Thursday, June 11, 2015

Let's Get Hiking--Trail Training and Nutritional Preparation

Right up front, let me say, I am NOT a natural athlete, nor do I have the body of one! But I have hit on a combination that is working for me and my body currently. Last fall, I was a bit out of control. I had let myself gain weight as the hormonal effects of my age had reduced my metabolism to a crawl. I was struggling to do long hikes. My knees hurt. My feet and arches hurt...a lot! I would be tired and sore for a couple days after a long, strenuous hike. I told my husband late last year that if I didn't do something, I didn't think I was going to be able to finish my quest for the 900 (all the trails in the Smoky Mountains) because the vast majority of the trails we had left were long--really long! And I meant it...I was having some serious doubts about my ability to finish. But I'd been working on this goal for almost four years, and I didn't want to give up my dream.

Lifestyle Changes
I asked for an elliptical machine for Christmas and put it in my den where I cannot ignore it. Right after Christmas I began using it heavily. It felt great for a while, but then my knees (2 knee surgeries in my past and I'm quite sure more in my future) began to really hurt. I was doing it too often and for too long, I think. I had to stop for a while and try something else.  I tried going to the gym and doing other things, but not with the regularity that would make a real difference.

I have had a Fitbit for a while now and would track my steps, but didn't really pay that much attention to it. Then in early April all that changed. For some reason, I began trying in earnest to make sure I got 10,000 steps in each day. That meant making extra laps around aisles when I was shopping, parking a long way away from whatever store I visited when running errands, or taking walks around my neighborhood in the evenings after work. At first, it was hard to maintain continuity, but by mid-April I was in the swing of things and haven't looked back since. Since April 17, I have averaged between 12,000 and 15,000 steps a day over a week's time. Yes, the hikes help keep that average high each week, but there hasn't been a single day since April 17 that I have gotten less than 10,000 steps. Most non-hiking days are more like 13K+.  I cannot tell you what a difference this has made in my hiking ability! Now that I'm not depending solely on the elliptical for exercise, I can use it again (on much higher difficulty levels) without pain to my knees when it's raining or I need/want to get in another thousand or two of steps at the end of the day.

The other lifestyle change that I have made during this time is a simple one. My husband and I now eat the biggest meal of our day at lunch. We aren't really dieting, but we are conscious of what we eat and try to be good (most days). But what we have for supper is usually fruits, cottage cheese, good cheeses and crackers, nuts, fruit/yogurt parfaits, salad from our garden...things of this nature. I think having the heavier meal in the middle of the day has played a huge role in how much better we are feeling. Both of us have lost weight without really trying.  These lifestyle changes are something that aren't painful but are things that we can sustain for a long time, I believe.

Trail Nutrition
I have also learned how to eat (and how NOT to eat) before and during hikes.  On April 18, I was hiking up Mt. Sterling and down Swallowfork Trail in the Big Creek/Cataloochee area of the park. It was only about a 13-mile hike, but I made a huge mistake, nutritionally, the night before and was mostly miserable the entire day. I was trying to honor our pact to eat light at night, right? So I created a salad at Whole Foods (we had been shopping at REI right next door) and ate that for dinner. What a mistake that was! I ran out of energy about half way up Mt. Sterling and never got it back. We also exacerbated the problem by not stopping to eat anything until we were only a couple miles from the end of our day. As the heavier person hiking with two skinny women, you don't really want to stop them and say, "Hey, I'm hungry and need to eat something!" So, I didn't. I was miserable that whole hike, and it took me a couple days to really feel better again.

So, now, I have a different routine beginning the night before a hike. I make sure that I get some pasta the night before--either homemade or from a restaurant. I also make sure to have some protein at that meal as well. (I'll put in a plug right here for Anthony's Restaurant in Bryson City and their yummy Chicken Marsala! I've eaten that twice now before big hikes out of Bryson City and felt GREAT the next day!) This is the only time we break our pact to have our heavier meal of the day at lunch. I have found though, that I don't eat nearly as much even on those nights, but I do make sure there are some carbs and protein in that meal.

On the morning OF the hike, I will try to have a biscuit/egg/sausage combo or English muffin/egg/bacon combo followed by a banana just as we are approaching the parking lot for the trailhead. That seems to provide me enough sustained energy to get off to a good start. Then, when I start to feel my stomach growl or begin to feel the least bit loss of energy, I will either eat a protein bar or snack on yogurt-covered cherries and/or chocolate covered almonds from Publix. Just a couple of either of those gets my energy back up. I keep a Ziploc snack back of the almonds and cherries in the side pouch of my daypack or backpack. I can pull a couple out while continuing to hike and eat them quickly with ease. If it's a long hike and we will actually stop for lunch, I have been making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of a Thomas' Light Wheat English Muffin and packing that in for lunch. The muffin holds up better than bread in my pack, it seems. The protein and sugars from the PBJ seem to provide my body with just what it needs to walk on. In the summer, I also pack in a Gatorade or Propel drink to supplement the water I carry in my hydration bladder.

For those times when I need a boost of energy on the trail in a serious way, I am finding that Clif's Shot Bloks Energy Chews do the trick for me. They are block-shaped gummy chews that are delicious and provide a powerful energy boost with no side effects. I cannot tell you how many times I've reached into my pack pocket to get one to help me make it up a long, steep climb. I have also shared them with other hikers. Everyone I share them with says they can really feel the boost of energy it provides.

As a result of these changes, I have lost 20 pounds and the scale is still moving in the right direction, slowly but surely, almost of its own accord. I am able to hike further and faster. My aches and pains have diminished considerably, and my recovery time after a hike is small or nonexistent. After our recent 3-day backpacking trip, I wasn't even sore or stiff!  I have had others ask me what I do nutritionally to prepare for hiking, so I thought a post about my preparation might benefit someone else. I do not profess to be a nutritional or fitness guru, in fact, I am the exact opposite. But, I have finally learned enough about my body and how it hikes on best that someone else might benefit from my mistakes and successes.

Have nutritional or training tips you'd like to share? I'd love to hear your ideas and what works for you. I am always looking for ways to improve. Please post in the comments below!

Happy Hiking!


  1. Nice post. Appreciate the tips. When you are old and creaky like me, ever little thing makes a difference. I am sure you already know the old trick of freezing your Gatorade beforehand. By the time you are ready for it on the trail, it is still cold, sometimes a little slushy! Just be sure to drink a couple of sips for expansion space and leave the top off before you freeze it.

    1. Shucky, I can only HOPE I am still doing as much hiking as you are when I get there! You amaze me with your exploits! Yes, I have frozen Gatorade to take on trail before, but I'm glad you reminded me. I'll need it on the backpacking trip we are taking this weekend. It's gonna be hot, hot, HOT!!! Great idea!

  2. What a great article! After 18 months of crazy eating totally deferring to what Bill needed or could tolerate even with respect to odors and whether or not I could eat while in the same room with him, all of a sudden everything tastes good to me again and I FEEL AWFUL! Bloated, yucky and for sure, not enjoyable on the trail. Found that out the hard way with a simple hike to Andrews Bald! Headed in the right direction now and your post was well-timed as an encouragement to me. Gotta be ready for fall & winter hiking! Thanks!

    1. You WILL be back, Sharon! I'm glad you were encouraged. I cannot tell you how much better I feel--better than I have felt in probably 5 years. Glad you made it up to Andrews Bald, though. What a great place to start your comeback!