How to Prepare Your Feet for a Thru-Hike

Posted Jan. 4, 2018 on

Hey, Class of 2018! You’re probably nervous as hell about your impending through-hike. I know I am, despite (or because of?) the fact that I’ve through-hiked before. But feeling nervous is simply a reminder from yourself that it’s time to focus on preparation. The Trek’s editor-in-chief Badger has schooled us on how to prepare our minds in his now-classic Trials books, so let’s focus on how to prepare what is arguably the most important part of our bodies while thru-hiking: our feet. ‘Cuz 5 million steps is no small feat! (Pun intended.)

Here are 5 things you can do to prepare your feet for your through-hike:

1. Walk every day with a weighted pack in the shoes you’re going to hike in.

I’ve been reading social media and blog posts by other aspiring through-hikers who are training by going on runs and doing other forms of cardio. While I guess that’s better than doing nothing, you must train with weight or you will be very sad once you get on the trail. The great news is that you can fold this into your daily life. Walk to work or school with your laptop, books and a few water bottles stuffed into your pack. Walk to the grocery store and then walk home with your loot. Etc.

I learned this the hard way on my 2016 flip-flop thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t adequately train with a weighted pack, and I suffered from achilles tendonitis and then plantar fasciitis for the ENTIRE 6 months I was hiking. (I also did the first 100 miles of my hike in zero-drop Altras without an adequate adjustment period to them, which brings me to my next point…)

2. If you don’t already know what shoes work for you, go to a running shoe store.

Not all feet are created equal. I’m just going to say it–despite the fact that Altras and other zero-drop shoes are super trendy amongst thru-hikers, they don’t work for everyone! (But maybe they’ll work for you if you do a better job than I did at training in them?) Go to a running shoe store and ask them for help deciding.

In the months preceding my AT through-hike, I went to at least three different shoe stores. They had me try on various trail runners (because who wears boots on a through-hike anymore?) and walk around the store while the employees carefully watched. One place even made me walk on a treadmill and filmed it, so we could play back the tape in slow motion to analyze my gait. ALL of the employees warned me to use highly-supportive trail runners with insoles because of my pronation and high arches. But I ignored them and started out hiking in no-support Altras because I had read blog posts raving about them and subsequently drank the thru-hiker Kool-Aid. Doh! I paid for that mistake for 2,200 miles.

Trust the experts. They know what’s up.

hiker shoes

3. Strengthen your ankles daily by spelling the alphabet with your feet.

I don’t know about you, but I roll my ankles all the time due to weakness caused by previous ankle sprains. I seriously rolled an ankle every other a week on the Appalachian Trail (once because I was texting while hiking. F*cking millennials, right?!). But I religiously did ankle exercises every day at camp, which I believe prevented any of my “rolls” from being serious sprains.

Here’s how it works: sit in a chair and lift one leg up so it’s parallel to the ground. Point your foot and spell the letter “A” as if writing it in the air with your big toe. Then, write the letter “B.” Then, “C.” You know the alphabet, right..? Good! Keep going until you get to “Z.” Then do the same thing with your other foot. You can also do this standing up with added benefit for your quads and knees.

4. Do toe raises while squatting and while standing.

I was surprised at first by how challenging it is to raise and lower your body with just your toes–especially while squatting low to the ground.

I find that doing toe raises barefoot has the most benefit. You can feel so many muscles in your feet working that you hardly use otherwise! Apparently, some of our foot muscles are under-developed because of the sturdy footwear we’ve grown up with in our culture. Well, now’s the time to strengthen them!

Here is a great article on strengthening your feet written by a physical therapist that suggests how many reps you should do of this and other exercises.*

5. Get a bosu ball and balance on it.

Balancing on a bosu ball is great because it forces your body to constantly make a million little micro-adjustments, thus strengthening many of the under-utilized muscles in the feet. This is awesome training for your feet and ankles, which are about to navigate thousands of miles of terrain filled with rocks, roots and other hazards.

Fellow hikers: what are you doing to physically prepare now that our start dates are rapidly approaching? Please comment below and help this post be a better resource! Thanks and see ya out there!

*Another recent Trek article to check out if you want recommendations for full-body workouts is “Physical Preparations for a Thru-Hike” by Megan Landstine.

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