Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Stress Me!

I just finished a moderate length backpacking trip: five days and five nights, about 60 to 70 miles, starting at noon on the first day and ending shortly after noon on the last day.

That sounds like a lot of mileage to some people, but all you really have to do is walk. Walk long, don't stop much, walk briskly, and the miles add up. I had to slow down the last two days to cover the time. That let me stop early on day four and sleep in a couple of hours on the last morning. My last night in bed was a long 14 hours, which felt really good.

Usually the first night is not great, but then I settle down and sleep well after that. It's part of the training experience. Every hike requires some adjustment no matter what shape you're in starting out. No matter what, you still need to get into condition.

Amount and quality of sleep is one factor, and is usually a one-night adaptation unless you set out with too little insulation. In that case, you're hosed.

Feet are a problem.

They take work and there is no substitute for calluses. To train for a backpacking trip you have to walk, and walking in the footwear you will be using is best. Get the sole of the foot tough, and develop some extra layers of skin wherever the toes contact the shoe. On this trip I was trying out some SmartWool socks. Very thin. So thin that I could see through the fabric. The socks worked fine.

Originally I wore boots with two pair of socks, then after switching to trail running shoes I continued wearing two pair of socks. Later I dropped down one pair. Worked even better.

Recently after reading through Andrew Skurka's web site I tried super thin SmartWool socks. He prefers DeFeet Wool-E-Ators but I couldn't find those locally. Anyway, the super thin socks worked even better yet. My feet had more room to move around, the socks moved with my feet inside the shoes, and they dried within a couple of minutes when I stopped and pulled off my shoes. They were also really quick to dry when I washed them.

The trick with feet seems to be building up calluses and keeping them as dry as possible during the day.

Knees are trickier. The older I get the more help I need, which is why I always use trekking poles now, but conditioning is still important. Downhills are the hardest on knee joints because most shock from the descent gets handled by the knee. Strong muscles and tough, resilient ligaments and tendons are important.

Again, hiking is the best training, but weight training and exercise can help a lot. Just sitting in a chair, extending the leg, and then raising it to horizontal and locking the knee, with as many repetitions as is comfortable can help a lot. A light pack is a real gift to the knees too.

Joints in general are weak spots. Hurt a joint and it might take weeks or months to recover, which is why it's important to stay in good shape between backpacking trips and over the winter months. Arm strength matters, if you're using poles, and your spine needs to be strong and flexible to handle the constant pounding of a long walk.

Muscles come around fast though, compared to joints. During the first two or three outings of the new year you can feel your body respond to stress. Just keep it reasonable and don't overdo it. Two week-long trips separated by a week or two off will show you how quickly the body can strengthen. But only if you don't hurt yourself.

Another area where training helps is in coping with food.

Sounds odd, but it's true. You can't eat the same foods on the trail as at home, or you won't be covering any miles.

For me a high fat diet on the trail helps to maintain an even strain, but this takes a little getting used to. The body has to learn to metabolize fat rather than sugars and starches, and this takes from a few days to a few weeks. Once the body is clued in to a high fat diet it has an easier time pulling fat out of the body cells (making you get leaner) and you get fewer caloric highs and lows during the day.

In town, at home, your body expects meals at set times, and may be used to getting a quick energy boost from meals of starchy or sugary foods. On the trail it works better (at least for me) to eat foods that give an energy push rather than an energy punch. This means adequate protein with most calories from fat.

I prefer to stop and eat, and I also like to sit for a hot meal in the middle of the day, which gives me time to wash up and do laundry, or at least time to rest for a few minutes. One meal in the morning, one at noon, and one in the evening work pretty well for me, but do what's right for you, and maybe smaller amounts of food eaten more often may work better. This is another part of the training experience.

Two other items are schedule and attitude. They affect each other. Keeping a regular schedule helps the body pace itself. Get to bed early enough and you can get up early enough. Eat before you are hungry, drink before you are thirsty, and you can keep going all day every day. Maintaining strength and energy helps to keep your mind sharp and your spirits high, and that makes for a better trip.


Andrew Skurka
DeFeet International