A Torrent of Training: Building a Surfeit of Strength

During my most recent episode of telling someone new about my Tahoe Rim Trail expedition this summer, they asked me, “So what are you doing to prepare for that?”

In addition to the logistical planning and mapping required for this excursion, I must get my body into shape for the undertaking. All the time and effort put into preparing this hike will be in vain if I cannot manage the physical demands of it. Keeping in mind the realities of my body and its capabilities, I am doing everything in my power to adequately train for the TRT.

Overpacked and Underprepared

On my first backpacking trip, I was overpacked and arguably underprepared. Though I had completed some difficult day hikes in training myself for the task, the sensation of hiking with weight on your back considerably increases the rigor. For my first backpacking trip, I had done only one practice hike with a mostly packed pack. In recent years, I have made those practice hikes more frequent, and I will incorporate those into my routine in the next couple of months.

I completed a 9-mile training hike with a nearly fully loaded pack prior to my first-ever backpacking trip (June 2018)

From Surgery to Marathon in 10 Months

Recovery

In February 2023, I underwent surgery for a torn peroneal tendon (ankle) sustained during a stumble while trail running. Living in an orthopedic boot, and thus staying away from the trails for six weeks, wrought a new sense of loneliness and lack of fulfillment in me. I funneled a lot of that energy into orchestrating my to-be attempt to hike the TRT last summer, which did not end up coming to fruition. 

My first day in an orthopedic boot days after surgery, which took me 6 weeks to train out of (February 2023)

When I was out of the boot (heck, even before I was out of that boot), I was raring to get back into the swing of things. After recovery and rehab, I worked my way back up to regain my pre-injury level of fitness. I started with short walks, then short hikes, then short runs, and then long hikes and long runs. 

The Comeback

By late spring, I was completing upward of ten-mile hikes with a 22-pound pack. Then by June, I completed back-to-back backpacking trips, clocking a total of 25 miles over four days with a full pack (which weighed in around 32 pounds). By September, I ran a 15k night trail race. And by late October, I finsihed the 31k night race I had to drop from following my ankle injury the previous year. Finally, by New Year’s Eve, I conquered my first ever marathon at Across the Years, an annual New Year’s event held by a local run company, Aravaipa.

Hard work during physical therapy and strength training paid off; my first post-surgery backpacking trip, ~15 miles overnight (June 2023)

My recovery and rebuilding of endurance would have been much more of a struggle without my local running community. I am part of a group called TRU Tribe, founded by a phenomenal human being, Coach Lisa. This cohort of women all over the state, country, and continent embraces runners of all ages, abilities, shapes, and sizes. Being a “back of the pack” kind of runner, I have always felt accepted and encouraged with these ladies. Involvement in such a community was an integral part of my recovery and, further, my continued running journey.

My running coach, Lisa, joining me while I hit my first-ever 26.2 mile point (NYE 2023); she helped me retrain after my injury and rebuild my endurance.

And Back to Injury

The convergence of hard work and determination led me to my first marathon: New Year’s Eve at Across the Years. This event, which had been high on my list of races to run, is an amalgamation of runners completing varied distances (ranging from half-marathons to hundreds of miles) or time trials (ranging from six hours to six days). All participants run on a 1.4-mile course looping until they’ve covered their distance or their time has elapsed. Though this event was an absolute blast, I did not adequately train my body to run on a looping course for 26.2 miles. As a result, I have been dealing with the aftermath of what has been diagnosed as an overuse injury.

When I surpassed my previous distance personal record that I’d achieved training up to my marathon; mile 19.6 (NYE 2023)

Currently, I am undergoing physical therapy to address issues that have arisen in my quads and lateral knee area. In managing this setback, I have increased the amount of strength training in my regimen. While this injury has kept me from running longer than 5k these past months, I am still able to hike, even as far as fourteen miles up to this point. With the TRT looming just three short months from now, I am focusing on building my strength to ensure that my quads (and whole body) will be as close to peak condition as it can be.

My Body and Realism

As much as I would love to toss my backpack on and just get out there as if it were nothing, I have to come to terms with the realistic expectations of my body.

Age

Though I am not old by any means (unless you ask some of my middle school students), I am no spring chicken either. So far in my thirties, I have been fortunate enough to avoid the typical moans and groans. But in light of putting stress on my body, whether via a tough hike with a lot of vertical gain or a double-digit-mile run, it needs some TLC to recover: plenty of electrolytes, boosted amounts of protein, and adequate sleep. I continually aim to make the best decisions (when I am motivated enough to) in order to give my body everything that it needs.

Size

Giving my body what it needs (and deserves) has been a struggle throughout my life. Living in a plus-sized body has plagued my self-confidence from a young age (and intermittently continues to do so). In the past, this has led to deprivation of basic nutrients in an attempt to cut calories on the pilgrimage to a skinnier physique.

While I cannot deny that my body would be healthier with the absence of the twenty-five or so extra pounds I carry, I have to accept the current reality of where my body is at physically. I would love to be rid of that extra weight, especially by the TRT, but my goal is not to be smaller; my goal is to be stronger. Hence, a renewed emphasis on strength training.

A Regimen Going Forward

Since I am both a trail runner (currently semi-out-of-commission) and backpacker, I want to cast a wide net with my physical training. I have scoured the internet for “how to train for a backpacking trip” and found a myriad of exercises. With so many different approaches, I found it slightly overwhelming. I’d worry that I’m not picking and choosing the right movements or exercises to embed in my own routine.

Once again, I find myself gravitating to some advice via my friends at Backpacker Radio. In Episode #103: How to Train for a Thru Hike with Dr. Freeborn Mondello of Strong Physio (at the time of the interview, it was Run Free PT), I gleaned many exercises that I have (or plan to) work into my personal regimen. During this episode, Dr. Mondello elaborates on how to strength train effectively in order to achieve personal fitness ambitions. He also covers a range of exercises that are easy to include in an existing workout. Much of this discussion is geared towards backpackers’ injuries and the preventative measures or solutions to them. If you are interested in learning more about this, I highly recommend this listen (or re-listen if it’s been a while).

This episode encompassed several tips to target strength training for backpacking.

Physical Training

Taking into consideration my current needs and level of fitness, I have developed a weekly workout schedule to follow going forward:

  • 2-3 strength training sessions
  • 1-2 cross training days (swim, hike, or bike)
  • 1-2 short runs (<2 miles)
  • 1 yoga session

This schedule is subject to change, of course. Making a schedule is easy; maintaining it is another story, especially throughout the work week, when to-do lists mount ever higher. Keeping that in mind, I will adjust as my body’s needs evolve throughout the training process.

Strength Training Focus

As a trail runner undergoing physical therapy, my strength training will be targeted at a few focus areas. Fortunately, as I’m also an aspiring TRT thru hiker, these focus areas will enhance my hiking abilities as well.

To alleviate the issues I’ve been having since my marathon, I’ll primarily target my hip region, strengthening the heck out of my glutes. These have been an area of weakness, and buttressing them (pun intended) will hopefully help to stabilize my quads going forward. Some strength and mobility exercises I plan to execute daily include:

  • clam shells (with resistance band)
  • bridges (with resistance band)
  • split lunge
  • lateral lunge
  • squats (of all varieties: weighted, jump, air, sumo, etc.)
  • 5-way hip drive (which I learned from BPR #103)

In addition to daily strength and mobility, I will implement these exercises 3-4 times per week:

  • kettlebell swings (10 minutes) 
  • deadlifts (5 sets/5 reps)
  • back squat (5 sets/5 reps)

All in all, I know that my current regimen’s deepest deficit is strength training. Luckily, I have the necessary tools to amend that. Going forward, consistency will be essential in my success.

Back in my strength training heyday, deadlifting my personal record weight, 235lbs. (2017)

Nutrition

In order to best fuel my body for the demands I intend to place on it, I need to improve my current nutritional intake by increasing the protein in my diet. I must admit, my current nutrition is far from ideal. Current estimates of daily protein land somewhere between thirty and forty grams (in a typical work day). However, I’ll aim to gradually augment that number to 100-110 grams of protein per day. My avenue to achieve this will inevitably include products like protein shakes, but lean meats like chicken and fish will be the primary source.

Oftentimes, I simply fail to eat, which leads to poor decision-making later in the day, when I am too tired to remember all of my lofty goals. As I grapple with my superficial desire to become thinner, I struggle to find ways to ultimately eat more frequently throughout the day. Finding the time to not only eat during the hustle-and-bustle-filled work day but also prep foods that are healthy and productive for my fitness objectives is, on many occasions, an insurmountable obstacle.

Being a teacher, time is an ever-scarce resource, but as we barrel toward the summer months, I know I need to invest some of that scant time into myself. Lack of doing so has led me to neglect my nutritional health and physical, which cannot continue. Ultimately, this investment will pay out in dividends in the form of fulfillment and a successful loop around Lake Tahoe.

I’m still unsure as to how my nutritional outline will translate into my trail diet, but that is a bridge to cross another day. For now, I just need to do my best to stay consistent with adding what my body needs to become more physically fit to backpack 165-ish miles.

Persistence > Perfection

In the saga that is my striving towards better health, the mantra to which I tend to return is to value persistence over perfection. I already know that I have the tendencies to impulsively eat the Skittles stowed away in my desk drawer at the end of the day or to lazily skip out on a workout because I am feeling emotionally drained from work. 

But making the right choices, like cooking the meal with lean meat that I have at home rather than drive thru-ing a greasy cheeseburger or slogging through just a mile-and-a-half run instead of doom scrolling on social media at the end of the evening, is more important than simply avoiding the wrong choices. Humans are fallible beings, and I am certainly no exception. So though I may not complete every workout I put into my calendar or eat exactly what I planned to, improvement will breed progress. 

With a system of accountability implanted by my running group, the TRU Tribe, along with my hiking partner Kisha who often trains with me, I have the tools necessary to go far in my training. And that’s exactly what I’ll need in order to circumnavigate Lake Tahoe this summer.

Kisha and I regularly train together; she even agreed to try rock climbing with me!

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