Ignoring Fatigue: How I Learned That Listening to My Body is Critical to a Long Hike
It was just after dawn as we made our way up the relatively gradual climb from Tuolumne Meadows toward Cathedral Lake in Yosemite National Park. My feet dragged heavily up the gentle grade in the shaded forest. “Why am I so tired?” I thought over and over again. “I’ve climbed 12,000 foot passes and gone up and down thousands of feet a day for the past two weeks! Why is this 1,500 foot climb kicking my ass?” The distinct spires of Cathedral Peak became momentarily visible through the trees. I paused to admire the sharp, gray spikes of the rocky peak as I leaned heavily on my hiking poles.
This was the last climb on our northbound backpacking trip on the John Muir Trail. When hikers leave Tuolumne Meadows toward Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, they make their way up to their final pass and their final uphill section before descending steeply into the Valley. For northbound hikers, this should be a 7,000 foot downhill glide to the finish. But, I felt sluggish and tired.
In 2020, we decided to hike the 200+ mile John Muir Trail (JMT) “last minute” just as national parks were opening back up in the months following the first pandemic shut-downs. We lucked into some permits entering about 20 miles north of the Mt. Whitney Summit – the official southern terminus of the trail.
Starting in the south, you begin hitting the high elevation passes early. At this point we had already done all of the really challenging hiking. So, why was I feeling so run down? Why didn’t I have those infamous “hiker’s legs” everyone is always talking about? I kept thinking, “Wow, this cumulative fatigue is really getting to me!” (Side note: my husband and I have a strict ‘no complaining’ rule on the trail, so while I had acknowledged that I was feeling tired a number of times, most of my speculation was internal dialogue at this point).
It wasn’t until I got off the trail that I realized my problem – I was seriously undernourished. After that first post-trail shower and a good look at myself in a mirror, I realized that I had dropped a good amount of weight on the trail. A scale affirmed that I had lost 6-7lbs on the trail in 15 days. Now, that doesn’t sound like much, but for a bit of context:
- I weigh approximately 120lbs and I am about 5’8” tall, meaning that I don’t carry a lot of extra weight
- A loss of 7lbs on trail represents about a 5% loss of my total body weight
I’m one of those folks that have trouble keeping weight on in the front country (before you ask, yes…I eat..a lot). I realize some contingent of people reading this might scoff at that as a “problem” and, of course, it’s all about context. What might be considered a “good problem” in my regular life can present a sport-specific challenge, particularly in a multi-day to multi-month endurance activity like backpacking.
I realized that I had been ignoring the signs of chronic fatigue and hunger all along the trail. I discounted it as altitude, heat, or just general exercise-related fatigue. But, I also usually suffer from appetite loss due to those same factors.
What did I learn?
- Listen to my body: If I’m starting to feel really tired, it’s not just because I’m doing something hard…my body needs fuel (or water, or both). Of course there are other reasons for feeling tired and, to an extent, this is inevitable when out on the trail. But, tuning into my own idiosyncrasies and how that plays into my nutrition has been valuable. Just a few weeks ago, I was on the last day of a multi-day section-hike and we had a 5 mile climb in the morning. At about 3.5 miles in, I felt a momentary hunger pain and my instinct was to ignore it and push the last 1.5 miles. Instead, I took 2 minutes to grab a bar and eat something, even though breakfast was only a few miles up the trail.
- Plan ahead: I know I suffer from appetite loss, so I need to factor this in. While listening to my body’s cues is important, I also need to keep track to make sure I’m getting adequate nourishment (calories, etc.) and plan to get enough food each day. The past few months, I’ve been testing out using liquid nutrition (shakes and meal replacement drinks) as an adjunct to my regular meals on trail. I’m also working to increase the calorie density of each meal so that I can get as much nourishment as possible from a smaller volume of food, because I know that I may struggle to finish my meals and it’s lighter to carry.
- Change my mentality: I can’t just “deal with” calorie deficit. This is fine if I’m going to be out for just a few days, but losing the amount of weight I did on the JMT over a longer period of time is a hike-ending issue. It is possible to get enough food and nourishment on the trail!
My Meal Plan for our Upcoming LASH
If you’re curious about the nitty-gritty of my feeding schedule (yep, just like a baby) for our long section-hike this summer, below is my loose plan for meals and calorie intake daily. There are some other factors like protein spread throughout the day that I don’t go into below.
- Morning meal replacement drink…mixed with coffee (400-600 calories, first thing)
- Cereal/Breakfast (600-700 calories)
- On-trail snacks (200-500 calories)
- Lunch (600-700 calories)
- On-trail snacks (200-500 calories)
- Afternoon smoothie (500-700 calories)
- Dinner (600-800 calories)
- Dessert (200-500 calories)
The biggest changes I made are the addition of the meal replacement drink in the morning, the smoothie in the afternoon and the addition of a dessert after dinner. Things I’ve removed are electrolyte tablets and broth in the evenings. I’ve tested this out on a few trips so far and the liquid nutrition in particular has been working really well for me, giving me the energy I need at times of day when I don’t want a heavy or time consuming meal. For the lightweight backpackers out there, on my most recent hike, I was carrying about 4,000 calories per day and my food weight was about 1.8lbs/day (including the weight of my food bag).
Some of the strategies I mentioned and recipes I’m using come from an awesome backpacking dietitian. Check it out if you’re interested:
I’m excited to see how this works out for our long-hike this summer!
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