With the new year getting into full swing at gyms across the country, personal trainers may hear from clients who have set their sights on potentially arduous challenges in 2022. Hiking through the Grand Canyon top the list, which comes as no surprise, given the majestic scenery that captivates the visitor. However, much can go wrong if a client new to this activity fails to prepare adequately. Learn how to guarantee a successful adventure for every client, regardless of his experience or climbing abilities.

The Harsh Realities of Hiking the Canyon

Part of the appeal of hiking rim-to-rim in a single day lies in the endurance challenge. The phrase “I just want to see if I can actually do it!” seems reasonable at first–even laudable. Despite grasping the many factors that can complicate the journey, every first-time canyon hiker admits that the adventure proved far more difficult than they expected. 

Rangers at the Grand Canyon perform more rescues annually than at any other park, including 300 helicopter rescues. They respond to approximately 16,000 emergency medical calls every year, for everything from twisted ankles to heatstroke and heart attacks.

A 75-year-old man had worked out at his gym and hiked around his Mississippi home carrying a weighted pack for months, in preparation for hiking the Grand Canyon. He felt well-prepared, and in peak condition for the upcoming adventure. However, not long into the hike, he found himself struggling to breathe.

Several hours later, he wound up in a northern Arizona hospital, with the diagnosis of a heart attack. “I just thought it was the heat and extra exertion, the altitude, and things like that. I was just so naïve,” he later commented.

Park rangers typically encounter three types of individuals hiking in the canyon:

  • The strong-headed ones, mostly in their teens and twenties, who fancy themselves invincible and purposefully ignore recommendations
  • The excited, yet unprepared, individuals who will willingly change plans if needed;
  • Those who arrive prepared, ready to stick to their well-thought-out plans, but end up in trouble due to circumstances or having made a bad decision somewhere along the journey.

Fuel Your Hiking Fire

Every hour hiking in the canyon simulates the physiological equivalent of shoveling wet sand. A typical hiker may burn as many as 1,000 calories each hour. As the body’s primary source of fuel/energy, appropriate food demands a high level of priority. Consuming about twice as much as normal should suffice for the average hiker. The best defense against illness and exhaustion? Start the day with a healthy breakfast, packing a punch of both lean protein and complex carbohydrates.

The best foods for hiking will be nutrient-dense, thereby conferring longer-lasting energy than pure sugary junk food. Salty snacks, too, lessen the chance of dehydration. Proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats release a steady supply of energy due to their slower rate of digestion. Fresh fruit/vegetables can provide a fast and refreshing snack.

Prudent choices include:

  • Nut butter, honey, raisins on flatbread, crackers or tortillas
  • Trail mix
  • Granola bars/protein bars
  • Fruit roll-ups
  • Cookies/candy bars (stick with non-chocolate varieties, which will melt in the sizzling afternoon temperatures)
  • Apples
  • Beef/Turkey/Pork jerky
  • Gatorade, coconut water, or electrolyte gummies
  • At least a gallon of water, some with added electrolytes

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The Downside of Hiking Up High

The Grand Canyon lies 6,600 feet above sea level. At such a high elevation, altitude sickness can result from a rapid change in air pressure and oxygen levels. Even physically fit individuals can succumb to altitude sickness.

Symptoms of mild, short-term altitude sickness usually begin 12 to 24 hours after arriving at the Grand Canyon, which might find hikers already well on their way into the canyon. These symptoms include:

  • Fatigue and loss of energy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of appetite

Moderate altitude sickness effects worsen over time, and include:

  • Coordination problems/difficulty walking
  • Chest tightness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea/vomiting

Avoiding altitude sickness means proceeding slowly at first, allowing the body to acclimate to the change in oxygen levels. Later in this article, we learn about some training tips to prepare the body for altitude adjustments.

The combination of high altitude and lower air pressure can lead to fluid leaking from blood vessels. While scientists have not yet unraveled the exact mechanism for this situation, the end result of fluid buildup in the lungs and brain can lead to a life-threatening situation.

Timing the Trip

Hikers would do well to plan on taking twice as long to ascend the canyon as it took to hike down. Allow 1/3 of your time to descend and 2/3 of your time to ascend. Moving at a pace that enables you to walk and talk ensures that the body efficiently utilizes its oxygen stores.

Valuable Gear: Compression Socks

The right socks can make all the difference between a pleasant, memorable hike and an uncomfortable one that many swear they would never attempt again.

Ideally suited for long hikes, compression socks offer supportive protection from the ankle to the upper area of the legs. By providing gentle compression, these garments improve blood flow in the lower extremities, thereby reducing the chances of swelling and its accompanying discomfort.

Ensure a proper fit for socks; too tight will prevent proper circulation, while loose socks may increase the risk of blisters. In order to ensure that the heel cup of the sock aligns perfectly with the heel of the foot, aim to fit your foot size rather than relying on your shoe size.

Veins that drain deoxygenated blood to the heart consistently fight against gravity. On a very long hike, the veins must work even harder to pump blood from the feet to the heart. Compression socks help the veins with this process, considerably lowering any risk of deep vein thrombosis and/or blood clots.

A compression sock with anti-moisture properties will remain comfortable for the long trek. Look for products made of nylon and polyester. These wash well and dry quickly, perfect for 2-day hikes. Spandex makes an ideal addition to sock material. Spandex feels comfortable, smooth, holds its shape, and will wick away excess lotions, perspiration, and body oils.

The Training Plan

When working with clients who aim to embark on long hikes in the Grand Canyon, begin their prep training well in advance of their departure date. Train specifically for elevation change, especially if the client aims to tackle traversing the canyon from one rim to the other in a single day (typically a 12-14 hour trek).

Suggest that the client regularly takes on challenging hikes, particularly going up steep mountains with stairs or large rocks. This defines the topography of the location, so conditioning joints and muscles to handle these challenges prove most valuable. Running up and down stairs is another way to condition the client while strengthening his hamstrings and glutes.

If possible, in your current geographical area, choose trails that provide up to 8,000 feet in elevation, to get a feel for hiking with lower oxygen levels. Hiking in very hot weather too offers a great opportunity for the client to assess how well their body reacts to the temperatures that the canyon presents, especially in the heat of midday. One way to experience exercising in the heat is to take a “hot yoga” class; exercising in a room heated to approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit can offer an excellent glimpse into just how arduous this atmosphere gets.

Specific Exercises to Consider

In addition to actually simulating the hiking experience, many exercises present unique opportunities to prepare the client for the specific load on muscle groups. Trainers can include the following moves as part of a pre-hiking training protocol:

Final Words

As one avid hiker reflected upon his journey, he had this to say: “The last three miles humbled me, as they do most rim-to-rim hikers. In hindsight, I would have done a few more long training hikes before I attempted this because I really slowed down ascending those final miles. My feet were blistered and stiff. More than a few curse words were uttered.”

Spokespeople for the Grand Canyon National Park often refer to the final few miles of the ascent as the psychological component of the adventure, since it requires pure mental stamina to complete – especially once the hiker’s physical stamina ebbs away. In the end, it comes down to simply putting one foot ahead of the other and persevering through, all while remembering to embrace the scenery.

Trainers might do well to advise clients who suffer from asthma, diabetes, any heart condition, knee, or back problems to consult a physician prior to taking on this level of training. The altitude, strenuous climbing, dehydration, and intense heat together can make any medical problem worse. Safety must take precedence over any arduous adventure, no matter how appealing the challenge seems!

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Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at trainhard@kronemer.com. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!