The holidays are over and winter is in full swing. I feel sluggish and tired, but spring is taunting and I know when it hits I will want to be ready to hit the trails. I know I need to just get out and exercise more, but what else can I do to repair my body so I’m ready to go?
I know there are all kinds of cleanses but how do I decide which one and how do I know which supplements are just sawdust in a gelatin capsule? I don’t regret my choices. I had a great holiday season, but I know I’m a wee bit depleted.
Thanks for all your wisdom…hope to see you in the colon cleanse aisle at Whole Foods.
Great question, Buckles, and good for you for getting a jump start on a healthy hiking season. This is a great time to repair your body so you’re fully prepared when spring rolls around!
Safely Incorporate More Movement
Like you mentioned, getting back to regular movement is a great start. If you’ve been inactive for the winter, remember to start low and go slow with building up. This will help you avoid injuries that could derail your hiking season.
Focus on Whole Foods
The place to start with repairing your body from holiday overindulgence is getting back to a primarily whole foods diet. As a reminder, whole foods are things that don’t have an ingredient label, such as broccoli, fish, apple, etc.
Rest & Repair the Body with a “Cleanse”
A “cleanse” can be a good reset for the body and helps some people to make a clear transition in their minds into a new phase where they’re prioritizing healthy habits. The basic idea is remove inflammatory foods so your body has a chance to divert resources to repairing your body. Reducing inflammatory foods is also fantastic for supporting a healthy microbiome, which is imperative for nutrient absorption and assimilation.
If you’re looking for a place to start, I’d suggest trying the AIP protocol or Whole30. These involve removing inflammatory foods, like alcohol, sugar, dairy, and grains for 30 days. If you really want to go for it, there are many benefits to fasting. To avoid having a really hard time, messing up your metabolism, and/or losing muscles, it’s imperative to choose the right type of fast for your body and to approach it in a smart way. This is particularly important if you have hormonal imbalances or adrenal issues. Read this post, do your research, and consider working with a practitioner who can safely guide you.
Keep in mind, the focus of these cleanses is not restriction and rapid weight loss (though weight loss may occur). It’s about giving the body a reprieve from incoming stressors and allowing it to be repaired. But, you don’t have to be extreme, and actually I’d suggest you don’t because those approaches generally aren’t sustainable.
Repair with the Right Supplements
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to get on a high quality multivitamin or greens power for a month or so to top off vitamin and mineral stores that have been depleted by overconsumption of nutrient poor food, stress, alcohol, and lack of sunlight.
To avoid buying sawdust (or worse), I’d suggest going through a practitioner or online dispensary rather than purchasing the cheapest thing you find on Google or Amazon. To create a free account and receive 10% off professional grade supplements, you can use my online dispensary here.
Speaking of vitamins, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get on a high quality multi or greens power for a month or so to top of vitamin and mineral stores that have been depleted by over consumption of crappy food, stress, alcohol, and lack of sunlight. It also supports your microbiome which is the foundation of feeling good
Get More Sunlight
Another free tactic I’d highly recommend is that you start getting out in the sun. This will support your circadian rhythm which supports proper hormone production which supports immunity, digestion, and restful sleep. I’d say get out at least 3 times per day- morning, noon, and night-for a minimum of 10 min each time. This will also help with vitamin D synthesis which will help with a lot of things, including the sluggishness. If it’s not possible to get outside for sunlight where you live, consider red light therapy or full spectrum light therapy.
Recover & Repair Recap
So, to recap, whole foods and exercise are the foundation. If you’re called to do a cleanse or fast, do it safely by doing your research first. Top off vitamin stores through a good multi and/or greens power. Support your gut with fermented food and soluble fiber. Finally, get outside for sunlight three times per day.
Do these things and you’ll be ready to crush those miles once spring rolls around.
These tactics (and much more) are exactly what we cover in the online Adventure Ready course, where you learn how to go from winter mode to being completely physically prepared for hiking season. We cover nutrition, creating a training plan, how to optimize your gut health, upgrading your sleep so you perform and recover optimally, and how to manage your stress to keep your hormones functioning at their peak levels.
Fasting has experienced a renaissance of late, and for good reason. When practiced correctly, it confers myriad benefits, enhancing one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health. There are many variations of fasting and it’s important to know how to choose which is best for you.
Most likely you or someone you know has experimented with some form of fasting in recent years. Fasting- the practice of abstaining from food for extended periods of time- has a rich history of use across many cultures. It’s been used therapeutically since at least the 5th century bce when Greek physician Hippocrates recommended it for various ailments. He believed it was the key to allowing the body to heal itself, and once said, “to eat when you are sick, is to feed your sickness.”
Benefits of Fasting
Fasting is a hot area of research and there are many proven benefits to employing some form of fasting on a regular basis. This includes improved body composition (favoring fat burning and muscle preservation), increased energy, appetite regulation, better gut health, improved immune system function, enhanced brain and heart health, longevity and disease protection, and improved willpower. Most of these benefits stem from the process of autophagy, which essentially is the body’s way of taking out the cellular garbage.
There are several different ways to fast. These range from shorter periods of caloric restriction, which is not a true fast, but yields similar benefits, to a multi-day water fast, which can be quite healing, but is also fairly stressful on the body.
Consider the following options:
Intermittent fasting: daily fasts between 12 and 18 hours
24-hour fasts: one or two 24-hour water only fasts per week
Alternate day fasting: water only or one meal per day, every other day
Bone broth fasting: bone broth only for multiple days
Caloric restriction: five consecutive days of 500-800 calories
Multi-day water fasts: water only, usually for 3-7 days
How to Choose the Best Option for You
Keep in mind that fasting is not for everyone, and more is not always better. Furthermore, there’s no one-size-fits-all protocol. Your gender, your health history, and your goals all come into play.
Although water only and multi-day fasts can be a powerful healing tool, they can also be quite taxing on a body that is already stressed, sick, or very active. If you have poor health, hormone imbalances (especially thyroid), or adrenal issues, consider a shorter fast or fasting less often. Keep in mind that research has shown that most of the major metabolic benefits can be achieved after as little as 12 hours of fasting.
Gender is also a consideration. Women’s hormones tend to be more sensitive to fasting than men’s, so women should be a bit more cautious. For instance, females might start with shorter intermittent fasts, and gradually build up before moving on to longer fasts, such as a 24-hour fast. Pay attention to how your body reacts and do not over-stress your system.
It’s recommended that you check with your doctor before undertaking any form of fasting. It can also be helpful to work with a knowledgeable practitioner to tailor a fast to your current health status and activity level.
Fasting is an accessible and free tool that can have powerful impacts in your quest to live a long and healthy life. Choose the option that’s right for you and begin your journey on the path to enhanced vitality!
This article was originally published in Wishgarden Herbs.
Interested in more strategies to keep you at the top of your wellness game all year round? Download your free wellness guide to increase your energy, optimize body composition, and keep sharpen your mental health.
An ACE certified personal trainer with over 30,000 backpacking miles, Heather became the first female triple triple crowner and the first female calendar year triple crowner when she hiked the AT, the PCT, and the CDT in one March-November season in 2018. She holds the overall self supported FKT on the PCT and the female FKT on the AT and AZT. She is also an ultra marathoner, peak bagger, and mountaineer working on several ascent lists in the US and abroad. Heather is a speaker, and is author of the book Thirst, which chronicles her PCT record.
It’s that time of year again…where we start reflecting on the past 365 days and making resolutions for the next 365 days. So many of our determinations revolve around health and exercise; including those who plan to do a long-distance backpacking trip as their New Year’s Resolution. But why do we spend so much time resolving to do better in the arena of wellness and often times not end up following through?
I think so often our goals are unreasonable. We want to
attain perfection without the work. Or, don’t fully understand the commitment
to lifestyle and mindset change that is not temporary. These, along with our deep-seated
dissatisfactions with our own selves, are fuel for the “failure fire.” I could
write volumes about this, but for this blog I’m going to focus on a few points
especially with regard to preparation for a big, physical goal (like a race or long-distance
hike) since that’s my specialty as a personal trainer.
First of all, I’ll start with the essential (and shockingly, often not obvious) truth that you need to know and accept: You are capable.
You are capable of achieving your goals. It might take you a
longer time or more work than someone else, but you are capable of effecting
great change, massive health improvements and finding yourself able to complete
things you couldn’t previously. The key is to believe in your ability to
Secondly: Set stepping stone goals.
I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years and the number one reason people drop out of a program is because they’re not seeing the results they expected right away. The truth is you won’t see the end result without long-term work. It’s great to have a big, audacious goal. But once you have it, break down the steps you’ll need to get from where you are to that goal and focus on building from one sub-goal to the next. You’ll stay motivated in your training when you’re seeing the results you expect as you reach each subsidiary benchmark.
Take a cue from long distance hiking: when you start the Appalachian Trail, you’re going to get demoralized thinking about walking 2,193 miles. Or even across 14 states. Think instead about hiking to your campsite each day, or to the next town. These short term, attainable goals feed that sense of accomplishment you need to keep going. One by one, all these mini-goals stack up to make a whole thru-hike. In the same way, looking at your long term goal through the lens of all the mini-goals that make it up and you’ll find a string of successes that builds upon itself.
Third: Realize this is a commitment to life-change, not just
means to an end.
It’s fine to make a dietary or physical activity change for
short term goals, if that’s what you want. But realize that if you’re serious
about becoming healthier, preparing your body to age well, or prepping for a long-term
physical goal it will require life change. You’ll be undoing ingrained habits
and replacing them with new ones. Chances are you’ll have to start with concreting
foundational changes that may seem imperceptible into your routine before
moving on. That’s why the first two steps I listed are so crucial. If you set
unrealistic goals, or go too hard too soon you’ll burn out. Think of the
changes you’re aiming for as a journey, not a destination. Just like you can’t
get from Springer Mountain, Georgia (the southern terminus of the Appalachian
Trail) to Mount Katahdin, Maine (the northern terminus) in 10 days on foot, you
can’t completely overhaul your wellness and exercise habits in a day either.
If you’re looking to make the changes necessary to really prepare you for long term success remember to take it one piece at a time. Set your intention not just for the New Year, but for your life. Begin making changes and focus on cementing one solidly in your foundation before moving on to the next. Start with the goal of 20 minutes of exercise every day. Once you’re successfully doing that without missing days you’re ready to take the next step…toward whatever your long-term goals are. If they include preparing to complete a thru-hike you might consider the Adventure Ready online course that Katie Gerber and I have collaborated on.
To stay in the loop for the next enrollment period for Adventure Ready, and to get on the VIP list for early bird promotions, join the email list here (plus get a free winter wellness guide!).
When it comes to making progress in anything, being consistent is key. As I often talk about with clients, it’s not one meal, or even one day, of poor choices that ruins your progress. It’s what you do day in and day out, over time.
Staying consistent is something that most of us struggle with at some point, especially when we’re first implementing new habits. Maybe it’s staying consistent with your 5am workouts or sticking with your keto (or paleo or vegan or whole foods or…) eating plan. Or maybe you want to meditate daily or stop drinking sugary beverages.
Your start with good intentions. You’re so dedicated to sticking with your goal that you can’t imagine how anything could possibly get in your way. And then the dog pukes on the carpet right when you’re headed to spin class or you didn’t have time to hit the grocery store and now you don’t have healthy snacks on hand.
Suddenly, all bets are off. Your good intentions fall by the wayside and you end the day feeling defeated. You vow to try again tomorrow. Or, worse, you let the failure feeling spiral into the F-it mentality. I ate one slice of cake, so now I may as well eat 4. Sound familiar?
Progress, Not Perfection
Implementing and sticking to your well-intentioned plan can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are a few tools you can use to set yourself up for a greater likelihood of success. We’ll cover that in a moment. But first, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be perfect in your habits to make progress towards your goal.
In fact, I recently read an article where the authors analyzed over 1000 nutrition clients to assess how consistent you need to be to see body transformations over the course of a year. It turns out that you don’t need 100% consistency to see results. Even a little bit (10-49%) of consistency in your health habits resulted in an average of 11 pounds lost and a 5-6% reduction in body fat. Of course, more consistency led to greater results, but the point is that you can let go of the idea that you need to be perfect to see results. You can miss your health habit half of the time and still see progress. Whew, what a relief!
When habits are in place, we no longer rely on willpower to do what we know we ‘should’ do. Once we’ve put in the effort to establish the habit, it more or less keeps going on auto-pilot, and we can direct that precious energy elsewhere.
When it comes to creating habits, and being consistent, here are 7 tools to set you up for success.
Know Your WHY
This seems obvious, but it’s so often overlooked. It’s truly the foundation for everything. When you know your WHY, you’re more motivated, and the obstacles which will inevitably arise, are easier to overcome.
Take 3 minutes, get quiet, and understand your true motivation for wanting to implement a certain new habit. Allow the truth to come up without judgment. Do you want to be healthy so you can play with your kids? Do you want to lose 10 pounds so you look better naked? Do you want to journal everyday because it helps you be a better spouse? Whatever it is, write it in a note on your phone and revisit it often. Daily is ideal. Stay very connected to your WHY.
Baby steps. Don’t overhaul your entire life and attempt to change all your habits at once. Let’s call this the New Year’s Eve effect. We all know that person who is a sedentary junk food eater and decides to quit smoking, go vegan, and start working out daily all within the first week of January. What happens? By January 7, they’re back to their old habits, feeling like a failure.
Sustainable change and new habits happen one building block at a time. Focus on one new habit for at least 2 weeks before moving on to the next. If this habit is a particularly big change, give it your mono-focus for longer. Additionally, if your desired outcome is a big leap from where you are now, create ‘stepping stone’ goals. These should be ridiculously easy to achieve. So easy that failure is impossible. This prevents overwhelm and creates positive momentum.
Do the Hard Things First
Prioritizing your challenging tasks is especially important when building in new habits. Implementing new behaviors requires energy input, which is often higher at the beginning of the day. Furthermore, when it comes to something like working out, it’s often easier to fit it in first thing in the morning, before the chance arises for something to throw our well-meaning plan off course (i.e. an unscheduled meeting, an unexpected phone call, an appointment that runs long, etc.).
Set Yourself Up for Success
Remove as much thought and effort from the process as possible. For example, when it comes to maintaining healthy eating habits, try meal prepping, a home delivery service, or keeping the pantry stocked with staples for quick healthy meals. This way, you don’t end up making poor choices because you got home late and didn’t have the time or energy to make something healthy. Likewise, say your goal is to go for a 30 minute walk every morning. Set your outfit out the night before, prep your coffee or breakfast in advance, and set your shoes by the door.
Essentially, do whatever you can to make it easy to follow through with your desired habit.
This is more important for some people than for others, so it’s helpful to know yourself. If you know that you do better when someone is counting on you to show up, then create accountability around your desired habit.
This might be connecting with a workout buddy or a trainer who meets you at the gym 4 days per week. Or perhaps this looks like you announcing your goal to a supportive group that can hold you accountable. Or if you’re really committed, you enlist the help of a coach who helps you clearly define your goals and then keeps you on track towards reaching them.
Track Your Progress
In the same vein as creating accountability, tracking your progress can be a powerful way to build momentum. You could use a basic wall calendar where you mark each day with an “X” when you perform your habit. Put the calendar where you will see it daily and never let two days in a row go by where you don’t have an “X” on your calendar.
When I work with clients, we use a simple spreadsheet to track consistency. We both have access to the spreadsheet and I review it regularly, which also leverages the accountability principle.
Identify Potential Obstacles & Develop a Plan (ie. Worse Case Scenario Thinking)
It’s so much easier to make the ‘right choice’ when we envision in advance what might go wrong and how we’ll handle it. I do this all the time in the wilderness. What would I do if a bear ate all my food tonight? What would I do if I encounter a creep while I’m out here alone? What would I do if I got bitten by a venomous snake while I’m hiking alone? I run through all these ‘worse case scenarios’ and decide how I would proceed. That way, should any of these events occur, I’m not caught off guard. I don’t have to think through how I’ll proceed in the moment. I already know.
You can leverage this same principle with developing habits and staying consistent. For one week, pay attention to the times that you don’t follow through with your desired habit. What are the circumstances when this happens? What is your ‘excuse’? No time? No healthy food on hand? It was raining so you couldn’t go out for a walk?
What are all the ways that you currently throw you off or that could potentially throw you off? Write them down. Now, go back down the list and decide what you could do in advance to prevent that from happening or to handle the event so you could still accomplish your habit.
Perhaps the solution is to schedule 2 hours of meal prep every Sunday evening so you’re set up for healthy eating all week. Perhaps you hire a trainer for a month so you learn the ropes at the gym and feel confident with your workouts.
Identifying our obstacles in advance helps us to make the right choice when/if we do bump up against an obstacle that threatens to derail our plan. When we’ve made the decision ahead of time, we tend to follow through more in the moment.
“Fall seven times and stand up eight” -Japanese Proverb
Remember, progress, not perfection. If you’re reading this, it’s quite possible you’re am ambitious, type A, overachiever. You’re likely used to doing well at things and you may even have the habit of beating yourself up when you ‘fail’. Hey, I get it.
But, please, don’t waste your precious life energy doing that. If you fall off the wagon, pick yourself back up and start over. That’s it. We’re all human. We all mess up. Use that energy that you would’ve put towards self-flagellation and redirect it towards getting back on track.
If this information was helpful to you, consider enrolling in our online course Adventure Ready. It’s designed to up-level every area of your health from body composition to gut health to fitness so that you can get out on your dream adventure feeling your best.
In addition to the steps I took to prepare my body for this hike (which I detail here), I credit this supplement protocol with keeping me strong, healthy, and energized for 3 months of 30+ mile days. Here’s the exact stack of supplements I used for my sub-100 day CDT hike.
Why I Use Supplements
Generally speaking, I prefer to meet nutritional needs through a diet centered around whole foods. However, due to our depleted soils, our compromised food system, and our chronically stressed lives, whole foods are not always enough. Furthermore, strenuous exercise, like backpacking all day, increases the body’s needs for high quality nutrients. The lack of access to fresh food on trail adds another challenge. even when not on trail.
For these reasons, carrying a few thoughtfully chosen supplements on my backpacking trips is worth the extra weight and expense to me. Supplementing gives me more energy, improves my stamina, and boosts my immune system (which keeps illness and injury at bay). I go much deeper into the how and why of supplementing on trail in this post.
Supplements I Carried on my CDT Hike
I’m stubbornly minimalist on trail. To a fault, I’d say. But it is what it is. The point is that this list is significantly pared down from what I might take at home.
Additionally, what I carry may not be what you carry, if you choose to take supplements at all. Because our bodies are all different and have different needs.
This list is not intended to be a recommendation. It’s provided for informational purposes only. It’s also important to note that I didn’t take these every single day. I took them probably about 80% of the time.
Because I like to eat what I like to eat on trail (which I’ve explained extensively here, here, and here), I like to send resupply boxes. The way I handle supplements is that first I choose shelf-stable ones (most are, but pay attention with probiotics and fish oil). Then I look at my resupply sheet (like this one) and I divvy them up into small plastic baggies with the number of pills per baggie corresponding to the number of days of food in that box. For example, if I’m creating a bag for a 4-day stretch of trail, I put 4 of each pill into the baggie. Then I drop the bag into the box. It’s that simple.
I don’t worry about supplements in the resupply stops where I don’t have a resupply box. The idea is to get them into my body often enough to boost my health significantly, but not to be overly strict about it.
I generally took my supplements with a morning meal or snack, except where otherwise noted.
These supplements went into every box:
Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, is an adaptogen herb. That means it helps regulate the body’s stress response. The root and berry of this plant are used to make tinctures and capsules. It’s anti inflammatory, immune boosting, balances blood sugar, reduces cortisol, regulates the HPA axis, and may reduce stress/anxiety/depression. I find it most effective when taken daily for months at a time.
Astaxanthin is a reddish pigment that belongs to a group of chemicals called carotenoids. It occurs naturally in certain algae and causes the pink or red color in salmon, trout, lobster, shrimp, and other seafood. In addition to improving heart health, preventing diabetes, and decreasing the risk of brain damage from stroke, it’s a powerful anti-inflammatory agent.
Those are all great benefits, but the real reason I carry it on a long hike is that it serves as ‘internal sunscreen’ by protecting the skin from damage caused by UV (ultra-violet) exposure. On my entire CDT hike, I wore sunscreen less than a dozen times, and only on my face. I never got burnt anywhere besides my nose all summer.
Probiotics have a host of benefits, including boosting the immune system, supporting brain function, and enhancing mineral absorption. These healthy gut bacteria can even contribute to hormone balance and the production of certain neurotransmitters. There are many types of probiotic supplements to choose from. When I’m backpacking, I choose a spore-based probiotic because it’s more shelf-stable than other varieties.
Additionally, certain spore-based probiotics have been shown to heal leaky gut by closing tight junctions between colonocytes, increasing the thickness of intestinal mucosa, and up-regulating secretory IgA levels that support the body’s natural defense against infections. This is important for hikers who are likely consuming little to no probiotic-rich foods, and are eating a less-than-ideal diet.
Turmeric, Curcuma longa, is a root from the ginger family which is known for its bright orange color and it’s role in Indian cuisine.
It’s also one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant herbs available. It aids in the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia. It may also help in the management of exercise-induced inflammation and muscle soreness, thus enhancing recovery and performance in active people. It’s a must have in my book, on trail and off.
Adenosyl/Hydroxy B12 is a vitamin B12 blend formulated for nerve and mitochondrial support. Adenosyl/Hydroxy B12 helps support carbohydrate metabolism for the enzyme methylmalonyl-CoA as well as the synthesis of neuronal myelin.
I carried this one because pre-trail blood work indicated that I was low. Speaking of which, having blood work done is a good idea before you start guzzling supplements willy-nilly. You can order your own online, but it’s a good idea to work with a practitioner. These are real compounds with real effects in the body.
A high quality multi serves as nutritional insurance for me. This is particularly important because of the lack of fresh foods in my diet (which is where we get many of our vitamins and minerals).
The micronutrients found in a good multivitamin play an important role in energy production, hemoglobin synthesis, maintenance of bone health, adequate immune function, and protection of body against oxidative damage. Additionally, they assist with synthesis and repair of muscle tissue. Exercise tends to deplete our vitamin stores more quickly. Therefore, I like to cover my bases with a high quality supplement.
Colostrum is the first form of milk produced by mammals immediately after giving birth. It’s rich in antibodies and helps the body build a strong immune system. It also rebuilds gut health and can aid in recovery.
My favorite brand is Surthrival. It’s a powder that you dissolve in your mouth. I didn’t take it daily, but I included it in at least ⅔ of my resupply boxes. I’ve found it crucial in keeping my gut healthy and my autoimmune symptoms at bay. It’s best taken on an empty stomach.
I often took a magnesium powder dissolved in a small amount of liquid before bed. The purpose was to relax my muscles, aid in muscle recovery, and to promote sound sleep. I use this off trail as well. This is the powder I use.
Let Food Be Thy Medicine
In addition to the above protocol, I also hid extra nutrition and superfoods into my resupply box where I could. This was particularly true in my smoothie, which I had almost every single morning on trail.
It includes a greens powder, coconut milk powder, collagen peptides, chia seeds, cordyceps mushroom powder, ground cinnamon powder, ground ginger powder, and sea salt. For the full recipe and why this is such a powerful, blood-sugar balancing way to start the day, read more here.
There you have it. This is exactly how I complimented my healthy eating plan for more energy, immunity, and endurance on my sub-100 day CDT hike. For more resources on how to build strength, health, and resilience before your next adventure, see our online course Adventure Ready.
How I prepared for a sub-100 day thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail
Let’s get something out of the way right up front: this post is not about the newest “biohacks”. Rather, it’s about the “basics” and how to build a strong foundation. These are the strategies that, if applied consistently, will give you the health you need to take on any adventure (chronic illness or not).
At least that’s been the case for me. I’m all for tactics, such as intermittent fasting, cold thermogenesis, infrared sauna, ketosis, etc., but if you haven’t mastered the basics, don’t waste your time or money on the other stuff.
By focusing on the concepts outlined below, I’ve become a stronger backpacker than ever before.
My outlook after I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s and adrenal fatigue was bleak. I’d built my identity as a long distance runner and backpacker. My self worth directly correlated to the number of miles I ran or hiked each day.
I felt disconnected from my life and my body. Extreme fatigue had become the norm. My hair was falling out in clumps. I was gaining weight with no change in diet or exercise. I was depressed and listless.
On top of the physical and mental symptoms from my illness, I was grappling with losing my identity as a ‘young, fit, endurance athlete’. I was running 10 miles daily and had been a vegetarian for over 15 years. I believed I was the definition of health. I knew it was a waste of mental energy, but I couldn’t help but fall into the ‘why me?’ mindset.
To make a long story short(er), I tried every trick in the book to get my health back: different diets, supplements, exercise routines, and protocols. My healing journey felt like I was taking two steps forward and one back. My progression towards wellness was far from linear, but there was indeed progress, even if it was subtle. Slowly I found my way out.
I’m not fully healed, but I’m strong enough to do what I love again: walk and run long distances in the wilderness.
Fast Forward to 2019
I’d been dreaming of this hike since before I got “sick”. Most thru-hikers complete the CDT in 4-5 months. My goal was to complete a sub-100 day hike. I needed to know that all the work I’d done on my health was worth it. My goal was to not just get out there, but to truly crush it.
I wasn’t trying to be that ‘young, fit, endurance athlete with flawless health’. Rather, I wanted to demonstrate that with a commitment to true self care, that I could hike as well or better than I had pre-illness. In turn, I hoped it would serve as inspiration for anyone else struggling with their health; those who felt like their adventure dreams were out of their reach.
But first, I needed evidence that these strategies worked. I didn’t talk about my goal much before my hike because, honestly, I didn’t know how it’d go.
I completed the 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) in the fall of 2018 and felt great, but my pace wasn’t as aggressive as what I had planned for the CDT. Holding it together for 1 month on the ODT was one thing; holding it together for almost 3 ½ months on the CDT was quite another. Did I really have the health to do this when the memories of not even being healthy enough to run a few miles were still fresh in my mind?
Thru-hiking is for EVERYONE (if you’re willing to put in the work)
Good health and fitness don’t just come naturally to me. I work for it. It’s a commitment and a priority. I work to be at my healthiest because it’s imperative for engaging in what is most important to me (getting outside) and for living fully.
There’s a stereotypical image of what a ‘thru-hiker’ looks like: mid-20’s, fit, white male (with long beard and short shorts). That’s not me. But I’m just as competent of a hiker.
I say that not out of hubris, but simply to remind you that there’s a place at the table for everyone. I also don’t mean to imply that competition, or a certain speed, or high mileage days, “should” be the goal. That was my goal because it was a proxy of health for me. And because I like to push my physical limits. It’s how I connect with the wild, externally and internally.
Adventure Ready is on online course designed to help you optimize your physical health so you can take on your next adventure with confidence. You’ll learn to master your mindset, find the ideal diet for YOUR body, develop a training plan that won’t result in overuse injuries, increase your energy, and much more!
Here’s how I built good health and prepared my body to perform optimally on a 3000 mile hike. These strategies will work, whether you have a chronic illness or if you’re just looking to be at your healthiest so you can get into the outdoors with confidence.
Master Your Mindset
First things first. It starts with what goes on in your mind. This applies when it comes to adventures, but in truth, it matters for anything in life.
I learned this lesson very clearly while hiking on the Appalachian Trail in 2009. I joined a friend for the start of his thru-hike, thinking I might thru-hike too, if it worked out. Nope. This is the wrong mindset with which to embark on any epic undertaking; particularly one which will require you to overcome challenges. When my off-trail life went haywire, I left the trail. I don’t regret the decision, but the point is that I hadn’t fully committed to thru-hiking. If I had, I would’ve found any way possible to make it work. Any obstacle can be overcome if you’ve committed and you know your desired outcome very clearly.
Action: Before your next adventure, write down your desired outcome and include 1-2 sentences about WHY you’re taking it on.
Dial in Your Perfect Diet
Pushing your body to the limits and maintaining the energy for 35+ mile days is much easier when you’re eating the right diet. I don’t suggest that there’s one single best diet for everyone, but you do need to figure out what works for your body. This is true for everyone, but it’s especially important with a chronic illness because the ‘wrong diet’ for your body could lead to a lot of inflammation.
For the endurance athlete, inflammation can impact performance and compromise immunity. The physical strain of hiking long days is already creating some degree of inflammation in the body, so limiting excess inflammation coming from other sources is important.
Perhaps the most underappreciated of the health pillars is sleep. Prioritizing sleep is HUGE. Research shows that “sleep disruption is associated with increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, metabolic effects, changes in circadian rhythms, and proinflammatory responses. In otherwise healthy adults, short-term consequences of sleep disruption include increased stress responsivity, somatic pain, reduced quality of life, emotional distress and mood disorders, and cognitive, memory, and performance deficits.”
Action: Maintain a consistent sleep time. Stay off screens at least an hour before your planned bedtime (blue light disrupts melatonin production). Aim for 7+ hours per night.
Optimize Gut Health
“All disease begins in the gut.” Hippocrates nailed it. Microbiome research is one of the hottest areas of research, with recent findings revealing that gut health has implications in a wide variety of diseases including obesity, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, and cardiovascular disease. For the long distance hiker, good gut health means better immunity, increased absorption of essential nutrients, decreased inflammation, and increased motivation, to name a few of the many benefits.
Action: Include plenty of probiotic-rich fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut, kvass, etc.) in your diet. Feed those probiotics their favorite food: soluble fiber. Think oats, beans, citrus, apples, lentils, and peas. Consider a professional-grade supplement (click here for 10% off).
Stress not only creates hormone disruption and systemic inflammation, it can impact focus, memory, gastrointestinal function, and the cardiovascular system, to name just a few of it’s wide-ranging impacts.
Could this invisible force really be impacting my overall wellness that much? After fixing my diet, my training, my sleep, and my gut health, and still struggling with some lingering symptoms, it was apparent that I needed to address any other factors that could be at play. It’s an ongoing practice, but when I prioritize joy and keep a watchful eye over where stress is seeping into my life, I’m noticeably happier and healthier.
Action: Ask yourself, “What are all the ways, small and large, that stress has seeped into my life? More importantly, what can I do to eliminate or mitigate it?”. Some of the methods that work for me include a morning journaling practice, meditation, running, walking in nature, baths, and calling people I care about.
Train Your Body
This strategy comes last because it matters, absolutely, but if all of the above is not in place, a good physical training plan can only take you so far. I tend to maintain a decent base fitness level year round through hiking, running, HIIT workouts, and yoga. Other than a few longer weekend hikes, I didn’t do too much extra training for the CDT.
Depending on where you’re starting from, everyone’s physical training plan will look slightly different. In general, start low and slow, and build up from there.
Action: Develop an appropriate individualized training plan. To avoid injury, it’s important to assess where you are now and build up fitness gradually. You can work with a trainer or enroll in our Adventure Ready course for guidance on how to assess your current fitness, find potential weak spots, and build a training plan that will get you ready for your hike without injury.
It may be cliche at this point, but it’s been my experience that our greatest struggles turn out to be our greatest lessons. That’s certainly been true for my journey as an endurance athlete with an autoimmune illness. I wouldn’t have asked for it, but it’s caused me to dive deeper than I ever would have otherwise into what it means to create true health and resilience.
We dive much deeper into these topics in Adventure Ready, an online course designed to help you up-level your physical health so you can take on your next adventure with confidence!
Here’s a full 5-day healthy lightweight backpacking meal plan. Healthy and lightweight?? Yep. That’s what I’m all about. Ramen, poptarts, and Snickers? No thanks.
You’ll notice that each day of this meal plan is about 60% fat, 20% protein, and 20% carbohydrate. It’s based around whole foods and is designed to be stoveless (optional) and anti-inflammatory.
This healthy high fat approach helps me reduce pack weight, eliminate bonking, reduce hiker hunger, and decrease digestive issues. If you’re curious about the science and rationale of how I landed on this approach after years of experimentation, check out this post.
You’ll notice that this diet is a bit different than the standard, processed thru-hiker diet. Yup. It’s not perfect, but in general, this meal plan is designed to:
be organic/free-range/grass-fed when possible (so I can avoid the damage of glyphosate on both my body and the environment)
emphasize nutrient density
The following meal plan was pulled straight from my spreadsheet for my Continental Divide Trail resupply plan. As such, it’s based on my calorie needs and food preferences. For an idea of how many calories you need, I recommend starting with a BMR calculator, like this one, and adjusting from there based on activity level.
The 5 days shown here is a box I’m sending around mile 1200, so it’s based on ~2700 calories per day. The total weight for this 5 days of food is 6.77 pounds or about 1.35 pounds of food per day. This is significantly lower than the commonly recommended 2 pounds per day.
I also carry a few key supplements that help me stay healthy and energized on trail. Read the what and why about those here (link coming soon).
I hope this gives you some ideas for your own backpacking meal if you’re looking for something a bit less junk food-y. And yes, it’s somewhat repetitive, but I appreciate the simplicity of that. It makes shopping in bulk easier and I can add variety by rotating through different varieties/flavors. For example, with a trail mix, it might be almonds, coconut flakes, dried cranberries, and ginger powder in one box, then walnut, cacao nibs, banana chips, and cinnamon in the next box.
The chart represents all the food for 5 days and the photos show what each day would look like. Post your Q’s or comments below.
Interested in a mini course that compiles all healthy lightweight eating resources in one spot? Enroll for free here.
Carry a lighter pack, eliminate bonking, free yourself from cravings, reduce hiker hunger, and experience fewer GI issues…. Sound good? Most long distance hikers (or any endurance athlete) would say ‘heck yea’! Well, it’s possible, and it starts with what you’re putting in your food bag. Here’s how I approach eating a healthy lightweight diet on trail.
This post will explain why a healthy high fat diet is ideal for backpacking and how to do it right (i.e. without missing out on essential nutrients and compromising your health).
Personal Backpacking Nutrition Evolution
Over the course of 5000+ miles of backpacking, my nutrition strategy has evolved. Going into the AT in 2009, I had no idea how to eat for backpacking, so I started Googling. Pop-tarts, ramen, and snickers? As a lover of veggies (and feeling good), I knew that approach wasn’t going to work for me. I pieced together as healthy of a diet as I could, but it was still fairly processed and I never really felt great on it.
As a cold-soaking vegetarian on the PCT in 2014, I did a bit better. I’d learned a thing or two, both about health and how to carry that onto the trail. I focused a lot on legumes (dehydrated black beans, refried beans, and hummus), nut butters, tortillas, dried fruit, seeds, nuts, and with a handful of dried kale in my dinners. I felt better than on the AT, but by the end of the trail, my digestive system was…um, ‘off’, to put it nicely. Plus, I had a deep fatigue that had built up by the end of the hike and, it turns out, I was anemic.
So, in prepping for the CDT this year, more has changed. I no longer eat much of the gluten, industrial seed oils, grains, and even legumes that wrecked my gut in the past. I’ve also learned that I feel best when I eat a high fat, lower carbohydrate diet, rather than the traditional ‘endurance diet’ heavy in carbs.
Fortunately, that high fat diet works well for backpacking. More on that in a moment. But it’s important to note that ‘high fat’ can be done in an unhealthy way or in a healthy way. It just takes a bit more knowledge and care to do it right within the constraints inherent to backpacking.
I’ve see distance runners struggle with digestive issues as they refuel on sugary gels every 90 minutes. I’ve seen (and experienced) the bonking. And on this standard high carb, high sugar, highly processed diet, I’ve watched hikers suffer with weaker immune systems, experience insatiable hunger, carry heavier packs than necessary, and even have teeth rot from excess sugar.
And that’s just what I’ve witnessed on trail, let alone, what happens to their mental and physical health once they return home.
There’s a Better Way
That said, the focus of this article is to share why my fueling strategy has evolved to what I call Healthy High Fat. I’ll also cover how to execute that in an easy, effective, and efficient way.
Let’s state up front that what I’m NOT talking about is a zero carb diet and going into nutritional ketosis. There’s a time and place for ketosis as a therapeutic approach, but in general, we need all the macronutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates) to stay healthy and to perform at our best.
What I am suggesting is that there are many benefits to be had by using fat as your primary fuel, especially for endurance athletes, like long distance hikers.
I also want to be clear that this is NOT a diet, per say. Just as focusing on eating whole foods is not a diet (but a lifestyle change rather), eating for better metabolic efficiency is a practice that’s implemented over time for improved health and fitness performance. Unlike a ‘diet’, it’s not something you follow for a few weeks, then return to your former ways.
‘Why bother’, you may be thinking, ‘I like candy bars, bagels, and pasta’. I get it. I like carbs too (hi, my trail name is Salty because I eat all.the.chips.), but I like sustained energy and carrying a lighter pack even more.
Favoring a higher fat/lower carb diet and training your body to burn fat preferentially makes sense for endurance athletes for the following reasons:
*At 9 calories per gram for fat and 4 calories per gram for protein or carbs, fats are more than twice as energy dense per unit of weight than protein or carbs. We need a certain amount of protein each day to prevent muscle wasting and facilitate muscle repair. I usually shoot for about 20% of my total calories. The remaining 80% is made up of either fats or carbs, as these two macronutrients are the primary source of your cellular energy.
*Because fat is more calorically dense, you can carry the same amount of calories for less food weight than you can if you were carrying predominantly carbs.
Sustained Energy (less bonking!)
*Favoring fat over carbs leads to more sustained energy. Here’s why: Consuming carbs causes blood glucose levels to spike which causes the pancreas to release insulin to shuttle glucose into cells, which then causes blood sugar to quickly drop, and you bonk, hit the wall, get cranky or tired, and crave another hit of sugar.
*As described earlier, fat and protein are slower burning fuels than sugar. They are absorbed more slowly and do not cause the same roller-coaster spike and crash of sugar.
*While I do eat slightly more calories on a long hike than in my everyday (significantly more sedentary) life, I generally don’t experience the extreme hiker hunger which my companions describe. I believe the difference is that I eat mostly whole foods as opposed to ultra-processed, low fiber, high sugar foods.
*Studies have indicated a significant decrease in hunger on a high nutrient diet when compared with a low nutrient diet. In an attempt to make up for nutrient deficiencies, the body reaches for more and more food despite consuming sufficient calories. Many hikers report needing 5000-6000 calories per day. I generally feel good, experience sustained energy, and little weight loss at 3000-3500 calories per day, even on a thru-hike. Of course it depends on body size, but I believe a reason many hikers consume so much is because their food choices are low in nutrients and fiber.
Less GI Distress
*Most hikers and long distance runners I know talk a lot about poop and farts. It’s not uncommon for endurance athletes to experience frequent gas, bloating, diarrhea, and nausea. This is especially true during challenging efforts, like a race or a particularly hard day on trail. This makes sense as blood is shunted away from your GI tract to fuel muscles. There is also the mechanical pounding of hiking/running and the production of stress hormones that impair digestion during hard efforts.
*While on the one hand, because fat and protein are slow absorbing fuels, high fat or high protein or large volumes of food in general will impair performance if eaten right before a hard effort. However, during a longer, less intense effort (like hiking at a steady pace all day), fueling on fat can reduce digestive distress because you can eat less frequently, which means less work for your digestive system.
*Excessive sugar can set off an inflammatory cascade that suppresses the immune system. Your body is already under a great deal of physical stress on a long hike. Stressing it out more by forcing it to subsist on fare that is high in sugar and low in stress-fighting nutrients sets you up for issues. It’s not uncommon to see hikers catching colds and experiencing injury more often on trail. This may be due to weakened immunity.
*The reduction in systemic inflammation that can result from eating less processed foods, and focusing instead on balancing blood sugar, is the main driver of my interest in high fat/lower carb eating. I balance blood sugar by focusing on plenty of fiber, fat, and protein in each meal or snack. Due to my history with autoimmune thyroid issues, reducing inflammation is critical, especially on trail.
Fat is Ideal for Low to Moderate Efforts
*Fat is an ideal fuel for low to moderate efforts, like hiking all day. When you train at a low intensity, you keep your heart rate lower, in the aerobic zone, where fat is used as the primary fuel. The more you train at low intensities, the more efficient your body becomes at converting fat to fuel. This article and this article explain this concept well, as does Mark Sisson’s Primal Endurance.
*On the other hand, all-out efforts (like sprints) are a more glycogen-dependent activity. This is where carbs can come in handy. It’s why I often eat a bit more carbs when I have a big climb ahead of me and need quick-burning fuel for my muscles. Essentially, I try to use carbs strategically.
Understanding Metabolic Efficiency
What this all comes down to is increasing metabolic efficiency (ME). ME refers to how efficiently the body uses its internal stores of fats and carbohydrates. The goal of ME training is to improve health and performance. This concept was established by Sports Dietician Bob Seehobar. Find the details here.
Through ME training, the body can be taught to favor burning fat over carbs. Increasing ME speaks to your ability to burn more fat versus carbs at the same intensity. As mentioned, the average person has approximately 1,400 – 2,000 calories worth of carbohydrate stored in their body and 50,000 – 80,000 calories stored as fat. Training your body to burn more fat spares it’s limited glycogen (carbohydrate) stores.
According to Seehobar’s website, the benefits of improved metabolic efficiency include 1) decreased body weight, 2) decreased body fat, 3) improved and sustained energy levels and mental alertness throughout the day, 4) improved recovery, 5) improved cognitive function, 6) improved power to weight ratio, 7) improved running velocity, and 8) better sleep.
ME can be tested through a machine that measures the oxygen you inhale and the carbon dioxide that you exhale while exercising on a treadmill or cycling ergometer. By plugging these numbers into an algorithm, one can determine the amount of carbs versus fat they burn at any given intensity.
Generally, as you increase the intensity you shift from burning more fat and less carbs to burning more carbs and less fat. For an example of what this looks like, check out this post by the highly accomplished long distance backpacker and runner Andrew Skurka.
While there is a genetic component to how good of a ‘fat-burner’ you are, it’s something that’s highly trainable.
According to Seehobar, “The majority of improving metabolic efficiency lies in daily nutrition changes and the ability to control and optimize blood sugar through eating proper amounts of protein, fat, and fiber, while accounting for the proper nutrition periodization to support athletes in different training cycles.”
Optimizing blood sugar, or glycemic variability, is something I talk about a lot. It refers to how much our blood sugar shifts throughout the day. According to health guru, endurance athlete, and personal trainer Ben Greenfield, “when it comes to your health, (glycemic variability) is, in my opinion, a more important variable to consider than cholesterol, vitamin D, minerals, telomere length, cortisol, testosterone or just about any biomarker one could ever measure (except, perhaps, inflammation, which I would rank right up there with glycemic variability).”
Reducing glycemic variability is critical to the overall picture of health, including reducing risk for metabolic syndrome, which predisposes you to stroke, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and other chronic health conditions.
As Seehobar states, the key to optimizing blood sugar is to include protein, fat, and fiber with everything you eat. Reducing the overall amount of carbs consumed is also essential, as when you limit incoming glucose, your body will rely on stored body fat for energy.
As mentioned, you don’t need to go extremely low in carbs to see benefits, and in fact, too little carbs can cause issues, such as hypothyroidism. Further, extreme restriction can lead to binge and purge cycles.
It’s difficult to give a blanket recommendation as everyone’s carb requirements are different due to gender, fitness level, body size, and metabolic history. Essentially, consuming carbs (or even too much protein) tells your body to release insulin. Insulin shuts down fat burning in favor of carb metabolism.
How to Do High Fat Healthy
So, fill up on pork rinds and other highly processed fatty junk food? Nope. Sorry. That’s where most folks miss seeing the whole message, and that approach will only lead you down the path of chronic health conditions like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
As I mentioned, there is a healthy way and an unhealthy way to do high fat. My approach is about HEALTHY High Fat. That means we focus on high fat, moderate protein, and lower carb, all while prioritizing nutrient density.
What does this actually look like in practice? That’s what we’ll cover in part 2.
Interested in a mini course that compiles all healthy lightweight eating resources in one spot? Enroll for free here.
This post was originally written for Wishgarden Herbs.
How do you prepare for a 3000-mile hike? It’s a monstrous endeavor, indeed, and after nearly 5000 miles of backpacking, I’ve learned that as much goes into the preparation as the execution.
The scope of my upcoming adventure is to hike the length of the continental divide from Canada to Mexico. Depending on the route I take, this will entail walking 2800-3000 miles of continuous foot steps, along the Continental Divide Trail. Commonly referred to as a ‘thru-hike’, I’ll be averaging 30-35 miles per day in order to complete the trail in one season.
Many hikers spend far too much time obsessing over gear, food, weather and other minutiae. While those things have their importance, it’s physical preparation and mindset that result in a successful journey.
To avoid injury and illness, it’s wise to optimize your health before hitting the trail. Before a long hike, I put additional effort into eating a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet and getting plenty of sleep. This is always important, of course, but the goal is to optimize immune health and resiliency before enduring the physical stress of a long hike.
Building miles slowly is essential to a smooth transition to hiking for 10-12 hours per day. There’s no preparation that compares to putting on a pack and walking all day, but it’s hard to find time for that. Activities like strength training and trail running help build muscle and condition the cardiovascular system in less time.
I’ve seen so many people leave the trail from illness and injury that I created the Adventure Ready online course to help hikers hit the trail feeling healthy and prepared for what’s to come. We cover mindset, diet, gut health, sleep, training, sleep, and stress management.
As critical as the physical preparation is, it’s often said that a thru-hike is 90% mental. Mastering mindset starts with committing to myself to do everything in my power to complete my hike. To stay motivated over the long haul, I like to have a clear sense of why I’m out there. If I know my why, then when the going gets tough (and it will), I find reserves of energy and perseverance I didn’t even know I had.
I find it’s also helpful to anticipate challenges and how I’ll work through them. I know that I’ll miss my loved ones, be physically & emotionally uncomfortable (frequently), things won’t work out as planned, and I’ll be alone a lot. It’s easier to navigate these challenges when I’ve prepared myself mentally. Additionally, I know I’m bound to have a transformative experience.
Connecting with Nature
Hiking a long trail allows me to reach more remote areas which few others take the time to get to. This allows for more intimate connections with the wildlife, which can be both magical and frightening.
The most common question I get, besides “Do you carry a gun” (the answer is no), is “Why?”. Why put your life on hold for 4 months? Why walk across the country, putting your mind and body through so much?
I have many reasons, but perhaps the most compelling is the depth of connection I feel with nature during an experience of total immersion. For me, it takes a week or so of being out, but I can physically feel my body unwinding. The compulsive thought loops of ‘what do I need to be doing right now?’ fall away. I exhale deeply, knowing the only thing I need to do is walk.
The reduction in external input when I’m deep in the wilderness helps me to notice more of what’s around me. Instead of the constant distraction of my own thoughts, I pay more attention to the surroundings. I notice the changing landscape and the weather patterns because they directly impact my experience. I feel the pressure changes of a storm coming before I even see it.
There is space to just be. My mind needs that openness, that white space. I am never more creative than I am while on a long distance hike. I become the truest version of myself. I see this in others as well. They tap into their deepest desires and potential. Creative projects and business ideas are born.
On a 3000 mile walk, I find a different level of presence than I experience in my ‘everyday life’ and that’s what keeps me coming back for more every summer.
If you’re interested in following the adventure or preparing for your own long adventure, I’ll be logging my progress on Instagram (@katiegerber) and on my website.
Food is the through line for me. The growing, the preparing, the consuming, the sharing, and the downstream effects of those things–both on my own health, the health of others, and the health of our environment.
Food is, and always has been, a central part of my life, whether I wanted it to be or not. I write about it, I talk about it, I coach about it. I’ve been on and off of diets (though I never admitted to myself that my strict food rules were diets). I grew up in farm country and worked summer jobs at an agricultural research center. I operated an organic market garden for a season. I worked as a pastry chef, and in restaurants, preparing food for a living. I built wood-fired ovens and hosted community dinners. I’ve always loved the practice of growing food. Hands in the Earth: planting, tending, harvesting. The beauty of simply prepared real food captivates not just my stomach, but my eyes, my mind, and my soul.
But the things is, for most of my life, my relationship with food has been far from serene and charmed. I share this story because food is central life, and the way we relate to food matters. Because how we relate to food is, in many ways, how we relate to all aspects of our lives. Whether that’s from a place of ease, flow, and joy, or from a place of shame, guilt, and restriction.
Your relationship to food, and in turn, to your body, can impact your:
*peace of mind
*ability to carry out your work in this world
*overall quality of life
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have a relationship to food. And, outside of the eating disorder community, I don’t think the impact of our day-to-day relationship with food is acknowledged enough. Full blown eating disorders are destructive, to say the least, but I also want to address the more subtle, nuanced feelings and behaviors around food that shape our lives every single day.
By sharing my story, perhaps you can connect the pieces of your own story. If your relationship with food has ever felt tumultuous (especially in your own mind), know that you’re not alone.
If you have no idea what I mean and you’ve never struggled with food, this post may not resonate. And if you’re here looking for strategies on how to eat and train, hang tight, there will be posts on that again soon. But that’s not the focus of this one.
How we relate to food is a topic that I haven’t written on much, but it’s so central to not just our health and how we perform (which is mostly what I write about), but to our entire lives. You can’t talk about health, performance, and diet without talking about our psychology around food.
I’ve avoided discussing it until now because, honestly, it’s something I struggled with for so long and I carried a lot of shame around the fact that it was a thing for me. But I believe shining light on something dissolves the shame (or it helps, at least). I also delayed writing this because my story is an evolving one. I didn’t feel like I was ‘there’ yet. ‘There’ being… completely neurosis-free eating behaviors and body love perfection? I’m not sure what I imagined the final destination to be. I just knew I wasn’t there. Sounds like the familiar trap of perfectionism.
However, I believe our experiences are what we have to offer. Whether or not we fully see their value, it can be helpful to share those experiences, acknowledging that we’re a work in progress. There is no such thing as perfect. After all, I’m leaps and bounds beyond where I used to be when nearly every bit of my mental energy centered around food: planning, calculating, weighing, measuring, controlling. I may not be neurosis-free, but I’ve learned a few things since then.
Ultimately, changing how I relate to food changed everything. Yes, in terms of my health, but also in terms of my creativity, mood, peace of mind, relationships, presence, and overall quality of life. And if this is an area where you’ve struggled, hopefully connecting these pieces can improve every aspect of your life as well. It may sound like a big claim, but bringing awareness to your relationship with food can be more transformative than any diet, exercise regime, or supplement could ever be.
Some days, I wake up shocked that I voluntarily choose to speak to people about food for a living. I was always the person who avoided talking about food and body image to others. I hated when people gave or solicited food/diet/exercise advice. I hated when coaches, teachers, family, and friends would comment on my body. It didn’t matter if the comments were ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. I hated that they noticed that I had a body and that they noticed that it had changed. I think I just hated that I even had a body. I’ve never lived in anything other than a female body, so I can’t say for sure, but I think being a woman and an athlete made this journey even more challenging as I took on everyone else’s expectations about what that body ‘should’ be.
Even more surprising than this being my chosen path is the fact that I actually love working with others around food and health. It’s challenging on every level, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to show up for others compassionately and empathetically as they navigate this intense and complicated space.
It may seem trite, but I believe our greatest personal struggles can serve as a jumping off point for the work we do in the world. Our challenges can be our greatest gifts if we choose for them to be. We can excavate the lessons and share them, if for nothing else than to let at least one other human know ‘I see you and you’re not alone in your suffering’.
In many ways, this feels like a tired story–one which everyone has their own version of. And it could’ve gotten much worse, so it almost doesn’t feel worth sharing. In fact, I know many women for whom it did get much worse. But it shaped who I am, so it’s worth giving voice to it.
There isn’t a single moment that defines this story, but rather a collection of memories. I remember that I learned to fear food early on. It was something to be cautious of. The body was not something to revel in, but something to control. It’s animal impulses were to be suppressed not just in the mind, but in the body as well, through denial, diet, and workouts. Lingering remnants of puritan roots.
One early memory comes from third grade, when a male classmate told me I had a ‘bubble butt’. Thus was born the awareness that I had a body and that this body was different than other bodies. Why, of all the memories, do I still remember that one? I was never overweight, but my build was always athletic and curvy. I also remember seeing my mother judging her own body in the mirror, fighting her appetite, and being compulsive about exercise. She was fighting her own battle and, of course, had no idea that I was noticing and absorbing it all.
And then there was athletics, when I became even more aware of my body and how it was changing. On the one hand, it was empowering to feel my own strength, but participating in sports also invited comparison and judgment. Being forced to march in parades in a skimpy majorette uniform. Track, swimming, and cross country practices and being valued on how my body performed. My shoulders growing too big for my sweaters during swim season. The comments of a male cross country coach after a summer of over-exercising and under-eating: “Now you’re starting to look like a real long distance runner”. What does that mean? What was I before? I wondered.
Then there was the concern/criticism/jealousy (depending on the source) of coaches, friends, and family upon returning from my freshman year of college 20 pounds lighter than when I’d left. I hated the attention on my body, no matter it’s size. No matter if it was criticism or praise.
This is not a pity story. It’s simply the events that I remember shaping the way I viewed myself and my body, and how that then impacted my relationship to food. We all have these stories. During that time, sadly, the primary purpose of food and exercise for me was to experience a sense of control. That view now feels so shallow to me because food, movement, and the body are all portals to so much more.
This path naturally led to an obsession with health. I read every nutrition magazine and book I could get my hands on. I experimented on myself, trying to figure out the secrets, the one right way to keep the unruly body in check. Like a game-show contestant, I knew the calorie count of every food by memory. I tracked and logged.
Looking back, I’m saddened by how much time and energy I wasted thinking about food, calories, exercise, and my body. So much time and energy that could’ve gone into creation, self-expression, learning, connecting, and actually living.
There were so many phases and rules, and it changed by the month. Only skim milk, never whole. Fruit is the only ‘safe’ dessert. Eat meal bars for exact calorie counts. No eating until your stomach growls. Don’t eat meat or dairy. Avoid social events because you don’t know what food will be there or how it was prepared. So. Much. Obsessiveness.
But I never did land on the ‘one thing’ or actually figure ‘it’ out. There was always a new article telling me to do the opposite of what I’d been doing. I tried and I tried. I chased perfection with my diet. I followed all my food rules. I never missed a day of working out. And no matter how my body changed, it never became ‘perfect’ in my eyes. So I beat myself up mentally and became even more disciplined.
In college, I was under more pressure than ever (at least in my own mind). Advanced classes, sports teams, multiple jobs, new peers, dorm rooms, and dining halls. All far from everything and everyone that was familiar and comfortable to me. Of course I grasped for control. The compulsive exercising and undereating became extreme.
After a year or so of anorexia, I was broken. My body was screaming for nourishment and thus came the binges. First it was only rarely. Then it was happening more often. Then it was daily. All the things I’d restricted. I could no longer out-exercise the binges, so then came the purging. And the bulimia. The shame. The secrecy. I couldn’t believe what I was doing, who I had become. A shell of my true self. I was living in a self-created hell of shame and destructive behaviors.
Every aspect of my life suffered as all my thoughts revolved around food and exercise, and how messed up my life had become. Relationships fell away. Money was wasted. I lied to people I loved. I avoided social functions. I wasn’t truly engaged in anything I was doing.
Finding My Way Out
This was controlling my entire life in a way I could’ve never imagined if I weren’t living it.
The cycles of binging and purging, the overindulgence and the restriction, were not limited to food. It affected how I was expressing myself (or lack thereof) in every part of my life. I was ruled by perfectionism, control, and fear. My body couldn’t be trusted to know what it needed. If I just ate when and what I wanted, who knows what might happen? If I had to miss a day of exercise, I was grumpy and angry. My mindset reflected a deeply distrustful relationship to myself, my body, and the world.
Just as there was no one incident that led me into this hole, there was no one moment that pulled me out of it. It’s been a long journey and it’s an ongoing one. And that’s what I want to emphasize: it’s a process. Just as I slowly dug myself into the hole, finding my way out would take time and reprogramming as well.
It involved therapy, building a metaphorical toolbox of tools to deal with challenges, developing emotional resilience, and trusting (my body, my cravings, other people, the world). I worked on incorporating more joy into my life, connecting with a healthy social circle, and learning to see my body for the powerful force that it is. Finding my way out also included being vigilant about what I was feeding my mind, and examining the expectations I was setting for myself. It involved learning grace and learning to hold it ALL lightly.
Part of digging out of the hole of restriction and fear was understanding what these behaviors were doing for me. It’s different for everyone, but personally, these behaviors served as a sense of control when everything else in life felt like too much. So I learned how to bear discomfort.
Eventually, I became more alive, more myself. I learned to spot those Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) and to squash them, rather than letting them colonize my brain as I had before. I put more energy into relationships and laughing with people I love. I forgave myself for not being perfect.
In fact, I learned to laugh at the idea of perfection and embrace the beautiful flaws of being human. Indeed, it’s the ‘imperfections’ of others that make me adore them the most. Couldn’t I learn to turn that mindset inward?
Feeding myself and others became an expression of love and creativity. I attuned to my pleasures, my desires, and the way that life was seeking to move through me. I sought to release all the little knots in my heart and the ways I was resisting life.
I began to take immense pleasure in what my body could do. Using my strength and endurance to move through the mountains has been the most empowering, transformative force for changing how I relate to body. I noticed that I shifted from wanting to feel SMALL to wanting to feel STRONG. To feel the power in my legs as I glide up a mountain, to feel my lungs pound in my chest as I run along the trail, to truly inhabit my animal body, that is what lights me up now. The size of my thighs doesn’t cross my mind when I’m out in nature experiencing life.
Why Real Food is Always the Starting Point
But, before any of that, it started with letting go of ALL of the food rules and everything I thought I knew. The only guideline I followed was to just eat real food and listen to my body’s feedback.
When I focused on whole foods instead of ‘diet’ foods (like meal replacement shakes/bars and other highly processed items), everything became easier. I learned that when I ate whole foods containing fat, fiber, protein and micronutrients, that my body regulated it’s hunger levels. I realized that fat doesn’t make you fat.
Sure, it took time and practice, but eventually I could hear the feedback my body was providing. It was telling me how much food I needed. I could feel which foods were nourishing me and which I was better off avoiding for now. I found freedom from the diet mindset through real, as-close-to-nature-as-possible, foods.
It’s true that there are certain foods I tend to avoid, but not because those foods are ‘bad’, but because I feel better without them in my diet. It’s different to come from a place of love than a place of punishment. Unfortunately, most women I know tend to be really good at denying their bodies cravings and punishing themselves through restriction.
Whereas before my ‘food rules’ came from a place of fear and self-hate, any ‘rules’ I follow now come from self-love and a place of wanting to feel my absolute best. I want to be able to show up for myself and for those I care about. I want to be of service and to have all my energy available to do my best work in this world. I want to have my energy freed up to be present to the life unfolding around me.
Finding Food Freedom for Yourself
That’s why I don’t ascribe to one ‘perfect diet’ and why I don’t encourage clients to follow specific diets either. Maintaining an outlook of ongoing learning and adaptability to my body’s feedback is why it wasn’t as difficult as I expected to leave 15 years of identifying as a vegetarian to becoming a conscious omnivore. We have a tendency to think in ideals with diet and, for some, to make it an identity. But that will only limit our freedom and growth.
There are no rules, only choices. Rules are restrictive and prevent you from tuning in and listening to what works for YOUR body. Real health comes from real food and learning how to figure out what works for your body. And learning how to listen to your body is harder than following a set of rules. We want a pill, a prescription, a quick fix. The one perfect diet. But the real work of long term health requires more introspection than that.
There can’t be one simple set of rules because everyone needs something different and that changes throughout their lives. Following what works for someone else while tuning out our own bodies can have real impacts on our health and hormones. Ever had the experience of trying to eat the same diet that ‘works’ for your mom/friend/sister/boyfriend and find it either does not for you, or worse, makes you feel awful?
Our world if full of eye-catching headlines and snappy sound bites telling us what to eat and how to exercise. There’s so much conflicting information out there, with new studies coming out daily. It’s so.damn.overwhelming. No wonder most people are confused about what to eat.
Let go of seeking the perfect diet. Remember that it’s going to be different for everyone, but it will always start with just eating real food. That will never change based on new studies or fads.
It’s time to make peace with food and with our bodies instead of letting how ‘perfectly’ or not perfectly you think you’re eating control your mind, your self-worth, your confidence, your energy, your mood, and your quality of life.
We make it so much harder than it needs to be. And all of the rules and guilt keep us in fear, living a limited life and a limited version of ourselves. And this is not the life I want for myself or for you.
Your relationship to food is central to how you show up in every aspect of your life.
So, what is your relationship to food? Stop distracting yourself long enough to be honest. Because it matters. And it starts with awareness. Guilt? Shame?Joy? Make room for all of it. Because your relationship to food is your relationship to life.
Focus on the Journey (There is no destination.)
As I mentioned, this process is a journey. Give yourself some grace.
Years after I thought I’d healed myself, I was going through a particularly tough spot in life. I’d left a relationship, a business, a career, a home, and a community. I was on entirely new and shaky ground. Everything about my identity was in flux. Without even realizing what was happening, those old behaviors crept back in.
It wasn’t easy to navigate and I certainly stumbled, but I was able to approach it with more wisdom having walked that path before. It took time for me to get a handle on it, but the thing that actually helped was not fighting what was happening, but instead revisiting many of the tools that pulled me out of my mess before. Returning to the basics.
It’s a journey and a practice. There is no destination.
It all starts with real food. Food is a source of nourishment, joy, beauty, sustenance, and fuel for your adventures. It’s not something to fear. It’s can be a connection to others, to culture, to the past. It’s SO. Much. More. than calories, macronutrients, or a way to control life.
Good food is good for the planet.
Nourished humans can live their best lives: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They can live on purpose.
Your body and food are vehicles for pleasure. Whether that means a perfect Greek meal made by your nanna or a lung-busting run up the side of a mountain (type 2 fun), enjoy this animal body while you have one because, as we all know, our time here is short.
That wraps up part 1 on this topic. In part 2, I’ll explore how all of this ties into how you eat on trail, or on any other adventure for that matter.
In the meantime, comment below. Did this resonate with you? Can you relate?