Basic Training for your Grand Canyon Rafting Adventure
by AzRA Guide Somer Morris
The transformational potential of a river trip in Grand Canyon is infinite. In my 100+ trips as a guide, I have had the great pleasure of witnessing this place work its magic on hundreds, if not thousands of lucky travelers. Minds get blown, perceptions altered, challenges overcome, connections fostered, and selves discovered. Truly, a trip down the Colorado is far more than just a check on your ‘bucket list.’ The only real limitations on what you might take away are your desire and commitment to being an active participant in your own experience.
In many years as a guide, I have seen that very commonly, limitations to full participation stem from physical restrictions. By far, the most frequent lament I hear, is, “I just wish I had done this trip # years ago when my (back, knees, shoulders, etc…) didn’t hurt and I could still (hike, run, climb, etc…).
Clearly, in your preparations for this adventure of a lifetime, there is no getting in a time machine to wind back the clock. However, there are lots of things you can do to start preparing your body for the physical demands of the trip that will enhance your ability to maximize your experience. As a bonus – getting in shape and proactively attending to injuries and problem spots has plenty of benefits you will see in your everyday life.
Where to Start? -Anywhere!
Getting in shape for your river adventure can take a variety of forms – the most important thing is that you get MOVING! Every day on the river is packed with movement. From the time you awake to the canyon wren’s song, to the time you recline in your bed roll and fight to keep your eyes open to take in the magnificent, starry night sky. You will be on-the-go all day, every day: packing, unpacking to find the sunscreen you buried in the bottom of the bag, repacking, hauling your bags across the beach, loading boats, scrambling up rocky ‘trails’ to hidden edens, paddling through exhilarating whitewater, unloading boats, crouching to watch a sacred datura slowly unfurl itself, and the list goes on.
The best way to start preparing your body for all this motion is to incorporate more of it in your everyday life. One of my mentors says, “You don’t have to move every day, just the ones you want to feel good.” There are at least as many ways to move as there are rocks in Grand Canyon – find ways that are fun and keep you motivated to keep at it. Some examples include:
- Learn a new skill: dancing, yoga, tai chi, martial arts, pickleball, tennis, strength training, etc., are all great ways to get your heart pumping and improve mobility, strength, and balance -the sky is the limit!
- Get Professional help – personal training is a great way to get specific recommendations for your body and what it needs and is great for accountability!
- Group fitness comes in a plethora of forms. It can be a fun and supportive way to socialize and add regular movement to your day.
- “Movement Snacks” – google movement snacks for ideas on ways to incorporate bite size bits of movement throughout your day.
- Get outside – go for a walk, or better yet a hike on uneven ground.
Be Proactive About Nagging Injuries and Problem Areas
Our bodies are pretty good at letting us know when things aren’t quite right. Our brain receives important signals in the form of pain to alert us to injury, imbalances, and faulty movement patterns. Our response to stop doing whatever is causing the pain is important in the initial stages of an injury when it is critical not to do further damage. However, over time, the lack of movement can cause loss of muscle strength and mobility which could lead to the perpetuation of symptoms. If you have nagging injuries or experience pain and discomfort from moving, get professional help in figuring out what is causing the problem and how to safely get back to moving and getting stronger. Working with a good physical therapist is likely to yield better results than just “staying off it” and hoping it will be ok by the day your trip launches.
River Trip Specific Exercises
Finally, here are a few exercises you can do at home that don’t require any fancy gym equipment. These exercises emulate some of the movements you will likely encounter every day on your trip.
Having a strong core is crucial for protecting your back and supporting posture and movement. Complaints about achy backs are common on and off the river. Often when people refer to the ‘core’ they are only thinking of the rectus abdominus, the large sheet of muscle that runs down the front of your torso and makes models look good on the covers of magazines. Here are a few moves to target some of the other important core muscles.
Dead bugs work some of the deeper core muscles that sit underneath the ‘6-pack’-producing rectus abdominus, including the transvers abdominus, pelvic floor, and erector spinea group. These muscles work together to keep us upright with our pelvis and lumbar spine in a healthy position.
1. To start, lay flat on your back with your knees elevated at 90°. Your arms are elevated with your elbows also bent at 90°.
2. Before beginning any movement, pull your belly button in like you are trying to get it to meet the floor.
3. Once your core is engaged begin by extending your left leg and right arm out and down to the floor.
4. Check to make sure your back is still flat against the floor before returning to the start position and repeating the motion with the right leg and left arm.
5. If you can’t fully extend without your back curving off the floor, you can either hold the start position or try keeping the knee bent and lowering one heel to the floor at time.
6. Start by slowly alternating sides for 3 rounds of 30 sec. with a 10 -20 second rest in between. Every week closer to your launch date, try to increase the time working and decrease the rest until you can go for a minute (or more!) at a time.
A fellow guide taught me about planks a few years ago and they have been a staple of my morning routine ever since. Like dead bugs, they are great for working the 6-pack muscles as well as other stabilizers that can make a big difference in how your back holds up on a river trip. These have become really popular with the guides at AzRA. You might catch your crew doing “5-minute Planks” on the beach – jump in and join and the fun!
1. To start, come into a flat tabletop position by propping yourself up on your elbows or palms and your toes with your feet hip- to shoulder- width apart. Make sure to keep your elbows or wrists directly below your shoulders.
2. Pull your belly button up towards your spine, but be careful not to let your butt come up above the level of your shoulders. You are going for a flat back from shoulders to hips.
3. To protect your shoulders, make sure you are pinching your shoulder blades together.
4. This is a core exercise, but it really involves the whole body! Keep your legs and butt turned on.
5. Start by holding for 3 rounds for as long as you can with 20 seconds of rest in between. As you get closer to launching, try to get up to a minute. If you want to keep up with your guides go for a minute of straight arm followed by a minute of forearm planks.
The obliques are another major muscle in the ‘core group’ that help stabilize the spine and are important for rotational movements – like the ones you will do in a bag line passing dry bags from the boats up to camp. Essentially bag lines are standing Russian twists so you can start building up these muscles at home to get ready.
1. Start by sitting on the floor with your knees bent, your heels resting lightly on the floor and your spine long and straight.
2. This movement can be done with, or without weight to start. If you are using weight, start small and build up as you progress.
3. If using weight, start by holding it with both hands at belly button height. If not, your hands will be together in this same start position. Begin the movement by pulling your belly button to spine and twisting to tap your hands or the weight gently on the floor just behind your hips. Then twist and do the same thing on the other side.
4. Start by doing 30 seconds of work for 3 rounds. You can progress this exercise by working for longer or adding more weight. If this feels easy and you can keep your back straight, try lifting your heels off the floor and hold them in a hover just above the ground while you twist.
*If you don’t have weights or kettlebells at home, there are plenty of things you can substitute: full water bottles, rocks, books, small dogs, use your imagination- just make sure you can move the weight without rounding your back.
Grand Canyon is a beautiful, but rugged landscape. There are endless wonders to experience, but getting there usually requires navigating rocky, uneven terrain. Many of the ‘trails’ and campsites require taking big steps to get up and over large rocks. Practicing step ups at home will make this much less daunting.
You will need a little bit of equipment for this move, but there are plenty of things you can find around your house/yard/neighborhood. All you need is something sturdy you can step up on that will challenge the range of motion in your hip and load your quadriceps muscles along the front of your thigh. A sturdy chair, bench, wall, or large rock would all work great. Ideally, the step should be hard to step up onto, but not so high that your stepping knee is higher than your hips.
This exercise can also be made harder by adding weight. If you don’t have dumbbells or kettlebells at home you can substitute something you have lying around the house like a gallon jug of water, or, better yet, throw something heavy in a backpack.
1. To begin, stand in front of the step. Raise one leg to the top of the step and use that leg to bring the other leg up to meet it.
2. Stand all the way up on the step, then reverse the movement by stepping down with the same leg that finished the upward step. For example, if you start by stepping up with your right leg, your left leg will come up to meet the right then initiate the backwards down step. Your right leg will be last to come down to the floor.
3. Starting with the alternate leg, repeat the step up on the other side.
4. This movement can be done with or without weight and weight can be added as you progress and get stronger.
5. Start by working on strength by performing this movement slowly for 3 rounds of 10-20 step ups on each leg. As this gets easier, try adding weight or if you want to make it more of a cardio workout, speed up the movement and see how many repetitions you can do in a minute.
What goes up, must come down. Since you are starting your hikes at the river, getting anywhere in Grand Canyon usually involves going up – but to get back to the boats, you will have to come back down. Stepping down is high impact movement that can be hard on the joints – especially the knees! Working on this movement before your trip can help build up the muscles you need to perform it safely on your trip. If you are using a flat step like the one pictured, you could link up these two movements by stepping up then stepping down the other side.
1. Starting from a standing position on top of the box, slowly lower one leg down to the ground.
2. Try to keep your hips as close to in line as possible when making the step down. Be mindful that the hip on the box is not popping way out to one side. Try to land as slowly and gently on the lowered foot as you can.
3. Turn around, step back up and lower the alternate leg.
4. This movement can be practiced on a variety of different sized steps. If coming off a big chair or box is difficult to do without cocking your hip out to the side, start with small steps. Going up and down a staircase is a great way to start working on this. As you get stronger and smoother, find bigger things to step down from.
5. This movement can be progressed by finding higher steps or by adding weight.
Getting up and down off the ground
In our modern, 21st century lives, we don’t spend a lot of time on the ground. Our beds are elevated, and we sit much of the day perched in chairs. A lot of us are a little out of practice with getting down to, and up off the ground. This is a great movement to reintroduce to your life before heading down the river. It will make sitting in the sand or getting in and out of your sleeping bag much easier!
There is no right or wrong way to perform this movement. I just recommend doing more of it every day to figure out what works best for you. If you want an added challenge, try sitting and standing up without using your knees or your hands.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that you have to be ready to run a marathon or be in best shape of your life to fully appreciate a Grand Canyon river trip. Physical fitness exists on a continuum and is a very personal and relative measure. What I am saying is that a Grand Canyon expedition is a very physically demanding endeavor. Wherever you are starting from, there is always room to feel a little stronger, healthier, and ready to embrace this infinitely rewarding challenge.
Somer has been a guide for AzRA since 2008. In her off-river life, Somer is currently working as a personal trainer and pursuing a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). She is looking forward to starting Physical Therapy School at the University of Montana in the fall of 2022. If you are interested in an online consultation for a custom training program with Somer before your river trip, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.