The Science of “Trail Legs”

The Science of Trail Legs

Have you ever heard hikers talk about getting their trail legs? Ever wonder just what that means? Read on my bipedal friends to learn the science of trail legs!

The Science-y Bit

imagesNeuromuscular adaptation is the name of the game here. This term refers to the nerves from your spinal cord that connect to the muscles. When the signal is sent from the brain down the spinal cord and through the nerve, the muscle contracts.

Your body will only maintain as many of these nerve/muscle connections as it needs for your daily activity level and no more. The body is extremely efficient in terms of energy usage.

Muscle takes a lot of energy to build and maintain. If you weren’t using as much muscle as your body has primed and ready for action, your body will start to save energy by decreasing the nerve activity to the unneeded portion of the muscle. Simple and effective right?

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Take The Good With The Bad

imagesThis is what happens when you skip the gym for too many weeks. The body realizes that you aren’t using the muscle it is busy building and maintaining. To conserve resources, it trims the number of nerves that feed the muscle so you engage less of it but keep enough activated to meet your needs.

You remain blissfully unaware that any of this is happening until you step back into the gym and realize that you lost strength.

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The process of neuromuscular adaptation takes place over the first few weeks while on the trail. Interestingly, it also happens to be the time frame that most injuries occur on the trail – more on that later.

With the increase in physical activity (like hiking every day) the body will maximize the muscle you already have by activating the nerves to turn it on. You don’t get stronger in the traditional sense during the first month of hiking (or working out).  What you have done is activate more muscle fibers that were not previously needed.

If conditions are optimal, (energy intake and physical stressors like exercise are consistent) your body will begin to build muscle to meet the needs. This happens around week 4-6* for most of us.

*Studies vary on this length, some say closer to 8-12 weeks or more. My experience tells me it varies on the individual and their activity level prior to starting a new routine. If you are more active more often, this time frame is likely shorter. If you are more sedentary the window is likely on the longer side.

Back to that injury piece in the first few weeks. If you start your hike with strong, efficient muscles you are starting with greater resiliency to buffer against common hiker injuries.  Give yourself 8-12 weeks of consistent workouts before you hit the trial for best results!

You can reach me with any injury issues, past or present that you feel will impact your hike. Training questions are also welcome – I am happy to help!

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3 thoughts on “The Science of “Trail Legs”

    1. Great question! Yes, there are! Using EMG activity during the first few weeks of exercise they found an increase in activity with little to no hypertrophy. The bibliograpy portion is to long to enter here. However, Kisner, Colby Therapeutic Exercise, 6th edition pages 168 and 234, 235 will list the text and studies they pulled from. There is some variance in the time it may take for adaptations. Other resources I have been exposed to (podcasts and continuing education) with various leading Physical Therapists and strength & conditioning trainers say anywhere from 1-4 weeks up to 4-8 weeks. Co-morbidiities not withstanding.

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