The Art of Self-Care on the Trail
Hitting the trail for an extended period of time can be a shock to the system. For many, the first few days (or weeks) can be seriously tough. You wake up each morning and everything feels stiff and sore. You admit to yourself that you probably should have done a bit more training beforehand, but you just grit your teeth and pray that you find your trail legs soon.
But this isn’t something you just have to accept and deal with. While discomfort on the trail is a normal part of thru-hiking, here are a few simple and practical strategies to help you stay comfortable, safe, and as strong as possible on the trail.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
What Is Self-Care and Why Is It Important for Hikers?
Self-care can mean many different things. We’ve listed a set of specific actions you can do on the trail to ensure your body is running as efficiently as possible. If done right, self-care can do great things for long-distance hikers. It can minimize the regular aches and pains that most people experience on the trail. It can help prevent fatigue and exhaustion from clouding your adventure. Most importantly, it can play a role in the speed and likelihood of you finding your trail legs.
How Self-Care Affects Your Trail Legs
The process of finding your trail legs is different for every hiker. In essence, it will usually go one of two ways.
In an ideal world, as you start putting miles on your legs, the body will recognize that it is being exposed to new stress. So it will decide it wants to recover, adapt, and grow to deal with this new, unknown threat. Day after day, it will slowly change to become fitter, stronger, and more resilient. Through this process, you find your trail legs.
On the other hand, this can go in the other direction. The body might try to adapt to the new stimulus, but will fail. Maybe you exposed it to too much stress too soon, with high miles right off the bat. Maybe you got sick or couldn’t sleep for a few nights. Maybe you skipped meals or aren’t getting enough calories in general. There are many factors that might impair your ability to recover and repair between days.
Instead of the body getting fitter, stronger, and more resilient, it begins to break down. This doesn’t usually happen all at once. It will start with a few little niggles, which you will probably decide to ignore. Then it gets a bit worse, and you spend your days struggling with these aches and pains. But even though it is uncomfortable, you are determined to push through. Eventually, these things can develop into an adventure-ending injury. Which is obviously something no one wants.
This is the reason why self-care is so important for hikers: to minimize the chance of your going down this road. To ensure that your body is properly recovering between days of hiking. To allow you to be proactive about preventing niggles before they turn into something worse. And to give your body the advantage it needs to quickly and efficiently find your trail legs.
How You Can Implement Self-Care on the Trail
Self-Massage During Breaks or at Camp
Self-massage is just what it sounds like: using some type of tool to massage sore or tight areas of the body. This is good for three things: it can aid muscle recover between days of hiking, it can loosen tight muscles (in the short term), and it can relieve discomfort in sore muscles.
Grab some type of hard tool to massage yourself with. Options for the trail include a water bottle, a trekking pole, a cork massage ball, a smooth river stone, or even simply use your thumbs. Anything that you can manipulate into those tight muscles.
Use this tool to apply pressure to your muscles and then slowly, and gently, roll over them. Work over the bottoms of your feet, your shins, your thighs, and glutes. When you find a tight spot, spend some time rolling around on it. Take a few deep breaths in and out until you feel it release. Then move onto the next spot.
Spending ten to 15 minutes of this at the end of each day can work wonders for improving muscle recovery, relieving sore muscles, and preventing injury.
Remember to be nice to yourself here. This will be mildly uncomfortable, but it should not be painful. If something feels dodgy, and you are not 100% sure about it, simply don’t do it. You are the world’s foremost expert on your own body, so use common sense here.
Dehydration on the trail is an issue for many reasons. Even small levels of dehydration can significantly impair your physical capabilities (making everything feel harder than it needs to be). Dehydration can seriously impair mental performance and decision-making skills (which can increase your risk of slips, stumbles, and falls). In regards to self-care on the trail, dehydration can cause muscle soreness and impair muscle recovery.
One of the simplest ways of judging hydration is by urine color. Aim to maintain clear or straw-colored urine on the trail. If it is any darker, you better get drinking. Though admittedly, this can sometimes be a bit easier said than done. Limited water supplies, cold temperatures, bad taste, and just plain forgetfulness can often prevent you from drinking enough water.
A few tips to help your hydration on the trail include: drinking a full bottle at water sources, or adding some subtle flavoring to water like Mio drops or Nuun tablets.
Remember that sodium (salt) helps fluid retention. Adding some salty snacks or an electrolyte supplement to your daily menu can be beneficial for your hydration. By staying on top of your hydration, you can help support your body to recover properly between days on the trail and reduce muscle soreness.
Usually in the form of socks or tights, compression garments are a beneficial addition to hikers’ packs. These won’t weigh you down too much, but can make a genuine difference to your time on the trail. While there is some argument in the sporting world whether or not these do anything for improving performance during exercise, there is little doubt they can be beneficial at aiding muscle recovery after exercise.
In simple terms, compression garments help improve blood flow when you are not exercising. This allows the body to better flush out waste products, reducing aches and minimizing soreness. Wearing these overnight while sleeping can help you will wake up feeling fresh, strong, and ready to roll. Here are a few good options for guys and girls.
Protect Your Sleep
Getting quality sleep is critical for a multitude of reasons while hiking. It affects your physical and mental performance, your immune system, your energy levels, and your overall mood.
Sometimes getting quality sleep on the trail can be easier said than done. Bad weather, an uncomfortable sleep system, noisy campsite companions, foraging animals, and even aching muscles can all significantly disrupt your sleep. While you will never really be able to control these factors, you should be doing what you can do to minimize their effects.
A few simple things to aid your sleep on the trail include wearing ear plugs, drinking chamomile tea, using lavender oil, performing some light stretching before bed, deep-breathing techniques, and magnesium supplements.
None of these recommendations are rocket science, and none will work for everyone. They are designed to be simple and practical for a hiker to use while on the trail. Put them into action and they can be effective at aiding muscle recovery, reducing soreness, and ultimately, preventing injury. So you can ensure you can find those trail legs as quickly as possible and can fully enjoy yourself on your adventure.
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