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10 Tips For Pacing Yourself On The Trail

July 27, 2021

Anyone who wants to truly enjoy their hiking experience – whether in the state park, on the Shoshone Lake Trail in Yellowstone or along the breathtaking Pioneer Ridge on Denali – needs to learn how to pace themselves. Without this ability, hiking is not just exhausting and unpleasant but potentially dangerous. Below we’ll look at 10 tips that will help you pace yourself on your next backcountry adventure.

1. Match Your Breath to Your Stride 

The best way to find your stride on the trail is to match your breathing with the rhythm of your steps. At the start breathe in while counting steps “1, 2, 3” then out while counting “4, 5, 6”. As you begin to work a little harder increase the frequency of your breaths. So breathe in on steps 1 and 2 and breathe out on steps 3 and 4. Finally, when exertion reaches its peak match your breaths with your steps 1 to 1. So in 1, out 2, in 1, out 2.

2. Don’t break your stride on steep sections

Without a doubt, there will be times you’ll need to slow down and be mindful of every foot placement. But in too many instances hikers will break the rhythm of their stride for no good reason. The best approach in cases where the trail is still manageable, just steeper, is to shorten your steps a bit while maintaining the same frequency of steps-to-breathing. So if you were in a 4-step breathing rhythm (2 steps in, 2 steps out) continue with it. Just take shorter steps.

3. Don’t underestimate the descent 

Descending is the payoff for all that energy you expended getting to the top of the mountain or ridge. From here it’s just a jog to the bottom. Right? The fact is that descending can be extraordinarily hard on your joints and even harder on your quads, adductor and abductor muscles. The key to a successful, injury-free descent is to establish a moderate pace, take short breaks every 20-30 minutes to stretch and drink some water and never allow yourself to get out of control. Always keep a slight bend in the knee to absorb shocks and – if the terrain is steep – zig zag to spread the downward forces among different muscles.

4. Surround the weakest link

You will rarely be among a group of climbers where everyone is on the same level. But letting the weakest partner dictate the pace is a mistake. Often the stronger climbers will never really warm up and will lay themselves bare to nuisance injuries. To avoid this put the weakest link in the chain between two stronger hikers. Then establish a pace that requires the weaker climber to push themselves just a bit. This benefits everyone, including the weaker climber who will learn to focus on matching the feet in front of him or her and not on how tired they are.

5. Take short breaks

Another common mistake that disrupts pacing is taking long rest stops. Sure, it’s necessary to break from time to time to drink some water and make any necessary adjustments to your pack or hiking boots. But stopping for too long will cause your muscles to start tightening up. Not good. So limit breaks to five minutes. And unless you need to retrieve something from it or adjust the distribution of the load, leave your pack on during the break.

6. Use trekking poles

Purists will scoff at the notion of trekking poles but that’s what purists do. They scoff. The fact is trekking poles will help you establish and maintain a healthy pace, especially when descending. Trekking poles help absorb downward forces and distribute them to your arms and shoulders. The result is that your quads will stay fresh for longer and you’ll still be able to stand upright when you reach the bottom.

7. Take the stairs

If you’re able to practice pacing yourself it will pay huge dividends on the trail. For those who live in a tall building, there’s no better way to do this than the stairs. If your building is tall enough the stairs will afford you the opportunity to get into a rhythm with your breathing. Which is training gold? Wear a backpack and gradually add weight to it over time to really reap the benefits. The stairs are an equally great way to train for downhill too.

8. Get an early start

 If you want to suffer heat stroke there’s no better way than to start your hike in the middle of a hot summer day. A much better, safer, more effective approach is to get underway early in the morning, find an agreeable pace and let your body warm up naturally. As the temperature begins to rise and the sun starts to bear down you can adjust the pace accordingly.

9. Wear quality hiking boots

No matter how strong you are or how much you train if you’re wearing poorly made or ill-fitting hiking boots you’ll never get into a proper rhythm. That’s because your efforts will be undermined by the pain in your toes, the blister on your heel and the cramps in your arches caused by a lack of support. Your hiking boots are the medium that transfers your physical effort into motion. If they are not up to the task you’re in for a very unpleasant experience.

10. Listen to your body 

Dehydration is the biggest threat to your well-being while hiking. Even in the winter, you need to drink copious amounts of water. The warning signs of dehydration include headaches, confusion, cramps, disorientation and small amounts of bright yellow pee. On hot sunny days, you need to be wary of heat stroke as well. The warning signs include a lack of sweating, muscle weakness, dizziness, dry bright red skin, shallow breathing, and a rapid heartbeat. Whether you’re in rhythm or not if you experience any of the above symptoms you need to stop and get a handle on the situation.

Hiking is a wonderfully life-affirming activity. To get the most out of your hiking experience it’s vital that you learn to pace yourself. Take the above tips to heart and reap the rewards the next time you hit the trail.

Rich Chambers

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    Trip to the Wild
    August 7, 2019 at 10:44 am

    I completely agree with the short breaks. The longer brakes not only tighten up your muscles but it destroys your momentum too.