Is Hiking Aerobic or Anaerobic? It Can Be Both.

Is hiking aerobic or anaerobic

Hiking is one of the rare hobbies and activities with both aerobic and anaerobic benefits. At its core, hiking is an aerobic exercise, improving your cardiovascular strength while walking along winding trails. 

But hiking becomes anaerobic by adding steep elevation changes, forcing your leg muscles to power you up the steep grade.

This article explains the aerobic and anaerobic elements of hiking so you can tailor hikes to your exercise goals.

The difference between aerobic and anaerobic

Aerobic means ‘with air’ since the body relies on oxygen to keep the muscles energized. An aerobic exercise involves raising your heart and breathing rate to a steady state for an extended duration. Running, jogging, walking, and typical hikes are aerobic.

Anaerobic means ‘without air’ since the muscles need quick, immediate energy from releasing glucose and glycogen. Anaerobic exercises are sprints, weight lifting, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Why is hiking aerobic?

Although you’re walking through challenging terrain, hiking is still a steady state of exercise that depends on your breathing and energy through oxygen.

Since hikers maintain a steady pace on hikes — roughly two miles per hour — the heart rate is elevated, and you take faster, deeper breaths, energizing your body through oxygen.

But hiking is an unusual activity. The stress on the muscles from uneven surfaces and hill climbs makes hiking uniquely different from walking and running on the street — blending aerobic and anaerobic exercises.

Is Hiking Aerobic or Anaerobic? A male hiker struggling up a mountain hill climb
Is hiking aerobic or anaerobic? Hill climbs are a classic HIIT exercise

Why is hiking anaerobic?

Hiking up one hundred feet at a steep elevation grade requires immense energy from the lower body muscles. As stress from the incline triggers your hamstrings and calves, you feel the burning in your muscles.

That burning feeling is lactic acid. The anaerobic system, also known as the lactic acid system, is activated when the muscles require immediate energy for a short period.

The anaerobic system provides muscles with short-term energy for roughly 60 to 90 seconds. The challenging sections of hiking are essentially interval training, an anaerobic exercise.

Turn hiking into high-intensity interval training (HIIT)

If your goal is to combine muscle building with hiking, introducing HIIT training to your hikes can achieve this. For example, hill climbs are a classic HIIT exercise perfect for the trail.

Find a gradual gradient and complete hill sprints at 80 percent of your max effort, repeating for 5 to 8 sets. Be sure to descend slowly, giving your muscles a short period to relax and recover before the next set.

Instead of a hike, consider trail running. By choosing hilly trails, you can introduce intervals or, on flat trails, time your running with sprints of 4-minutes, followed by 3-minutes of light walking or rest.

Final thoughts

Hiking is a rare activity that combines the benefits of physical and mental health. If you decide to turn hiking into an anaerobic exercise, be sure also to take the time to enjoy nature.

Spending time in nature relieves anxiety, improves cognitive memory, and improves overall well-being. 

So get some exercise in, then pick a trail to a beautiful waterfall or pack a sandwich and take in the panoramic views from a summit to picnic. 

Taking care of your body is excellent, but your mind is just as vital.

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Hi, I'm Travis, an outdoors enthusiast and avid hiker based in Las Vegas, NV. When I'm not hiking Red Rock or Mount Charleston, I'm writing tips for beginner hikers.

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