Healthy Hiking: Endurance, Nutritional and Footwear Tips

Dr. Phil Maffetone

Hiking is something I've enjoyed since I was a child. Growing up in the country I learned the joy of going out my back door and wandering alone through the wooded mountains of New York State. I never strayed too far from home; but as I got older, longer and more rugged treks would follow. Once I had a driver’s license, I began to explore trails in state and national parks throughout the northeast—Maine’s Cadillac Mountain, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and, of course, the Appalachian trail. Many years later, after hiking up Colorado’s Tenmile Range Peak 10 Summit (13,615 feet), I was so in awe at the top that I stayed too long, not realizing that coming down would be longer and more difficult than the ascent. Tom Petty’s hit song “Learning to Fly” was just released and remained in my mind helping me down the rocky trail after dark.

Of all the sports I've participated in, from running, biking, triathlon, and even golf, hiking still remains my favorite. If the weather is cooperating, Coralee and I try and go for a short hike almost every day. We don't have to go far to reach the trails since I live in southern Arizona and the Santa Catalina mountains are literally right outside the back door.

We like following animal trails that weave through the natural washes formed by the winter and summer rainy seasons. The lush desert is full of signs of present and past life. Just southwest of our home is a large granite rock formation. On its top are rounded basins, carved deep over centuries by Indians who grounded mesquite beans into flour. One shallow basin is about six inches wide by about 10 to 12 inches deep (see hiking photos below). A local archeologist said it could be almost 1,000 years old. (The mesquite pods containing their legumes mature in the fall, and Coralee and I sometimes use their flour—it’s a nutty, nutritious and relatively easy to digest. See our special desert dessert recipe—Cacao Mesquite Cake.)

If our hike is early morning or evening, an old bobcat can sometimes be seen heading to bed or just waking. Occasionally we spot a mom and her cubs. The large 8-point white tail deer is often around. Coyotes also lurk in the dawn and dusk (and why we keep our chickens safely penned up with plenty of room for roaming). Roadrunners come and go, antagonizing the slower coyotes. One spring, our paths crossed that of a large, beautiful but venomous lizard known as the Gila monster that was sunning itself. It was nearly two-feet long. We got close enough for a good view of each other, and that’s about it. The Apache believed that its breath could kill a man. (A synthetic version of a protein derived from the Gila monster's saliva is used in a FDA-approved drug for the management of type 2 diabetes.)

Several types of hawks use the rocky cliffs as home base to launch their daytime flights above the desert. A number of snakes appear from spring through fall. We stay clear of rattlers but they usually provide ample warning of their presence.

These desert hikes are a great way to allow the mind wander, meandering just like the sandy washes. Coralee and I are fortunate to live where we do. But great places to hike are accessible to almost all of us. It is such a simple activity with so many positive benefits. Hiking and walking are really one and the same. Though hiking usually means going longer or venturing out in the backcountry—and away from civilization. Because of this, there are a few things to remember to make these hikes—whether for two hours or two days—more enjoyable.

Endurance

One of the keys to successful hiking is building a great aerobic base. This teaches your body to burn fat as an energy source. With more aerobic muscle function, other optimal training benefits follow, including endurance and the ability to walk farther, hike faster when you want, with reduced physical wear and tear, and more rapid recovery. It’s also the best way to avoid getting tired or bonking. These are just some of the endurance benefits the aerobic system provides.

Optimal aerobic fitness and health also means more capability to carry heavy loads up steep slopes for long periods, better adaptation to higher altitudes, maintain alertness and good judgment after extended periods of exertion, and better acclimate to the extremes of cold or heat. Of course, training in these same environments for shorter periods of time will certainly help your body function better in preparation for longer treks.

Strength and power can also be developed through your training, and is best done following the building of a great aerobic system. For most people, I don't believe that strengthening individual muscles, such as by lifting weights, is a necessity. You can adequately train your body during shorter hikes on hilly terrain; you’ll more than likely build sufficient muscle function for longer, tougher treks. However, if you don’t train your body by regularly hiking steep trails, you won’t be able to easily accomplish these tasks during longer trips. In this case, weight lifting may have a place in training, although it won’t be as effective as training your muscles by hiking shorter versions of the same terrain. And, this anaerobic activity is best done following a proper aerobic development, which could take two, four, or more months depending on your particular needs. In three to four weeks of weight lifting, you’ll obtain significant improvement of muscle function.

For more on aerobic fitness and using a heart rate monitor to improve fat burning, click here.

Nutrition


Nourishment is an important consideration during hikes. This includes foods consumed during a hike, and your regular diet. While hikes of two or three hours may not require any food if you burn sufficient body fat, longer treks will require packing food. During a longer trek, dense, healthy foods rather than refined carbohydrates will provide for your long-term needs if your aerobic system is working well.

Whether you’re climbing the high Colorado peaks or hiking through parts of the Grand Canyon, your body works best by using its internal energy sources rather than rely on external sources. In other words, by burning more body fat as a major energy source, you can hike longer. While humans use a combination of both fat and sugar (carbohydrate) for energy all the time, training your body to use much higher amounts of stored fat offers many more times the energy than sugar. Fat is our endurance energy, and sugar is for short-term power. In fact, a well-conditioned endurance hiker would need much less food during a day-long trek because, even in a lean body, he or she has significant fat available for energy—enough for long-distance hiking over rough terrain.

This is what training is all about—increased fat burning is accomplished through relatively easy aerobic exercise. This includes such activities as walking, running, and biking—regular hikes will easily accomplish this task. Lower heart-rate training will increase your capability to burn more body fat, but higher levels of intensity can reduce fat- and increase sugar burning. In addition to having more endurance energy, this will also help you reduce body fat and lose weight.

Your day-to-day diet when not hiking is also an important part of this equation. Consumption of refined carbohydrates, such as pasta, bread, sugar-containing foods, sports drinks, so-called energy bars, and other low quality high glycemic items, can significantly de-train your body by reducing its ability to burn fat—even if your training seems satisfactory.

Both diet and training can provide you with a great aerobic system that can generate high amounts of energy from body fat. The end result is that you can perform more activity with the same or lower levels of intensity, as measured by heart rate. In other words, walking up steep slopes with a pack becomes much easier and faster without fatigue. This is because your slow-twitch aerobic muscles use fat for energy, so their physical ability improves while having almost unlimited energy. Additionally, your food needs during a hike is reduced.

Relying less on food during a hike is important because eating a meal can reduce blood flow to the muscles (much of your circulation is diverted to the intestines for digestion); eating while walking can also impair digestion (and therefore absorption of sugar, fats, and other nutrients); and all the food you must carry means more weight to haul.

With a good aerobic system, whether you perform a short hike, 12-hour slog, or a multiday trek, you should not require any special food or sports drink other than your regular meals and snacks, plus water. And those you normally consume should be the same nutrient-rich, easily digestible food items you regularly consume—introducing new foods, or ones your body is less accustomed to can sometimes cause gut disturbances such as indigestion, gas, diarrhea or constipation. For most people, effective foods to carry during a long hike might include natural carbohydrates, such as fresh fruits, protein items like hard boiled eggs and unprocessed meat and cheese (if consumed relatively soon depending on temperature), and other foods high in fats that include raw almonds and cashews.

Whether a longer or shorter trek, you can also make your own trail ration: My Phil's Bar recipe has been used by endurance athletes for decades—it provides everything you'll need nutritionally (except water), is very easy to digest, will last a week or more unrefrigerated, and it's delicious. These would be a great addition on any trek lasting more than two or three hours, especially over several days or a week or two.

Companies that manufacture specialty sports drinks and energy bars make wild and false claims about energy and hydration. However, fruit juice, such as apple or grape (avoid citrus), or honey works just as well, if not better considering that many sports products have to be digested. Fresh fruit, such as apples, pears, and nectarines, along with fruit juice, and honey does not require digestion, so their sugars are more available for energy, and don’t produce the typical indigestion from bloating (gas) that other carbohydrate products create. In addition, most of these highly processed food items contain unhealthy ingredients.

The concentration or strength of the carbohydrate solution refers to the amount of sugar and water in the drink. This can influence how your intestines handle the drink, which then affects how well you absorb the sugars. Homemade liquid carbohydrate drinks are best because they are simple to make, are made from natural foods, don’t contain unwanted or unhealthy ingredients (some are not listed on the label), and you can adjust the amount of water and carbohydrate to your particular needs.

For most hikes, a 6 to 8 percent carbohydrate solution is ideal for most people. A simple drink can be made by adding six to eight grams of carbohydrate (approximately one heaping teaspoon), such as honey, to 180 ml (six ounces) of water. Another option is to use store-bought juice is, most of which is 6 to 8 percent carbohydrate, but not the concentrated versions, which are much more condensed and require dilution.

The 6 to 8 percent concentration will not remain in your stomach for too long but will empty into the small intestines at a similar rate as water. Liquids that are concentrated with more than 8 percent carbohydrate can remain in the stomach longer, not allowing the stomach to empty as fast and delaying the absorption of sugar, and cause stomach distress.

Hiking Shoes

Walking long distances, hiking uneven trails, jumping from rock to rock, maneuvering through tall grass or down slippery slopes all requires one important function—being light on your feet. This means maintaining quickness to prevent falls, sensing the ground’s ever changing terrain for stability, and being prepared for a last moment shift in your body’s weight to avoid a loose rock or rattler. (I occasionally see them here in Arizona, and give them a wide berth on the trail.) In order to accomplish these physical tasks, your feet and brain must be in constant communication. The right shoes will allow this important activity.

Thick soled, over-supported shoes, including most hiking or trail running shoes, can impair your walking performance. In particular, “high-top” type hiking shoes can weaken your ankles. This can occur because the shoe's support around the ankle, like other physical wraps, braces, and supports, can eventually weaken muscles ultimately causing you to lose stability in the ankle.

While there are many people who hike barefoot—after all, shoes have been around for only the last 10,000 years, while humans have been hiking for several million years—and even barefoot hiking clubs, it’s not necessary to be completely unshod to maintain good agility and keep your feet stable. Although spending some time being barefoot, even for only fifteen minutes a day, can help strengthen foot and ankle muscles and improve sensation of the ground and communication with the brain, lighter, simpler, and thinner shoes are best for most people.

The minimalist and barefoot running shoe movement has provided a good way to find shoes that work well for most hikers. These are shoes that offer thinner, more flexible soles, and without an oversized heel that can affect one’s natural gait.

I hike in perfectly flat, unsupported shoes. I wear a lace-up Puma running shoe that’s leather with a sole that’s about a quarter inch thick from heel to toe. A lace-up style helps assure it’s snug enough on your foot each time you put it on without excess movement during hiking. Even if I’m climbing some big boulders in tight spots off the trail, these shoes are perfect. The feel of each crevice in my feet helps with maneuverability.

Thick shoes reduce the brain’s ability to properly sense the ground, and therefore, the body’s ability to most effectively change movements to match varying terrain. This can increase the risk of slipping and falling. And they can slow you down. In addition, on long hikes, the added weight of thick, over-supported shoes requires more oxygen—not a significant factor until you’re out there for a couple of days. Most importantly, a great hiking shoe should be perfectly comfortable. Not just on the trails, but walking around while shopping, or going for a walk on paved streets. There's a lot about sports shoes on the website, including this article on perfect fit.

For hiking clothes, I have found this small company in Boston called RailRiders that makes pants and shirts that are not only great for hiking, and in all kinds of weather, but working in the garden during wind, rain and sun. The shirts and pants have great pockets for keeping a small camera, homemade energy bars, and a pen and paper for those many times a song idea comes out while hiking in the desert.

For those looking for information on how to get into great shape, and related nutritional needs, everything in The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing can be applied to hiking and mountaineering.
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