Muscle Loss During A Long Distance Hike

by | Oct 22, 2018 | 0 comments

Those Legs Will Be Strong!

It’s true that you will return home from your hike with nice strong legs, but what about mucsle loss during your hike? Since you aren’t using your upper body for walking, here’s what you can expect after months of hiking.

Muscle Tissue Is Expensive

The body is pretty darn smart. It’s really, really good at finding ways to conserve energy. After about 14 days without really “using” the muscles of the chest, arms, and back the body will begin to reduce resources needed to maintain those muscle groups. That can lead to reduced muscle size, strength, and may even lead to aches and pains.

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The Science

When starting any workout program, you won’t really be building muscle in the first 4-8 weeks. That adaptation will vary for each person based on a number of factors. The strength “gains” come from your body and muscles becoming more efficient. Each muscle has nerves that receive and send the signal from the brain to contract or relax.

As you stimulate the muscle during the first 4-8 weeks, the body activates more nerve connections to make the muscle you have as efficient as possible. It’s called neuromuscular adaptation.

After the initial 4-8 weeks, the gains will be much slower. You have maxed out the nerve engagement and now the body needs to add size, requiring more resources to build and maintain muscle.

The body prefers to only have enough muscle “energized/engaged” for its daily needs and no more. If you stop using a muscle group, your body will decrease the size and save energy by paring down the neuromuscular connections.

Now What?


Simply put, you are hiking, so hike! Whatever calories you are able to eat need go towards recovery for working muscles and fueling your hike, not maintaining your mostly unused upper body.

You will likely be too tired or simply lack the motivation to do push-ups or pull-ups. That’s ok.

Let your body use the food you are able to consume repair and refuel you without having to delegate that precious fuel to relatively unused upper body muscles.

You will retain the muscle needed in your upper body and core for carrying your pack and shouldering resupply pack weights. Remember, your body will keep enough muscle around to meet the demands it is getting. If you resuppply every 5 days, that’s enough stimulus to keep the muscle needed.

Trekking poles are not enough to maintain any resemblance of strength in your arms. They just don’t weigh enough. Your triceps and deltoids will see some action with trekking poles, but again, nothing noteworthy in terms of strength training or muscle maintenance.

Embrace the T-Rex Syndrome

There are thought to be three main body types. Some people are naturally more thin with less muscle mass, others more muscular in nature, and some people fall in the middle of those two types. Unless you naturally carry more muscle, expect to lose a fair amout of upper body strength.

Unless you have the genetics and the body type that keeps muscle prepare to look a little like T-Rex: big strong legs and tiny arms.

Besides, it will be fun to rebuild strength as a project when returning home. You will need a project when you get home. You knew that right? Post trail depression is a topic for another day, but have a plan for post trail activities!

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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