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How to train for hiking the Grand Canyon

I just finished a 5 day backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon (here's my trip report), and I'm riding high on not just the experience of this trip, but in just how well my training served me for this trip.

 

Truth is, I didn't really know how to train for hiking the Grand Canyon, and the thing I knew to be nervous about was the most obvious one: the elevation. Something about having to climb 5,000 feet straight up to get out was highly motivating for making a plan and then staying consistent.

Because I was so focused on the ascent, I tailored my training toward building up the cardio endurance and leg strength to tackle that challenge.

My training worked: I don't mean to brag, but the ascent was the easy part. (Okay, maybe I'm bragging a bit...)

That said, my training plan prepared me in ways I didn't expect for the actually hard parts, which I didn't know I should be nervous about—tricky terrain, relentless pounding on my joints, and mental strength.

When I went about creating a training plan for hiking the Grand Canyon, I was working with a few limitations that I'm sure many can relate to:

 

I live in a flat place

The tricky terrain and joint assaults weren't something I could easily replicate where I live. Austin, TX, is at a middling 3,000 feet and, while it's not prairie-level flat, there aren't any actual mountains to practice climbing, and our trails are very well maintained (yay!).

 

All this to say: I had to get creative with training in order to manage my ascent anxiety.

 

I have limited time to dedicate to training

I have two kids. I work full time. I need an absurd amount of sleep to function. And I have other important priorities, like reading speculative fiction and eating cheese.

 

Because of those limitations, I needed a training plan that was time-efficient and that was realistic for my schedule and my sanity, and that and for that, I turned to the most time efficient, and absurdly effective, workout I know.

 

 HIIT & Flow was my secret training weapon

HIIT & Flow combines high intensity interval training with yoga, and as a result, it was the power multi-tasker in my training arsenal. I relied on HIIT & Flow for errrything, including: cardio, strength, and mobility, in a really short format (each workout is 30-45 minutes).

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If I had to choose just one activity to train for hiking the Grand Canyon, this would be it, without reservation.

I had a bit of a leg up, because when I started training for the Grand Canyon, I was wrapping up a HIIT & Flow teacher training (I'm certified now, come take my class!) so I was regularly doing HIIT & Flow at least three times per week. During that 6-week teacher training, I gained so much strength and endurance that I knew I could rely on HIIT & Flow to keep building me up for my trip.

HIIT & Flow also stood in for a lot of the recovery work I should have been doing—more on that below!

In addition to three HIIT & Flow classes per week, I aimed for:

 

Two weighted hikes per week

There's one—literally ONE—trail 30 minutes away that gains about 1,000 feet in just under three miles, so that became my go-to for weighted training hikes.

These became my Saturday morning ritual, and I aimed to do the full trail (5.6 miles total) at least once, with some repeats on the steeper sections when I had time. These hikes were essential for getting used to the pack, practicing snacks, and getting some actual, though still very tame, terrain experience.

One week we managed to get a permit to Enchanted Rock and so had a little day trip excursion with some different scenery.

 

Once a week my backpacking partner Kristina and I also did a weighted pack walk around our neighborhood. This was what we were able to fit in after our kids went to bed, and we'd either just make loops around the neighborhood or do repeats on the stairs in a local parking garage.

I gradually built up the weight in my pack, starting with 25 pounds, and working my way up to 60lbs (our starting weight, 😱 including water for cacheing).

 

Two short runs per week

I have a regular 5K loop I do twice a week; and even though my route is completely flat, I think it helped keep my steady state cardio up. 

And then I got to spice up my running starting a month before my trip, because Spring Training coincided with my training for the Grand Canyon. I used Spring Training to take my run game up a notch and work on building efficiency and power—plus, of course, more HIIT & Flow.

 

Training plan at a glance

Just to recap, in case you want to replicate my success, here's what an average week looked like for me:

Monday

  • 5K run
  • HIIT & Flow

 

Tuesday

  • HIIT & Flow

 

Wednesday

  • 5K run
  • Weighted pack walk around the neighborhood

 

Thursday

  • Yoga or rest day

 

Friday

  • HIIT & Flow

 

Saturday

  • Weighted hike on an actual trail. Started with ~25lbs and worked my way up to 60

 

Sunday

  • Yoga or rest day

 

What I probably should have done differently

 

I should have focused more on yoga & recovery 

A therapist told me years ago to stop using the word 'should,' but here we are. 🤷‍♀️ 

And I truly believe that I probably should have dedicated more time to yoga or other recovery work.

To be honest—and I don't mean this as an excuse; it was a matter of priorities—it was a real struggle to make the time for dedicated yoga classes when I was also doing all of the above, and working, and parenting two kids.

I love what movement brings me but I'm not the person who works out a bazillion hours a day because they enjoy it.

I really relied on HIIT & Flow to fill in that mobility and recovery gap since it does include a yoga-based warmup and cool down. Given how well my body managed and then recovered from my trip, HIIT & Flow seemed to do the trick: throughout my training and the actual hike, I have been fatigued, but not a painful kind of sore.

That said, even though my yoga practice faded into the background during this training period, I do think my decades of yoga and dance had built up a legacy of foot strength and joint stability that served me really well on some incredibly challenging terrain.

 

In conclusion... you should totally follow my training plan

Not just if you're training to hike the Grand Canyon, but if you're training for anything. For me, this training cycle was a powerful reminder that maintaining a certain level of fitness, helps us  be ready for anything, and I love the prospect of being ready to seize any adventures or opportunities that come my way—to not have to bow out because I don't have the ability.

I say this because climbing out of the Grand Canyon and having it feel easy (or at least undoubtedly within my capacity) was an ultimate high. I felt so empowered returning to the North Rim knowing that I cruised up the ascent. 

That ease happened not because I'm a natural or gifted athlete, or have supersized lungs, but because I put in the work in time-efficient ways.

Whatever you're training for, I can't recommend HIIT & Flow highly enough. It builds your base for so many aspects of a well-rounded level of fitness: cardio endurance, improved V02 max, strength, flexibility, and recovery. Not to mention: the gliders force you to engage and strengthen all of your stabilizer muscles.

 

Ready to start training for your next adventure? Here's how to try a HIIT & Flow class for free.

And if you're planning a Grand Canyon trip, here are more nuts & bolts of my adventure:

 

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