Trail Myth: I’ll finish in the greatest shape of my life!
Right off the bat, lets acknowledge “greatest shape of my life” as a pretty subjective term. You might have lost 40lbs hiking, have strong legs and you legitimately feel that you are in the best shape of your life. Perhaps you are, and that is to be applauded in all sincerity.
Let’s also recognize that age does matter, as does genetics and previous fitness/activity level going into the hike. Let’s also assume that you finish the hike since most hikers abandon due to injury.
For the rest of us…
To be in the greatest shape of your LIFE, that would likely imply that you can crush a basic fitness test post-hike. Here’s why that’s faulty thinking: hiking 2000+ miles will only make you good at one thing: hiking. The law of specificity states that if you practice one activity, you will perform better at that activity. For example, swimming won’t make you a better cyclist. Cycling will make you a better cyclist.
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I heard many hikers claim that you use different muscles to run than you do to hike. And chocolate milk comes from brown cows. You don’t actually have a separate set of muscles to run; the muscles you do possess are just being asked to work in a very different manner. The loading and stresses applied are quite different with a jog or run than simply walking.
If you know a thru-hiker, ask them if they went for a run after their hike. Nine times out of ten, they will tell you they were sore for days and it wasn’t at all what they expected given they just walked over 2000 miles.
Hiking Isn’t A Full Body Activity
We mentioned in this article that the body is so efficient and it wants to do as little as possible to maintain muscle. It takes a lot of calories to retain muscle and if you are not using it, you are going to “lose” it.
At the end of a long distance hike, the hikers pretty much look the same: men [bearded] with strong tone legs, soft low tone midsection, low muscle tone in their upper body and arms. Women tend to have slender arms with low/moderate tone, strong tone legs, and varying mid-section tone depending on body type.
If you have good genetics or respond well to endurance exercise, you might pull off a more toned midsection or retain some of your upper body and arm muscle mass, but that’s not all of us.
Upon returning home, I could only do about half of the push-ups I could before we left. Pull-ups were nearly 66% less. That’s not me in the “greatest shape of my life”. Your goal should be to train in earnest before you leave for your hike. Considering injury is the number one reason hikers abandon it makes sense that you would want to minimize injury risk by being in better shape before you start.
Training decreases stress on the body and reduces the chance of an overuse injury.
You should be in the greatest shape of your life when you LEAVE for the hike, NOT when you return!
You can reach me firstname.lastname@example.org with any injury issues, past or present that you feel will impact your hike. Training questions are also welcome – I am happy to help!