Controversial: Bulk Up or Slim Down?
Introducing the new “Controversial:” series. Occasionally, I’ll be exploring different questions that have plagued thru-hikers for quite some time. The goal is to look at objective evidence and let readers decide for themselves what they’d like to believe. Let me know what your approach is in the comments.
It’s no secret that weight is a key factor in athletic performance. We’ve all heard crazy tales of wrestlers foregoing drinking water for 12 hours at a time in order to make weight for their match. Epic stories of football linemen consuming massive amounts of calories in the weeks leading up to a big game in the hope of adding a few more pounds. Undoubtedly, adapting your body to fit the needs and demands of an upcoming event is a good strategy.
That’s great and all for games and sports ball, but what about when the thing you’re preparing for is an effort that will last for months? I was talking to another fellow future attempter of a calendar year Triple Crown recently, and while I’m busy trying to shed a few excess pounds, he’s busy trying to gain 15 before he begins hiking. Both of these strategies cannot be correct, or can they? Let’s look at the arguments for each.
Let’s face it. Gearheads continually stress about the ounces within their packs. Logically, it should follow that losing excess weight off of the body would be of just as much importance. Your bank account would be happier as this is much easier on the wallet as well. One does not need to purchase a $400 Dyneema fabric tent to shed four ounces off their body. Physically training for a thru-hike should model whatever plan we have for the hike itself. More often than not, this involves some form of cardio as we train our lungs and heart to handle the stresses of climbing mountains with a backpack. The funny thing about cardio training is that it generally destroys any excess muscle mass. Not just muscle is lost though, but also fat, resulting in beneficial weight loss.
Taking this approach generally results in a lower body fat percentage prior to beginning a long-distance hike, and has the possibility to result in more miles per day covered as well as less fatigue. I should pause here and warn you that there is an important caveat here. Having a lower body fat percentage or less muscle on the body means the body has less fuel readily stored. You have fewer reserves for those times where you’re running on empty. This means that, unfortunately, you’re more susceptible to malnutrition on the trail, and you’ll more than likely need to keep a keen eye on your daily calorie intake while hiking.
On the other side of the coin, there is certainly an argument to be made for adding some weight to your frame. Especially before finding yourself at a terminus of any trail. Adding beneficial weight can have a significant impact when it comes to on-trail performance. What is beneficial weight you may be asking? The answer is simple: useful muscle mass.
Quite simply, there is almost no foreseen beneficial outcome that can be associated with adding fat of any capacity unless otherwise directed by a medical professional. Muscle mass that is added prior to a hike should be directly related to hiking itself. Sorry to those who fantasize about having a shredded upper body, but leg day would be more beneficial to you. Having stronger legs will help when you add significant weight to your body in the form of a pack and are expected to maintain some serious miles. If you can add some muscles here and there, chances are you’ll find yourself with a greater power-to-weight ratio. This translates to less skinny (weaker) legs slogging up switchbacks, and more thunder (stronger) thighs gliding over mountain passes with ease.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions!
Unfortunately, it’s near impossible to add beneficial muscle mass while simultaneously cutting the fat off the body. Glancing at professional bodybuilders’ routines, one can clearly glean that they add weight in the form of both muscle and fat. Following this, they then extensively focus on losing the aforementioned fat in the next phase. Ideally, we might train for a thru-hike in this manner. Months leading up to the hike, it may be beneficial to focus on either strength or endurance exclusively. However, also choosing then to switch over to the other as the start date gets closer.
So then, what’s your take? How will you be preparing for your upcoming thru-hike? Let me know in the comments below.
*Disclaimer; by no means am I a trained nutritionist. That being said, I’m fairly adept at researching and have several peer-reviewed articles incorporated into this post. Message me on Instagram if you’d like to have a peek at my references.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.