Colorado 14ers on the horizon: Get in shape for hiking season
June 19, 2017
The U.S. is littered with trails that lead adventurous hikers up the side of a towering mountain. Some are short, some are long, but all are rewarding when you reach the summit, and Colorado is home to the best of the best: more than 54 (some route guides claim 58!) 14ers, including Summit County's own Grays Peak (12,278 feet), Torreys Peak (12,275 feet) and Quandary Peak (12,265 feet).
These well-known hikes are popular and difficult because they take people to dizzying altitudes on steep, high-alpine terrain. Every Colorado 14er is 14,000 feet or higher above sea level, and weekend trips to tackle these peaks are becoming more and more popular. There is a common misconception that 14ers are 14 miles in length — not 14,000 feet above sea level — but that doesn't make them any easier.
The 14er-fitness connection
Many fitness enthusiasts are attracted to 14ers for a simple reason: to say that they climbed to the top of a mountain and got great exercise in the process.
But, this is a different and unique kind of exercise. When hiking a 14er, you work out really hard, and yet it does not feel like you are working out as hard as you really are. If you have never hiked up to the top of a 14er before, it will be a new experience. Chances are it will show you how physically fit you really are, from muscle strength to cardio endurance.
This kind of hiking works multiple metabolic pathways in the body, which makes it extremely beneficial to your overall health. Your cardiovascular system will work harder than flat hikes because it is working at an altitude that has very little oxygen, and, therefore, it is struggling to give your muscles the necessary oxygen they need to function. This means your body will burn more calories — and lead to better results than you might have expected.
You will also see that your body is using muscles that have not been used in a while, like stabilizer muscles in your quads, calves and even your core. With a backpack, you'll also feel a workout in your shoulders, arms and neck. These small muscles aren't normally in function, especially if you don't do strenuous hiking often.
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But, they shouldn't be ignored. One unexpected benefit of hiking a 14er is that it shows you where you can focus to improve overall health and fitness. This kind of a hike can be a new and different type of physical fitness. It's a way to explore new and rarely used muscle groups, while also showing you what it's like to do rigorous exercise above 14,000 feet — all while taking in a stunning view of the world far, far below.
Hiking in the blood
As stated before, one of the biggest challenges — and potential benefits — of hiking a 14er is the impact it has on your cardiovascular system. Your body must work harder to utilize what little oxygen is in the air, and, once you've hiked even a mile or two, it will work harder to make sure all of that oxygen is going to your muscles, organs, tendons and other tissues. You will feel your heart beating faster because it is working harder to move blood and oxygen through your system.
Trail hiking also requires advanced neuromuscular control. When going up a 14er, where trails can be steep and rocky, these elements increase the amount of work your body does just to stay balanced and agile, without falling over or possibly spraining an ankle.
Luckily, the more you hike, the better you get — just like any other sport. Your neuromuscular stability will increase over time if you continue hiking frequently during the summer. You will see that this spills over into all areas of your life, giving you access to the greatest overall health and wellbeing.
If you are looking for a fun and unique achievement this summer, then hiking a 14er is the way to go. This beautiful state has dozens of different ways to reach 14,000 feet, and each trail will take you to the top of amazing mountains with some of the most amazing views you've ever seen.
Trent Johnson is a personal trainer certified through the National Association of Fitness Certifications. As a trainer and runner, he has years of experience training people of all abilities, from high-level athletes to Average Joes who just want to find better fitness.
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