Prepping for the Appalachian Trail: Physical (Part 2 of 3: Training)

In which muscle fibers and iliotibial tissues have a bit of a disagreement.

Hi! Sorry, it’s been a bit since I posted. Turns out the number one thing that interferes with blogging about prepping for an AT thru hike is prepping for an AT thru hike. But I wanted to finish my thoughts about the various aspects of my prep, so I will try to finish up a few posts on that before we get into the hike itself.

Redefining “Training”

So the previous post about my physical condition was, in part, just to say that when it came time to start training for the AT in the fall of 2023, I knew what I had in mind for myself: physical exertion, and lots of it, with an ear turned acutely inward, listening to my body. That’s been my pillar of understanding and the best way to mark progress for myself.

Planting the Seed: Katahdin!

The other main factor driving the desire to train up was an idea that a group of friends had been scheming on for a while and had recently decided to pull the trigger on: a winter expedition in mid-February to summit Katahdin.

The northern terminus of the AT.

When they first floated the idea, I hemmed and hawed about it. Never having climbed it before, would it diminish my AT experience if I did it before even starting my trip? Then I realized what an amazing bookend it would make to summit before leaving for the trail, and be able to tip my cap and say, “See you in another seven months or so, friend.” Once I realized that, I was all in. It was an amazing opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, and it also served as a wake-up call to get those legs a-movin’. I set forth, knowing what I was capable of, and sure of my path forward.

And Then: Not So Much

The plan was to do a combination of run training to build endurance combined with sessions at the Harvard Stadium for uphill strength training. For those not familiar, Harvard Stadium is a legendary workout site. The stadium’s “seats” are long, cold, likely super-uncomfortable-for-sitting concrete rows about fifteen inches high. There are 37 sections, each with 31 rows. The idea is that you climb (or, if you’re truly insane, run) up each section’s rows as large steps, then descend down the actual human-sized stairs in between sections and move to the next section. If you do a full “tour de stade,” it works out to a little over 1,400 feet of elevation in less than 1.2 miles. This is equivalent to a pretty steep climb. Many people’s legs, including my own, have been reduced to quivering pillars of jelly in this place.

The steps beckon on one of the rare snowy days we had this winter.

Sproing

I started my training in earnest in November. My running regimen had been going in fits and starts for a couple of years for a number of reasons, but I kick started it up again in November with good results. Then, on a Friday morning in early December, a few of us gathered at Harvard Stadium for the first time in this training cycle and did about half the stadium. I felt great. My legs were cranking up and down the stairs and I felt on top of my proverbial game.

The next morning I woke up and my legs didn’t feel sore at all, which I took as a very positive sign. So I went out for a run to get in some further conditioning and see what a consecutive-day effort felt like.

And about halfway through, something in the area of my left knee said, “No mas.”

I am generally not an injury-prone person, so I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was just a muscle twinge, so I made the rookie mistake of continuing on. I got most of the way home before it said, “Excuse me. I said NO MAS, asshole.”

It was a sharp pain on the left side of my left knee. I hobbled home, spent a few days trying to self-diagnose, and made a panicked knee brace purchase before recalling that there are professionals who can diagnose these kinds of things. I was in physical therapy shortly thereafter, where I discovered that it was an aggravation of my left IT band.

Recovery

The IT (iliotibial) band is a band of connective tissue that runs down the outside of your upper leg and connects the fascia around your glutes and the other muscles of your upper leg down to the outside of the knee. It helps with stability and balance, and injury of it is fairly common.

The PT staff were all pretty awesome, and as it turns out my aggravation was a fairly minor case. But you never know that when you’re in the middle of it, and those were some dark days, in which I wondered if I had completely screwed my chances. Around Christmas time the air was abuzz with people asking me no end of questions about the trail, to which I would smile wanly and say, “Yeah… yup, I’m sure gonna do it, yup that’s the ticket,” while wondering whether that low, lurking pain was going to grotesquely flower into something more severe and debilitating. But as I continued with PT and tentatively started doing stairs again things did not seem to get worse.

All the things

I decided to go the kitchen sink route and also enlisted the help of an amazing friend who is an acupuncturist. I’d never had acupuncture before but I was happy to explore this avenue with him. This guy’s love language is filiform needles. He went to work on me.

Burning an herbal application to stimulate blood flow.

Damn, but there’s a lot of chi in this room.

And just recently another friend who is a personal trainer and massage therapist gave me a treatment session and helped open up that entire side of my body. A really eye-opening experience.

Did I mention that I have amazing friends?

Results

It’s now been a few months since the injury and so far, I haven’t had any recurrence. But when I go for a longer run I do sometimes feel a lingering sensitivity wayyyy down deep in that area. It’s very subtle, but it’s there. I’ll need to keep an eye on it.

The other issue is that, because I went easy on the area by not overdoing it on the training, there’s now a real concern as to whether I’m undertrained. I guess we’re just going to have to find that out.

But, I did return to doing the Harvard stairs with my friends, and we knocked out some great sessions. I worked my way up to doing this with Birch, both of us with our packs on, which was really helpful.

My friend Maddie, Birch and I about to get our steps in.

Birch and I working our way around with full packs on.

Maddie, James, Birch and I after finishing our first full tour de stade together, in front of an inscription on the stadium that has… not aged well.

So… onward we go!

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