I hiked every day for a month and this is what happened
As I've mentioned in previous posts, this summer has been CRAZY. We've been hopping from weddings to baby showers to family get-togethers all over the country, and I've done a poor job keep up a regular fitness schedule. As our weekends started to free up, and my annual August backpacking trip loomed, I realized I needed to restore my routine of daily workouts in order to get back in shape. Despite my best intentions, a grueling work and freelance schedule left me worn out in the evenings and struggling to get out the door in the morning. I decided that, while I might not come home from work with the energy to do a HIIT workout, or wake up ready to set a PR on a morning run, I COULD get out and walk.
Hiking is a wonderfully restorative, low intensity workout that can be modified to be more or less strenuous based on trail choice, speed, and weight carried. It was the perfect way to get my groove back. Inspired by this Backpacker Magazine article, I endeavored to hike at least 3 miles at over 750' elevation gain per day, every day, for 30 days.
Here's what I learned along the way:
1. I felt more well-rested even though I was sleeping for fewer hours
It's a vicious cycle. When I don't work out, I get anxious, I don't sleep well, and then I'm exhausted the next day. When I am exhausted all day, I don't work out when I get home, fall asleep anxious, and the cycle repeats. When I started hiking in the evenings after work, I could feel my stress melt away and the cardio workout ensured that by the time I crawled into bed at night I knew I'd sleep well. I'd wake up sore, but well-rested. My increased energy made it much easier to wake up in the morning to hike, which left me invigorated for the upcoming day.
2. I had better focus
When I don't get outdoors regularly, I'm known to sit at my desk staring out my office window at the mountains on the horizon. Once I started hiking daily, the memory of my morning hike or knowledge that an evening one was only a few hours away reassured me enough to remove the anxiety that being tied to a desk usually causes. I found that I was able to intensely focus on my work during the day, and the let it all go when I hit the trail in the evening. Additionally, the exercise helped to invigorate me in the morning or melt away my after-work stress, leaving my downtime to be much more pleasant and productive, too.
3. I ate better
When I did a morning hike, I found that, while my appetite definitely increased, my cravings for heavy foods throughout the day actually did the opposite. A good, pulse-pounding hike in the morning left me feeling clean and refreshed and resulted in healthier food choices throughout the whole day.
Conversely, when I hiked after work, I needed to watch what I ate throughout the day because, as I found out, hiking after a day of junk food and ice cream is doable, but unpleasant. While the low impact nature of hiking allowed me to keep my routine even after days of indulging in pizza at the office or a beer during happy hour, I was definitely much happier keeping it lean and turning on the hustle.
4. I became more "regular"
With my improved eating habits and increased physical activity came improved bowel health. While I usually struggle with bloating and IBS, the healthy lifestyle choices that were a byproduct of my daily hiking routine definitely mitigated those symptoms and got my gut into a routine as well.
5. I lost 5 lbs
While I didn't expect to lose weight doing this (it IS a fairly low intensity workout at relatively low mileage) I kinda hoped I would. I'd allowed myself to get doughy during the winter and craved a leaner physique. While a lot of my hikes included pretty steep elevation gain (which burns more calories), I think it was the simple act of making sure I was doing a cardio activity of >30 min every day for 30 days that did the trick. By setting a workout routine that was easy for me to stick to (what's easier than walking?) I removed excuses from the equation and ensured that I'd stick to the routine. Repetition produces results!
6. I got stronger and faster
While not every hike was a PR, I was able to track notable improvement in my pace over the course of the month. I also noticed improvement in my cardio endurance during the occasional circuit training workout or run that I sprinkled in. Unlike the nebulous results that I observe when I work out sporadically, my daily hikes produced tangible, notable results, and that felt good. In fact...
7. I started craving running
Formerly an enthusiastic runner, it's taken me awhile to get into the stride this summer. For whatever reason (probably the lack of running regimen), I have been struggling more, feeling worse, and as a result, doing it less. When I forced myself to hike every day, though, instead of coming home and jumping into chores or lounging on the couch, I began to notice that within the first half mile or so, I felt awesome and started to crave more challenge. Most days my hike turned into a trail run, and by the end of the month, I'd regained my stride and was ready to jump back into my regular running routine.
8. I started craving other exercise
The more I moved, the more I wanted to move. If I hiked in the morning before work, I was ready for a run by lunch, or a HIIT circuit after work. I wanted to keep those endorphins pumping and amplify the effects of my workouts as much as possible. I had to make sure to give myself rest days, of course, but two-a-days became a great way to increase my mileage while prepping for the prolonged quantity of activity I'll experience when I am backpacking.
9. I developed an easy routine
The hardest part about getting in shape is sticking with it. We have all started a diet or workout regimen that we quit before the end because it was inconvenient or didn't fit with our schedule. Because I knew that my summer schedule would be strenuous and I'd probably be too tired to rally for a high intensity workout, I made sure to pick something whose intensity I could customize based on my energy level. On days when I had it in me, I went balls to the wall, ran the whole route, and set PRs. On days when I'd have normally just collapsed on the couch, I popped in my ear buds, turned on the Daily Show, and dragged my butt over Hogsback Ridge, the 3 mile loop with 750' of gain. Although those days didn't yield as much cardio or calorie burn as the running days, they ensured that I kept my routine despite my fatigue, and that enabled me to stick with it on days when prevously I probably would have quit.
10. I realized I didn't need to hike EVERY DAY
Because of the aforementioned traveling and hectic schedules, it was impossible for me to hike literally EVERY DAY, try as I might. But what I realized, when daily hikes were the goal my routine was structured around, was that since my entire week was geared toward letting me hike every day, missing a day for a wedding or travel or a late night at work wasn't going to uproot my routine as long as I jumped back on the train the next day. I felt some guilt, sure, but none of the anxiety that accompanies missed workouts when I don't have a routine of guaranteed daily activity. I found that when I gave myself the permission to get out every day, I didn't actually need to in order to reap the rewards. Although I missed as much as a day a week, I still easily hit my mileage goals.