I’ve always been of the mindset that one should train harder in practice than they anticipate the challenge to be on game day. This goes back to my days of playing football and running track in high school and college. My preparation for treks and backpacking adventures are no different. Having to carry all of your food and gear for over 225 miles on the John Muir Trail with nearly 47,000ft of elevation gain requires a level of focus and dedication to conditioning that many lack. In this 16 week training guide, I’ll provide a roadmap to help aspiring JMT hikers gain the fitness required to make their trail goals a reality. In this post I’m going to cover:
- How to prepare and plan for your John Muir Trail training program
- What your training schedule and routine should look like
- My training blog roll from 6 months of preparation
**I am not a medical professional. Consult with your physician before beginning any physical training program. You should be in good physical health and conditioning before beginning a training program for the John Muir Trail. You should know that with any exercise and training program there is a risk of injury and death. The same can be said for hiking the John Muir Trail. You assume all of the risk yourself, and I am not responsible or liable should something occur.**
I. Planning and Preparing For Your JMT Training Program
Some hikers get so bogged down with planning for gear, resupplies, and trail logistics, that they forget to fully prepare their bodies. This is one of the most important aspects of preparing for the John Muir Trail. Scores of hikers drop each year due to injury, blisters, and a lack of preparation. A lot of this can be avoided with proper body care and conditioning.
I started with a pretty advanced level of base fitness when I began my training regimen in January of 2015. I wanted to start slow, and work my way into longer days on the trail. Hiking the John Muir Trail is enough motivation for most of us, but when waking up at 4:00AM on Saturdays and Sundays to complete training hikes, a little extra mental push can be nice. To keep myself motivated, I started the well known “52 Hike Challenge”, which requires participants to keep a pace of one hike a week to stay on track. I also set elevation and mileage goals each month to keep me pushing hard.
Creating An Itinerary
Before I get into my exact training plan, it’s important to note the characteristics of the John Muir Trail and how many miles you plan to walk each day. Before mapping out your training plan, make sure to spend some time thinking about your desired itinerary, and what each day on the trail will be like. Someone hiking the JMT in 10 days will obviously need to train with much more intensity than someone taking a four week comfort cruise. Write down answers for each of the questions listed below to get started:
Mileage And Elevation: How far do you plan on walking each day? How much elevation will you gain each day? — When Julia and I first started planning for the John Muir Trail, we knew we wanted to finish in less than two weeks. We both felt that anything more than that would require us to haul around too much food and move at far too slow a pace to be considered enjoyable for our preferences. Given that starting point, we knew we had to cover around 20 miles a day. Once we decided on that, we looked at a few maps and elevation charts, and started plotting our daily itinerary with campsites. Broken down into 10-12 days, we expected to cover around 20 miles with around 4,000ft of climbing each day. Looking at an elevation chart with mileage listed helped me a lot. To help plan, I printed out a few copies of the map below and drew in campsites for each night, with options for different trip lengths and campsites. The final itinerary we settled on was very close to the JMT we actually hiked.
The John Muir Trail is 211 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney plus 11 more miles from Mt. Whitney to Whitney Portal. The total distance is 221 miles. Here is a breakdown of average daily mileage:
7 Days- 31.5 miles per day
10 Days-22.1 miles per day
14 Days-15.7 miles per day
20 Days-11 miles per day
25 Days-8.8 miles per day
It’s important to reference the elevation profile above when planning your days in regards to when you’ll be hiking over the passes. Thunderstorms are just a part of life in the Sierra on the JMT, so expect to encounter them most afternoons. It’s wise to stay off passes in a thunderstorm, so plan to hit these sections early in the morning if possible.
- Acclimatization And Elevation: What is the max elevation for each day? What is the elevation gain for each day? How will you acclimatize during training and upon arrival to the JMT? — I’m very fortunate to live in Southern California where I have 10,000ft mountain peaks with lots of prominence within an hour’s drive. The mountains here are hot, rocky, and dry. The conditions here are tough, which is why I think the John Muir Trail felt so easy. If you can’t train at elevation, try to arrive in Yosemite a little early and get a few days at elevation. It’s harder to breathe at higher elevations, so don’t take this lightly. I think it’s a bigger problem if you can’t train for elevation gain, as legs trained on flat land usually have a tough time adjusting to the up and down nature of mountain trails.
- Trail Conditions: How rocky or steep is each daily section? — Much like my preparation for the elevation and trail grade, the trail conditions were pretty similar to home. There is a lot of dirt single track in the first half of the JMT. The JMT turns a bit more rugged in the second half as you enter the higher elevations found in the Southern Sierra. I was ready and had trained for all of that. There was one trail condition that I was not ready for though…mosquitos! My home mountains are either bone dry or frozen most of the year, so I almost never have to deal with mosquitos. There were a few sections on the JMT that had me hacking through clouds of mozzies. I was very glad to be in possession of a head net and bug spray.
- Pack Weight: Are you going “lightweight”? How much food will you carry? — Julia and I are what most would consider “lightweight” backpackers with pack base weights around 15 lbs. We probably could have shaved our weight down a little more, but the marginal cost to start shedding base weight starts to become a little expensive when you reach 15lbs. Some people are willing to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to shave a few ounces…to each their own. I’m not here to tell anyone how to pack, but I can tell you what has worked for me and many others. Edit ruthlessly. I’m going to dedicate an entire post just for gear on the John Muir Trail. It’s not important that you have your entire gear lineup ready to go when you begin training, but you should start to think light and train to live without luxuries. Only pack what you need. The same goes for food. Pack enough food to sustain yourself and maintain your energy. This isn’t a Carnival Cruise with all you can eat buffets. Finally, make sure your final training hikes include everything that you plan to carry, including water. If you only train with a light day pack, your muscles and joints will not take kindly to the sudden jolt of a full pack.
- Overnight Camping: Do you prefer to sleep low or high? Tarp tent, full tent, or cowboy camping? — Julia and I brought a Tarp Tent Double Rainbow and camped at high elevations as much as possible. We like to camp at high elevations to avoid bugs, bears, and condensation. It may be a little colder, but much more enjoyable for our tastes. To prepare for this, we spent the night on top of Mt. Baldy (10,064ft) and Cucamonga Peak (8998ft) a few times. This was a great way for us to train physically, but also to do a dry run on our shelter, food, and gear.
Once you have answers for all of the questions above, you’ll have a better idea of what your training plan should look like.
II. A Sample John Muir Trail Training Regimen
I took a full 6 months to fully train my body for the John Muir Trail, but for most, a 16 week training program should be sufficient. My suggested JMT training program is much like a marathon training program, with shorter weekday exercises anchored by big days on the weekend. The main difference is that I suggest doing back to back long hikes towards the end of the training cycle. Much like a marathon training program, this training guide should be adjusted based on your goals. This training program ‘as is’ should be sufficient for those looking to hike the John Muir Trail in 2 weeks, with days averaging 15-20 miles. Take a look at my 16 week training calendar below and download the PDF.
Here are list of the keywords you’ll find useful for training:
Prehab: A huge part of staying healthy and minimizing injury risk is prehab. Prehab is just like rehab, except you do these exercises before you get injured! Yoga, stretching, and strength training will go a long way to keeping you healthy for the trail. Hiking is a repetitive exercise that overworks a small group of muscles with a limited range of motion. Make sure to fill your off days with exercises that strengthen your core and leg muscles. Prehab Gear: Foam roller, stretch band, lacrosse ball. Learn how to use these and perform prehab stretches with my favorite book, Becoming A Supple Leopard. Find more information at Mobility WOD.
Core: Core strength and stability are vital to staying healthy on the trail. Keep in mind that you’ll have a 20+lbs pack on your back while you hike up and down steep mountains. For this, functional core strength is vital. I really like this 10 day program.
Fartlek: This is a training method for runs where the pacing, distance, and terrain are varied to provide a dynamic cardiovascular workout. Sometimes I’ll schedule this around city blocks, where I go 7 minute miles for 1 block, and 9 minute miles for the next block. The scheduling is up to you. Here is a nice intro to fartlek workouts on Active.com.
Plyometrics: These workouts use a lot of jumping and explosive movements to develop strength and cardiovascular endurance. I find them to be very effective for crosstraining during trek preparation. I focus on squat and lunge jumps, box jumps, power pushups, and hurdle exercises to work on foot agility.
Weights: Lifting weights in preparation for a hike is definitely not about body building. Weights play a role in the core strength section listed above. I also find weights to be a great way to strengthen and stabilize my back, and provide my legs with the power to carry a pack up steep hills.
*Don’t force training with an injury! Rest and/or see a doctor if you feel an injury coming on. I sprained my ankle pretty bad in April 2015 leading up to my hike of the JMT. I had to take a month of lower mileage to fully recover, which was very difficult. As hard as it was, I didn’t want to make things worse by hobbling out on the trail. Had the sprain been closer to my departure date, I would have just hiked though it. Be smart, and focus on getting your body to the trailhead of the JMT as close to 100% as possible.
III. My John Muir Trail Training Log
In my training leading up to the John Muir Trail I logged just shy of 450 miles, with around 150,000ft of elevation gain. This may seem like overkill, but I really wanted to feel prepared for the 225 and 47,000ft of elevation gain. You can see all of my hikes for the 52 Hike Challenge in 2015. I’ll also list some of my favorite training hikes below.
Cucamonga Peak Overnight – This was my final training hike. It covered 12 miles roundtrip with 4000ft of elevation gain. My pack was 15lbs heavier than my planned JMT weight for extra training.
Mt. Baldy Overnight- This was another training hike to get my gear dialed in. This one covered 10 miles with 4000ft of elevation gain. I had to pack all water for this one, so my base weight was about 10lbs heavier than my JMT weight.
San Gorgonio via Vivian Creek– This hike covers around 17 miles with just under 6000ft of elevation gain.
Iron Mountain via Heaton Flats– This hike covers 14 miles with more than 7000ft of elevation gain.