Is Hiking Aerobic or Anaerobic? A Simple Guide

Ever since I started hiking, I realized that my stamina has increased, and my cardiovascular health has improved. These are signs of the amazing benefits of aerobic exercises. But I’ve also noticed that I’ve built some muscles in my legs and burned fat, and these are typically achieved through anaerobic exercise

I was confused… which I’m sure you can understand. I had just always assumed that hiking was a cardio (or aerobic) exercise since it’s a rhythmic, continuous activity done over a longer period than other exercise types. But maybe it’s both? 

I’ve since discovered the answer after chatting to a personal trainer friend. And, today, I’ll share what I’ve learned with you!

Is Hiking Aerobic or Anaerobic?

Hiking is primarily aerobic, but it can also be anaerobic. Whether hiking is aerobic or anaerobic depends on the type of hiking you do or the trail you are hiking.

Most people generally hike at a low intensity for 3 or more hours, which makes hiking an endurance or aerobic activity. But when hikers put in maximum effort for a short duration, hiking becomes anaerobic.  

This is all great, but what exactly does aerobic and anaerobic mean, you wonder? 

The Aerobic Workout

A 2017 study published in the World Journal of Cardiology defines aerobic exercise as any workouts in which you use large muscle groups. The activity also needs to be done continuously and consist of rhythmic, repetitive movements. Aerobic exercises improve your stamina as your lungs, muscles, and heart can work for longer durations.

When you go hiking, your heart rate is elevated at times, making your lungs work harder as you need to breathe in more oxygen. Your body uses oxygen at the rate you supply it by breathing, and this works the slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are related to your endurance-based muscles.

The Anaerobic Workout

The same study defines anaerobic exercise as intense physical activity that takes place over a short period. Your contracting muscles during this kind of activity provides the fuel you need for anaerobic exercises. Fast-twitch muscle fibers help you perform when quick, short bursts of power are needed. 

Hiking can be anaerobic when you use short bursts of energy during parts of the trail or when you purposefully hike in a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) way, where you alternate between low-intensity and high-intensity movements.

Examples of Aerobic and Anaerobic Hiking 

While hiking can be both aerobic and anaerobic; the majority of your hikes will be aerobic, or cardio based. Here are examples of when hiking would be specifically aerobic and when the workout would be anaerobic.  

Hiking at a Steady Pace = Aerobic

When you hike at a steady pace your movements are repetitive and rhythmic as you walk on the trail over an extended period. You’ll also rev up your heart rate as you follow the hiking trail over hills and mountains and other rough terrain. 

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When you hike at a steady pace your movements are repetitive and rhythmic as you walk on the trail over an extended period.

I find that when I walk on rough, uneven terrain, I need to concentrate a lot more, so I don’t fall or twist my ankles. I also tend to use a lot more energy on these sections of a hike because it isn’t easy getting over rocks and making sure your foot doesn’t get stuck in shrub or tree roots. 

This all ensures that hiking is a cardio exercise that works and builds my muscles. 

Climbing Steep Hills or Mountains = Anaerobic

When I hike over really steep hills or mountains, hiking becomes more of an anaerobic or muscle-building exercise. I need to push hard to get to the top, and these bursts of energy only last for a relatively short distance. 

Depending on where you go hiking, some steep sections of a mountainous trail can be the same as doing a one-legged squat, so you are definitely working your muscles! If you hike for a couple of hours, and you have a few steep sections to climb, you can build quite a bit of muscle (especially if you do this regularly). 

Using hiking or trekking poles to help you on the trail, and especially when you go downhill, helps you build upper body strength

There are also times on the trail when you need to use your whole body – legs, core, and arms – to get up or down precipitous mountain sides, gullies, or ravines (deep, narrow valley or gorge).  

I also sometimes need quick bursts of energy to catch up to my hiking group – I like to stop and admire nature and take photos of all the pretty and usual things I see. I feel like I probably get more anaerobic hiking exercise than most other hikers I know because I enjoy my outdoors hike so much

Carrying Gear or Weights = Anaerobic

Another way that hiking is anaerobic is when you carry your hiking gear with you (like when you go on a multi-day hike). You’ll use your trapezoid (shoulder and upper back) muscles and even your core when carrying a backpack. 

You can also opt to carry rucking weights in a backpack and combine your hike with rucking. This is a definite muscle-building workout! 

Final Thoughts on Is Hiking Aerobic or Anaerobic 

I feel it’s safe to say that hiking can be both, but the aerobic vs anaerobic ratio of your hike depends on the trail you are hiking and whether you are doing endurance, cardio hiking (steady pace over a few hours) or muscle-building hiking (hiking steep mountains or pushing yourself for short periods).  

Are you wondering what other benefits you’ve reaped from hiking (that you may be unaware of since you only focus on getting to the top of the mountain when you hike)? Lucky for you, I’ve got a great read on the 33 lifelong health and mental hiking benefits!

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