Cross Training to be a Better Hiker
I am not athletic. Or, that’s what I’ve been telling myself (and everyone else) my entire life. And although in many ways I still hold to that statement, after all the hiking I’ve done in the last eight years, to an outsider it would seem like I am not just athletic, but an athlete. But being active has never come natural to me. I have had to make a conscious effort to move my body. From my mid-twenties to today, my relationship with physical activity has waxed and waned. It took years of exercising just to cancel out calories, counting everything I ate (even vitamins), to finally have a healthy relationship with exercise and that came through finding activities that I love, namely hiking.
Over the last eight years, my primary activity has been hiking. In the last two years, I’ve hiked over 2,500 miles and climbed over 600,000’ of elevation. But spending 3 to 4 days a week hiking has really taken its toll on my body (especially my knees) and as I transition into a more relaxed phase of my exercise journey, it has become very clear that to be a better hiker I need to cross-train.
As someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy physical activity it has been really important that I reshape how I look at exercise. Hiking doesn’t feel like punishment to me. It is something that, while really hard, I enjoy doing. Finding other activities that I enjoy was the first step in developing a well rounded fitness regimen. Things that I would want to do, rather than those that I would dread doing.
The first activity that I tried outside of hiking was something that has always intrigued me but never something I imagined I could enjoy doing. I’m not a flexible person, and after spending so much time doing one activity for years, all my muscles were really tight. Stretching was something I only did if I was in pain or injured, and I never considered it a form of exercise, but as I settled into my first warrior two, I felt empowered. I felt proud. And I felt calm, something that I never thought exercise could give me. While most exercise raises your heart rate and breathing, Yoga asks that you calm your breath. It asks that you stand in very difficult postures, and focus on your breathing. It is also an amazing way to become more flexible, stretch out tight muscles, and build strength in your core and upper body (two areas that you don’t work as hard in hiking).
On top of doing yoga to build flexibility and strength, I knew that it was important to maintain my cardio routine. I can no longer commit to hiking multiple days a week, so on a whim, I decided to give running a try. My freshman year of high school I joined the cross country team. My friend convinced me to join her and although I never pushed myself out of my comfort zone, I remembered enjoying running. My 5k time hovered around 32 minutes at my fastest, so when I decided to hop on the treadmill and try running just for one mile, after not running for decades, I was really surprised at how easy it felt. I had become so accustomed to maintaining a heart rate of around 150 beats per minute for hours at a time that doing a 12 minute run on the treadmill felt like a drop in the bucket. Again, I felt empowered. I felt strong. And a few days later, I gave running a 5k a try, completing it in under 30 minutes. I realized that once I found my rhythm, my stride, I entered some sort of flow state and it was as though I was gliding across the ground, pain-free, breath consistent, heart rate maintained. The next day, that familiar soreness in my hamstrings and glutes took hold, a feeling that I welcomed because I knew that it meant I had given my body an opportunity to grow stronger.
Finding ways to develop other parts of my body (the ones that hiking doesn’t train) has been key to building overall health and it has helped me to become a better hiker. Having a stronger core means I can stabilize myself better on the rocks that tend to blanket our trails in New England. Being better at balancing and having more flexibility means that I am less prone to injury. And finding ways to work out muscles that don’t get as worked while hiking are all major benefits that I’ve found through running and Yoga.
Having a healthy relationship with exercise, though, has been the biggest benefit of cross-training. I used to punish my body with exercise. I saw it as nothing more than a way to be smaller, a way to cancel out what I had eaten throughout the day. Now I see exercise as a way to show my body that I love it. To reward it for persevering through 19 months of cancer treatment. Reshaping my relationship with exercise and learning how to respect my body, to love it for all it has brought me through, is way more beneficial than working out simply so that I can eat unhealthily and not gain weight. I hope that each and every one of you can develop ways to move your bodies that bring you joy, strength, and happiness. What are some ways you cross-train as hikers?