How to Train to Hike a Colorado Fourteener

Are you hoping to summit one of Colorado’s famed 14ers but don’t know if you’ve got what it takes? It is actually a lot easier than you think to get in shape for a hike, and you can train to go from couch to 14er in a matter of months. Following a consistent and well-rounded exercise plan will prepare you to hike your first 14er and make sure you have a great time doing it. 

There are a few important elements to remember when training for a big hike. They are cardio, strength, and flexibility. In this article, we will go over how to train for all three and what a typical week should look like as you prepare for a hike in Colorado.

Cardio Training for Elevation Hikes

Cardio is important not just for long-distance hiking, but in this case, also for hiking at elevation. As you climb up a mountain, the amount of oxygen in the air decreases. At sea level, the air is about 21% oxygen. At 8,000 feet, it is 15%, and by 14,000 feet, it is 12.3%. This means that you will fatigue faster and get muscle cramps more easily. If you are not prepared physically for the elevation, you will be more susceptible to symptoms of altitude sickness.

Doing cardio training helps combat these symptoms by conditioning your body to use oxygen more efficiently and adapt better to vigorous exercise. When training to hike a 14er, it is best to do cardio every other day. You can strength train in between and of course, have an active rest day (or weekend). Your cardio exercise should last at least an hour and focus on consistent exercise, often called steady-state cardio. This means working hard with minimal rests, to the point where you are breaking a sweat but not risking injury. 

Good cardio exercises for preparing to hike a 14er can be anything from rowing to running or biking to swimming. It is helpful to focus on low-impact exercises so you do not injure or over-stress joints when training.

Strength Workouts for Hiking Training 

Strength training may not be top of mind when you consider hiking a 14er, but it is just as important as training for cardio. Mountain climbing requires endurance from many muscles in your legs, back, and core. Between hiking at an incline (or decline on the way down) and some large steps in a scramble, you will certainly find your legs tested on a Colorado 14er.

Your strength workouts should take at least half an hour. I like to complete three sets of eight to ten exercises on strength training days. A good strength training routine will include full-body and core exercises. You want to focus on building stability and endurance in the ankles, knees, and hips. There is a multitude of different movements you can choose from to work on these areas. For legs, you’ve got squats, lunges, step-ups, step-downs, and heel raises. Hip flexor and lower core strengthening exercises include deadlifts, hip thrusts, and various sit-up workouts. If you have had problems with your feet in the past, be sure to include towel curls (or towel scrunches) to help strengthen your arch and prevent injury.

Pack and Elevation Training

One more important part of strength and cardio training is hiking with weight. When you are hiking a 14er, you will need to bring a day pack with water, food, extra layers, and first aid gear. No matter how light you keep it, your body and your back will notice this extra weight. That is why it is essential to build pack training days into your cardio routines.

My preferred schedule is to work out every day of the week, with cardio Tuesdays and Thursdays. Then, plan Saturdays for practice hikes with pack and elevation training and Sundays as your rest day. When you organize your schedule like this, you will find it takes only a few months to go from couch to 14er.

You should start your training hikes with two or three-hour hikes that have a minimal elevation gain of a couple of thousand feet. There are plenty of great moderate hikes near Colorado Springs to choose from, including the Columbine Trail. Once you build up to six to eight-hour hikes with at least 4,000 feet of elevation gain, you will surely be ready for your first 14er. 

Flexibility Training for Hiking 14ers

The final part of hiking training, one certainly not to be overlooked, is stretching. When training to hike a 14er, you should stretch every single day, even on your rest days. If you do not stretch daily, you will find your muscles tighter, more injury-prone, and sorer. 

It is best to stretch during and after workouts. It is a myth that you should stretch before you start exercising. Stretching when your body is cold can cause microtears in your muscles. Instead, take five minutes to warm up or start light exercises before you get into a deep stretch. 

You should, at the very minimum, stretch your calves, hamstrings, quads, IT bands, hip flexors, and back (by touching your toes). I also like to stretch my feet by extending my toes and my ankles by kneeling and sitting (gently) on my heels. You should hold each stretch for twenty seconds and repeat any that feel tight. While these stretches do take time, your body will thank you, and you will feel more relaxed and able to endure longer workouts. 

Hiking Your First 14er

Don’t feel defeated at the prospect of training for a 14er. You do not actually need to hike 14,000 feet in elevation gain to summit one of Colorado’s peaks. There are many hikes to peaks that are only a few thousand feet of elevation gain, depending on the parking lot and trail you choose. With a few months of hard work and training, you can begin using 14ers to train for other, more strenuous 14ers.

So where should you start? Many people consider Pikes Peak to be the easiest 14er near Colorado Springs. If you are hoping for a little professional guidance before you tackle your first 14er, be sure to check out a guided hiking tour. With 58 peaks over 14,000 feet, Colorado has no shortage of inspiring hikes to add to your bucket list. Be safe, and happy hiking!

How to Recognize Early Signs of Altitude Sickness

Are you hoping to hike one of Colorado’s famous fourteeners? There are quite a few beautiful and rewarding 14ers around Colorado Springs, and for beginners, we’ve got a list of the easiest 14ers in Colorado to help you start your mountaineering journey. Before you get on the trail, though, you should learn how to recognize altitude sickness in order to stay safe on the mountain.

Photo by Manish Baral on Unsplash

What Is Altitude Sickness?

What causes altitude sickness? 

At higher altitudes, the pressure in the atmosphere is lower, meaning every breath contains less oxygen. At sea level, the air is about 21% oxygen. But at 8,000 feet, it’s about 15%. As a result, you will experience less oxygenation throughout your body, which is called hypoxia. While lowered oxygenation happens to everyone (who doesn’t carry an oxygen tank), some people experience symptoms more quickly and more severely than others.

How high do you have to hike to get altitude sickness? 

There is no one number that applies to everyone, and it can also depend on environmental factors like humidity and temperature. However, it is possible to get altitude sickness as low as 8,000 feet above sea level. Colorado residents will surely have an easier time, as Colorado Springs is around 6,000 feet. However, you can still be susceptible to altitude sickness at high elevations and over longer periods of time.

How quickly can you get hypoxia?

The likelihood of developing symptoms depends on elevation, rate of ascent, and duration of exposure. It is much easier on the body to hike to elevation for only a day trip. If you sleep at altitude and stay for extended amounts of time, the potential for symptoms gets much higher. It is also dangerous to ascend too quickly. If you are flying into Colorado to hike a 14er, you should wait a couple of days to acclimate to the elevation before beginning your trip.

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What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

AMS is the most common and mildest form of altitude sickness. The most recognizable symptoms of hypoxia are dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, headaches, extreme fatigue and weakness, mental confusion, and cyanosis (blue lips). More severe symptoms include loss of balance and coordination, vomiting, persistent cough, and rapid pulse.

Some of these early symptoms of altitude sickness, like shortness of breath and fatigue, can be hard to notice. After all, you are hiking a mountain. It is best to take frequent water breaks and see if you can catch your breath. Hopefully, this is not your first extended hike, and you will know when you are tired from exercising versus experiencing something more severe. 

Severe Altitude Sickness

The two more serious varieties of altitude sickness, High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), are very severe and can be fatal. Early symptoms of cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain, are fever, altered mental state, confusion, loss of consciousness, and ataxia (poor muscle control). Early signs of pulmonary edema (where the air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid) include chest tightness, cyanosis, persistent cough, and difficulty breathing even when resting.

One thing to keep in mind with altitude sickness generally is that a symptom like mental confusion can make it hard for someone to properly identify their own condition. HACE can develop within a matter of hours, and someone might say they are okay even when they are clearly not. It is important to be able to recognize these symptoms in your fellow hikers when they may not recognize them in themselves. If you are wondering if it is safe to hike a 14er alone, it is for this reason that it is not recommended.

Can you prevent altitude sickness?

Stay Hydrated and Eat Carbs

Drink a ton of water. In addition to less oxygen at elevation, the air is also drier. Some symptoms of dehydration can seem like altitude sickness, so do yourself a favor and stay well hydrated. You will also want to have a high-carb diet while you acclimate. This will give your body the energy it needs for exercise so you do not exacerbate symptoms. 

Pace yourself

Remember to start gradually and let your body dictate the speed. Hiking a 14er is a marathon, not a sprint. If possible, you should train at altitude. Spend a few days on shorter hikes in the area before attempting the big fourteener. This training will help immensely for you to get used to the lower oxygen level.

Plan to Acclimate Properly

As noted, you should not ascend too rapidly. If you are a resident of Colorful Colorado planning a day hike of a fourteener, you should be good to go. If you are visiting from out of state, do not attempt a hike to altitude on your first or second day. Make sure you acclimate to the elevation and feel healthy before you hit the trail.

Photo by Mael BALLAND on Unsplash

How can you treat altitude sickness?

If someone is experiencing mild symptoms of acute mountain sickness, you should set camp for the day and wait at least 24 hours before increasing elevation. At this time, it is important to avoid drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Make sure you drink enough water and limit exercise and activity. With AMS, your body will be able to recover if given enough time (12-48 hours). If you ignore symptoms, though, and keep gaining elevation, you can make symptoms much worse.

If you think someone is experiencing more serious signs of altitude sickness, especially signs of HAPE or HACE, you need to descend to a lower elevation immediately. It is recommended to go at least 500 meters (1,600 feet) lower and then reassess. If available, treat the person with bottled oxygen and bring them to a hospital as soon as possible.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know how to prevent, recognize, and treat early signs of altitude sickness, you can feel confident getting on the trail. Hiking, especially around Colorado Springs, is an amazing way to see panoramic views of the mountain, spot interesting wildlife, and connect with nature. If you are looking for a little more tutelage as you get started, consider a guided hiking tour with a professional instructor.