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Hike Strong: Mental training for long days on the trail

Training for hiking shouldn’t just involve physical exercise (although physical training is a crucial element!) For many hikers, the hardest aspect is the mental game. If this sounds like you, you might want to consider mental training for hiking.






WHAT IS MENTAL TOUGHNESS, ANYWAY?

Mental toughness is the quality that allows people to persist in the face of difficulties. It is a crucial aspect of human performance, in sports and everyday life. Some people call it grit, resilience, or willpower. If you exhibit mental toughness, you might show a few qualities:

1. You see challenges as opportunities.

2. You don’t stop when things get difficult; you’re committed to seeing your goals through to the end.

3. You have confidence in your abilities to finish a task.

4. Your internal self-talk is overwhelmingly positive.



MENTAL TRAINING ISN’T JUST FOR ELITE ATHLETES

Mental training emerged in the sports psychology, but the concept is so powerful it shouldn’t only be reserved for elite-level athletes. In fact, anyone can benefit from mental resilience — from the most casual day hiker to a backpacker getting out on a long-distance trail. You can train mental toughness on and off the trail — and we’ve compiled a list of tips below for both training and putting it into practice. This way, when you set out on your next adventure, your brain will support you instead of working against you.





MENTAL TRAINING: PREPARING FOR HIKING

If you want to maximize your abilities on the trail, you need to put some practice in before the big event. Here are some exercises and tips to try:

VISUALIZATION

Visualization is the practice of using all your senses to run through a scenario before it happens. Elite athletes use this technique before events, but it has been increasingly used by life coaches to help clients meet their goals.

Using visualization techniques before a big trip. “If you’re going to climb Kilimanjaro, visual what it will be like to be there.”

Close your eyes and envision yourself hiking. What do you see? What does it smell like? How do you see yourself hiking through the landscape? Include as many details as possible, and maintain a positive perspective.

Once you complete the exercises, write down what you learned and what you’re planning on implementing.






3. REPLICATE YOUR HIKING EXPERIENCE AT HOME

You can’t replicate your entire hiking experience at home, but you can piece together the important elements to get ready for your big trip. For example, wake up to hike at 5:30am to prepare for your trip, as this is what you will need to do on the trail. If you know you’ll wake up early to hike on your trip, wake up to hike early at home so your body will know what to expect.

You can prepare for other aspects of your trip too, give yourself the best chance of success by replicating conditions ahead of time.”



ESTABLISH A BENCHMARK TO MEASURE YOUR PROGRESS

Find a benchmark to measure your progress – it should be a more challenging hike in your area. Hike it at the beginning of your training. Even if you don’t make it all the way, that’s fine. Then, come back to it near the end of your training.

This benchmark will serve as a motivational tool for your physical training (which is not the type of thing you can cram in), but it has powerful mental benefits, as well. When you return to your benchmark at the end of your training, your confidence will skyrocket as you measure your improvement.



MENTAL STRENGTH: TIPS FOR THE TRAIL

Once you’ve prepared for your trip, you get the chance to put all your training into action. Use a few of these tips to maximize your efforts on the trail and stay mentally strong during a long, hard day of hiking!





1. SET AN INTENTION

When things get tough, it helps to know your why. hile you’re on the trail. ask yourself, ‘Why do I want to do this?’. If you’re there to enjoy nature, maybe you don’t have to push so hard. If you’re there to challenge yourself, then embrace that. If you’re there to connect with friends you haven’t seen in a while, then focus on those connections. Let the intention guide your trip so you fully embrace the experience.


2. BREATHE

Scientists have been touting the benefits of meditation for years now, but you can simplify this practice to keep your mind engaged during particularly tough stretches of the trail.

If you begin to get bogged down by your thoughts, start to count your breaths. Three breathes in through the nose, hold at the top, then exhale for three breaths. As this becomes easier, lengthen your inhalations and exhalations. Not only does breathwork help to focus your mind and lower your heart rate, but nose breathing is also a fantastic skill for endurance activities.


3. AVOID NEGATIVE SELF-TALK WITH KEYWORDS

Negative self-talk happens to the best of us — and it can be really hard to overcome. Whenever someone gets stuck in that negative mentality, they stop looking for solutions. But instead of seeking self-improvement, practice self-compassion. If we talked to people the way we talk to ourselves, we wouldn’t have any friends.

Don’t beat yourself up. All that does is keep you going down that shame spiral. Most people don’t go on multi-day hikes, so be kind to yourself.


But if you’ve ever tried to use self-compassion, you know it can be difficult. So, you need tools you can use in these circumstances. When you have a behavior you want to change, insert a keyword for the desired habit. Then, remember to say the keyword to build the habit. This has a physiological effect — you change the pathways in your brain.

So, next time you’re hiking and the negative chatter creeps in, choose a keyword to encourage positive self-talk (just like a mantra or positive affirmation).

Or, if you’re more of a visual person, when was the last time you felt you couldn’t do something and then did it? Visualize a time in your life when you were challenged. What worked well in that situation and how can you apply that here? This practice reminds you that you’ve overcome challenges in the past, so you are capable of doing it again.


4. SET SMALL GOALS

Instead of focusing on all of the work ahead of you, set small incremental goals to break up your day. If you encounter multiple trail sections over the course of a day, set designated checkpoints to instill a sense of accomplishment. Maybe you use a landmarks in the distance. Maybe you just set your attention on your next rest break. If you’re really fighting with your mind, you can set even smaller goals – like getting from one tree or rock to the next. By setting small goals, your larger goal for the day will feel much more achievable.


5. JOURNAL

Keeping a journal is a great way to reflect on your day’s events during a trip or after any challenging day. After the hike, reflect on how your day went. Grab your journal and write down what went well over the course of the day so you can replicate or change it for next time.





THE IMPORTANCE OF TRAINING

Many hikers and backpackers know the importance of physical training before a big goal, but few focus on improving their mental abilities. Use these tips next time you’re prepping for a trip.