that even the bottom of the Grand Canyon along the Colorado River is at 2400 feet in elevation, while the South Rim sits at 7000 feet and the North Rim at 8000 feet! With the majority of our nation’s population living near or slightly above sea level, this has a tremendous impact on your ability for hiking in our thin air. In fact, there is a high altitude training center in Flagstaff where athletes, both pro and Olympic, train to build up their red blood cells so they can perform better in their respective events.

Now you might wonder how you can help yourself prepare for hiking here when you probably don’t have access to such high elevations for training. Fortunately, there are things you can do to improve your own stamina and also help prevent injuries on your hike.

I’d first like to tell you of my experience to help you understand what you need to prepare for. After so many years of hiking Grand Canyon’s steep trails with heavy backpacks, my knees starting feeling those many miles. Then finally on a hike I did in the spring of 2002, my knees took the “final” blow. I ended up having to carry an extremely heavy pack due to the gallons of water I was forced to carry. Because of the severe drought that the southwest had been experiencing for years, the springs and potholes were bone dry. The only water I could truly count on was the Colorado River. To top it off, even though I was hiking during a time of year that snowstorms are quite common, the weather was abnormally warm and dry. The days were topping out near 90 degrees, and hiking along trails exposed to the sun all day long, I was forced to drink more water than usual for that time of year. In spite of carrying 2 ½ gallons at one point, I ran out of water and was forced to hike until I could get access the river. This forced march proved too much for my right knee, and it ballooned to easily double of its normal size. I had to hike eight more days on my injured knee before I could access a place to hike out to a spot where I could get to civilization! My knees have never fully recuperated.

After seeing an orthopedic doctor, I found out that my knees had just been overused for too many years. My cartilage hadn’t been torn as I suspected, but rather my strong quadricep (thigh) muscles had pulled my knee caps toward the outside of my leg and gotten worn down, so surgery was not a viable option. I tried the various exercises that my doctor had recommended, but my knees were not improving. I started getting a panicky feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to backpack ever again. And those that know me know that is a HUGE part of my joy of living.

Then one day I was reading about the benefits of rebounding exercise. Rebounding is jumping on one of those small trampolines that you will find in many gyms these days. One of the many benefits of exercising on a mini-trampoline is the minimal impact upon one’s knees and hips.

Well, I decided to give it a try and purchased a cheap one just to get an idea if it was something that might work for me. I immediately fell in love with it! My knees didn’t hurt doing it, and within a couple of weeks, my knees were actually feeling better than they had in over a year! I enjoyed it and felt so much better overall that I did some research and purchased a gym-quality ReboundAIR trampoline from The American Institute of Reboundology (yes, that’s really what they call their company). I cannot describe how much better the pro quality equipment is over the cheaper stuff. But I have always been a true believer that you get what you pay for; just as I’ve been saying all along about backpacking equipment! The ReboundAIR rebounder has so much more bounce in the springs and material than the less expensive models, which makes a huge difference in how well you bounce—and how fun it is to bounce! To find out some of the benefits of rebounding, visit this page listing 33 Ways the Body Responds to Rebounding.

That it remains so enjoyable means that I jump often. I can do it in front of the television, and since the bounding is so quiet, you don’t have to blast the volume of your TV or stereo. And the benefits have gone way beyond making my knees feel better. My hiking stamina is excellent when I train regularly before a hike, and I just plain feel a lot better! I find the most effective way to strengthen my knees and get the aerobic workout is by running in place on the trampoline, lifting my knees parallel to the floor.

Another good way to train for hiking the Canyon by running up and down bleachers, subways, or long stairways. It’s even better if you wear a backpack carrying some substantial weight inside—perhaps a bag of dog food or kitty litter.

Even more effective than running up and down stairs is doing simple step aerobics while carrying that weight. You might wonder why doing something as simple as stepping up and down on a single step would be more effective. If you think about walking up and down stairs, you can see that you get a good workout on the way up, but your heart gets a break on the way down. Therefore you are not maintaining your aerobic heart rate for long enough to get the full benefit. However, if you do step aerobics, you can maintain your heart rate for as long as you are stepping. And step aerobics don’t require any fancy equipment or a gym membership; I use a simple Rubbermaid step available nearly anywhere that sells Rubbermaid items. Start with little weight on your back, but then as you get in better shape, you can add more weight to the pack and/or place your step on a board to raise its height.

If you are unfamiliar with step aerobics, there is a fabulous site dedicated to the exercise that includes animations of many different step routines. Alexey’s Stepcenter has a huge array of step exercises, as well as some great videos, that will help you in your training. To view the basic step I am referring to here, view this animation to watch the actual movements of the step. This step is the least complicated one to do while training with a loaded backpack. Simple but VERY effective!

Sally Underwood, fellow Grand Canyon Field Institute instructor and an accomplished backpacker, introduced me to another wonderful site called Body Results – Outdoor Sport Strength and Conditioning that is geared towards training for the toughest outdoor adventures! Grand Canyon qualifies! They even sell a video that includes a six-month training program geared towards preparing for climbing Mount Rainier and other high-altitude areas. The site also has a reverse step-up routine that is designed to help with downhills—excellent for the Canyon’s never-ending downhill grades!

The authors of the Body Results site have published an excellent book geared specifically to the outdoor sports enthusiast called appropriately” The Outdoor Athlete.” If you are truly serious about training for getting in great shape for backpacking Grand Canyon, preparing for a marathon, cross country skiing, rock climbing, paddling, or mountain biking, this truly is an amazing resource! The Outdoor Athlete focuses on strenthening the muscles and working on the balance needed for your specific activity while still providing a balanced workout. I have never seen this type of detail given to outdoor activities and cannot overstate how valuable the training advice given in this book is. Highly recommended!

Sally wisely cautions people that if they use weights (like a weighted pack), be sure to keep the BPM of the music less than 120 and strictly limit any complicated choreography like hop-turns, etc…that will put a lot of stress on their knees if done with weight. This can’t be stressed enough; you want to help prepare your knees, not destroy them!

My recommendation is that you start out by exercising at your aerobic heart rate for fifteen minutes without any weight on your back. Work up to thirty minutes, and just when you start feeling a little cocky because it’s getting pretty easy, put on a pack with some weight in it. Start out carrying just a few pounds, maybe five to ten pounds. Gradually add enough weight until it is equivalent to what you’ll be carrying in the Canyon; usually about 25 – 35 pounds. I would recommend adding the weight in five pound increments. I guarantee that you won’t feel cocky for long! Training with weight will greatly improve your fitness level for a backpack trip, and the is the one thing most people don’t even think about!

As with any exercise regimen, check with your doctor first to make sure it’s appropriate for you. And be smart; don’t try too much at one time. Work up to it gradually-but keep at it. I’m sure most people have started an exercise program but bit off more than they could chew at first, making you too sore to keep it up. Then the program is abandoned. Don’t get yourself into this rut. Your muscles will thank you on your hike!