Eight Ways Hiking Can Improve Your Running

‘You’re not a real runner’ if you walk’ or so the adage goes. Think again, as hiking is a powerful tool in your training tool kit as Ruth Martin discovers

Pic credit: Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Was there ever a year when more people got outside walking and hiking than in 2020? Small wonder it became so popular with with working-from-home life providing the time, and the pandemic restricting movement offering the opportunity.

According to Strava’s annual Year in Sport the UK saw an 82% increase in outdoor activities being posted. And activities classified as walking outdoors increased threefold compared to 2019, not just amongst those taking up walking but amongst runners and cyclists too.

Runners increased their walking activities by 10.8% in walking activities compared to cyclists at 8.5%. Walking well and truly leapt forward in popularity over the course of the pandemic.

But can hiking and walking help your running training, contrary to the adage that ‘real’ runners do not walk?

Running is doubtless a challenge on the body and mind (probably why we love it) but walking can also provide a training load physically and mentally. Of course, walking is not always going to be the appropriate mode of speed – gunning for a PB on that 10km race is probably not the right time to opt for a stroll – but employing a change of pace at the right time can bring its own advantages.

Build Endurance

hiking in the woods
Pic credit: Photo by Kitera Dent on Unsplash

If you are just starting out as a runner or are looking to step up to a new, longer distance, such as an ultra, walking or hiking with purpose can be a recommended training approach.

By incorporating periods of walking when working towards a distance goal like a marathon for instance, you are still building time on your feet as well as gaining confidence that you can go the course. This gradual approach means the body is less likely to breakdown through injury making that finish line seem even further away.

Starting off your training with a run/walk strategy can also be much less daunting than seeing five continuous runs to tick off on your training plan. Indeed, the Jeff Galloway Run Walk Method of training has become very popular for marathon runners, including those aiming for fast times.

Build Strength

Think walking is just for beginners? Even top ultra-runners like Kilian Jornet will employ ‘power-hiking’ in both races and training to help them get to that finish line in one piece. Walking and hiking are great ways to strengthen some of the key muscles that we use in running. And the great thing about walking is that you can build strength without the added impact that comes with running.

hiking uphill

For instance, the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body but it is often under utilised (ever heard from your physio that you have ‘lazy glutes’..check out our on demand programme, Glute Strength for Performance to help that!).

Hiking uphill is fantastic for glute activation, mimicking the same motion found in running, meaning you can strengthen and engage those key muscles without the heart rate intensity. Plus, the views at the top of a hill can be pretty spectacular (even in London), best seen without being doubled over from post run exertion!

Improve Recovery

Ease sore muscles by going for a good hike to get the blood pumping around your legs, to help repair all of those micro muscle tears from an intense or long training run. Hiking gives your muscles a chance to rest whilst also giving the body that aerobic level of exercise needed to still be beneficial to your training.

Fine Tune Technique

Hiking also provides a great opportunity to pay attention to posture and form that can be carried over into running.

‘The arm swing is often completely under utilised in running technique but helps power running, working to improve balance, speed and core activation,’ explains founder of GRTW, Rachael Woolston. ‘If you swing your arms strongly as you go up hill hiking, you will feel the difference it makes, and can incorporate that into your running.’

Fat Burning

The longer we move in our aerobic zone, the more fat we burn. It is also the main heart rate training zone for ultra events and marathons. And so hiking helps you to build fitness in this area, while also helping your body to learn how to burn fat as fuel, which is what you want to do for endurance events.

Chill Out

Taking things slower also allows for a real opportunity to take the time to focus on breathing. Did you know that many of us breathe through our mouths which means we are failing to use our full lung capacity?

Slow everything down and learn to breathe in an optimal way which can then be translated to breathing on the run. Not to mention, using our full lung capacity improves our postural muscles and recovery zone (learn techniques for deeper breathing with our Learn to Breathe on demand programme).

Rehab an Injury

Suffering from an injury is one of the most frustrating things as a runner (and those who live with you) and can often lead to periods of low mood. As long as the injury allows, walking is a great way to rehabilitate injured runners, helping to maintain fitness and allowing for that all important ‘getting outdoors’ time. It is important for any comeback from injury to be gradual and progressive and incorporating walking into a return to running plan reduces the risk of re-injury.

Green Space Serenity

Neuroscientsist and author of ‘In Praise of Walking, Shane O’Mara believes that walking is in fact, a superpower. He claims that it acts as a self-repair mechanism for both the brain and the body. We tend to agree with additional benefits to walking including mood boosting and stress relief.

So whether you are an ultra-endurance runner looking to cover monster mileage, a beginner starting out, or you are coming back from injury, taking a hike can bring a wealth of benefits to your training.

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