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Performance Hiking is the implementation of simple techniques to travel faster and farther, conserve energy and reduce fatigue. Additionally, Performance Hiking is the reduction and elimination of resistance to motion. Techniques presented will increase your stride to increase speed and endurance, improve your breathing for increased speed and alertness, reduce and eliminate energy wasting motion, etc. You can further improve your performance by reducing and eliminating resistance to efficient fluid motion in your clothing, footwear, pack and gear that resist efficient fluid motion or generates discomfort.
Our legs, feet and footwear are our essential hiking tools. The foot follows an 'S' curve path during ground contact motion. Along with ankle rotation, 30% of the energy transferred to the feet is lost as heat – waste energy. Each pound carried on your feet is equivalent to adding approximately 6.4 pounds to your pack - a known hiking fact, so try and reduce clothing, pack and gear weight.
Snap Knee Technique: Straighten-out your rearward placed leg at the knee during the thrust-off phase of motion and your speed will dramatically increase.
Increased Stride Technique: People with longer legs have a longer stride, taking fewer steps versus someone with shorter legs. By raising the heel of your feet you can increase your stride with resultant speed and energy conservation.
Let's perform an experiment: Put on a pair of non-heeled footwear such as slippers, or moccasins and count the number of strides it takes to walk from one location to another. Next, place a folded sock or other material approximately 1/4" thick at the heel location of your footwear and repeat the experiment. Did you notice that it took fewer strides to cover the same distance in less time?
Hiking footwear that is 3/8" to 1/2" higher in the heel than the forefoot provides increased leg length. Trail shoes are optimized for trail conditions. They reduce restrictive front to rear ankle motion and their weight is less than hiking boots. However, they are not recommended for people who need the ankle support provided by hiking boots. Pack weight is also a factor in footwear selection as related to the amount of support required. A shoe insert made of 20 lbs/cuft high density polyurethane, approximately 1/4 inch thick, tapered and terminated just behind the forefoot pad of the foot will further increase your leg length to increase your stride, speed, and conserve energy. You can increase your speed roughly seven percent.
Lean Forward Technique: During forward motion lean your upper body forward to cover more ground quicker and conserve energy. Repeat the above experiment and lean forward. Three benefits: Your stride increases, you maintain forward momentum and your legs rotate from a position further forward of their normal ankle position. By placing your body weight forward (a forward center of gravity), you can continue step after step with less expenditure of energy. You will reduce the time, energy and stress necessary for your ankles to rotate. When ascending, the heel contacts the slope quicker. Less stress is applied to the shin and calf muscles.
Swinging Elbows Technique: This is a modified running technique. Swinging your elbows forward and back in opposite unison with your legs increases speed. Speed-up your elbow swings to move faster. Place your hands at breast height level and elbows down. Vary the position of your fingers from a fist to full extension about every ten seconds. Your elbows act as a pendulum stabilizing your motion. Varying the position of your fingers maintains the higher speed. Energy is expended for increased speed.
Exhale Technique: Swifter motion as well as increased alertness results if you forcefully exhale. Your lungs will automatically take in oxygen and purge deep-seated carbon dioxide. On flat to moderate slopes exhale swiftly, move eight steps and repeat the process. Perform the technique for about 10 minutes and your memory will virtually takeover the process for you. For a burst of speed quickly exhale and in about five to eight seconds you can move faster with greater alertness for about ten seconds. When ascending a steep slope exhale at each step taken. Let your breathing mechanism provide feedback to determine the needed exhale frequency.
Full lung expansion: Roughly 25% of your breathing capacity is not available if you are not a diaphragmatic breather. Furthermore, wearing a belt, packs with load transfer hip-belts, hip-packs, tight pants at the waist or other breathing restriction limits your performance. Place the restriction two to three inches below your bellybutton if practical to improve breathing. You can reduce restriction to comfortable breathing by lifting/loosening your shirt/blouse vertically.
Side-Skip Technique: Your thighs, knees and shins take a punishment descending slopes. This technique permits a swift descent on non-obstructed slopes versus the side-step technique. Place your body facing either side of a slope. Thrust-off the slope with the higher located leg and repeat the process. For a long slope periodically switch which leg is to be the thrust-off leg for further stress and fatigue reduction. Use the technique with caution and control as degree of slope and trail conditions could cause injury. I used this technique descending a mountain with a thirty-five pound pack.
Crouch Technique: By placing your body in a crouching position (out-stretched legs with reduced body height), you achieve a lower center of gravity permitting you to lean forward for an increased stride. Ascending is easier and safety is improved over rough terrain as you are closer to the ground. The technique should not be used for a great length of time as it places stress on less frequently used muscles. Adjust the height of your crouch to trade-off comfort, speed and safety. When fatigued and/or ascending steeply, spread your legs apart a bit. As you press forward with your leading leg your rearward placed leg will provide better than normal stability and strength for an easier ascent. The degree of slope will determine if crouching can be applied. Spreading your legs apart a bit can be used independent of crouching.
Snow, Mud and Soft Ground Technique: To prevent slipping along and not covering much territory versus moving along, dig your heels in to compact the snow or ground. On ascents, roll your feet downward and outward, (like a duck) to dig-in and lock each foot in the ground or snow. Relative to snow, the technique applies to a few inches or so.
Developing Balance and Agility Technique: Practice concentrating on foot placement while hiking on rough and rocky trails, stone stepped streams and atop the length of dead trees to develop balance and dexterity for moving swiftly and confidently. Your footwear should be supple to obtain tactile feedback from the terrain. You need to sense and quickly respond to changes in your balance over arduous terrain.
Motion Control and Freedom of Motion Technique: Periodically check the motion of your upper body, hips, and limbs. If you are able to reduce unnecessary motion at any location while maintaining the same speed, you will conserve energy. Any piece of clothing or carried object limiting forward motion should be temporarily removed and test against not wearing/carrying it – an excellent opportunity to reconsider what you are wearing/carrying and consideration for relocating it. Lighter clothing, packs and where objects are placed in and out of packs will improve freedom of motion and thus increase speed and reduce fatigue.
Speed, Endurance and Terrain Technique: Trails vary in ground cover. You can move faster over rock and hard impacted soil than over debris, snow, sand and grass/weed covered trails. Seek harder surfaces for increased speed and reduced expenditure of energy. Where embedded rocks are located close to each other hike over them versus between them for improved speed and safety. When ascending or descending, place your feet on embedded rock (if available) for safety and speed. Hike as straight a path as terrain and trail conditions permit. The shortest path between two points is a straight line. Travel a straight path from one inside path curve to the next, trusting that it’s visible. Try not to hike higher or lower than the mean intended path/trail level. Avoiding troughs and rises will reduce waste energy, time and distance.
Energy Technique: To perform efficiently your muscles require glucose. Complex carbohydrates such as rolled oats breakdown into glucose more quickly than protein and fat. Protein is necessary for muscle repair. It is advisable to consume complex carbohydrates to provide glucose for your muscles to perform efficiently. Taken prior to hiking, at lunch break and when fatigue sets in. Consume protein and fat after hiking as they digest longer tying-up your blood, reducing access to your energy store and resulting performance. The oils of corn, olive, peanut and safflower contain the highest energy concentration of calories per weight of all foods except lard. Water is needed for digestion, but should be taken a half hour to an hour after eating so as not to dilute stomach acids that would increase digestion time. Fatigue requires rest and/or water, food or supplement energy intake. Learn which foods and supplements are beneficial for improving your performance.
Performance Testing: If you have access to a heart rate monitor, blood glucose meter or treadmill you can verify the effectiveness of a number of the techniques. Select a maximum walking speed that you can tolerate for an extended period of time with and without the techniques. The lower speed divided by the higher speed multiplied by 100 is the percent improvement utilizing a technique.