What I Wish I’d Done for My Health Before My First Thru-hike

thru hike

This post originally appeared on the Trek.

Imagine this: You’ve just hiked 2,660 miles and you’re in the best shape of your life. You luck out and get an entry into a well-known race you’ve been eyeing for years. It starts in a month. You give yourself a week to recover and you set out on your first training run.

But something is off. You can’t run more than a couple of miles without extreme muscle fatigue. You’ve been exhausted for days and no amount of sleep relieves the fatigue. You’re cold all the time and you’re unmotivated. You wonder, “What is happening? Isn’t this the body that just hiked 2,660 miles?” You have no choice but to pull out of the race.

This was essentially my experience after hiking the PCT. The point is not that thru-hiking caused this health crash. That’s a story for another time. The point is that despite living a very healthy lifestyle before the PCT, I was not as bulletproof as I thought.

Reclaiming my health has been a roller-coaster, but I’m grateful for the journey because I can now share information on how to optimize your health before a hike, so you can thrive and have a successful journey. After all, it’s a lot more fun to be out there when your body is at its peak.

Whether you struggle with a specific health condition or you’re just out of shape from sitting at desk for eight hours a day, use these practices to dial in your health for an upcoming adventure. It’s what has moved the needle the most for me (and those I’ve worked with) in terms of having incredible energy, endurance, and resiliency on my next hike.

How I Prepare My Health for a Thru-Hike

Prioritize Gut Health

Let’s face it: you’re going to encounter a lot of less-than-optimal foods on your hike. Thru-hiking doesn’t exactly lend itself well to healthy eating. From lack of fresh foods (too heavy) to tiny resupply towns with limited options, it can be hard to meet nutrient requirements on trail. Couple that with the intense physical demands you’re putting on the body and you can quickly become depleted and develop deficiencies.

This translates into less energy, slower recovery, and compromised immunity (i.e., slower wound healing and an increased likelihood of getting sick from eating your hiking partner’s GORP). You can try to make up for deficiencies and take care of your gut in town with lots of fresh food and probiotics. But a) that’s unlikely to happen, especially if you’re busy eating beer and pizza, and b) you have a much better chance of staying healthy if you build resiliency before you leave home. It all begins in the gut.

Gut health impacts your immune system, nutrient absorption, energy levels, hormone production, weight, and much more. I thought my gut was fine going into my hike. I lived a pretty healthy lifestyle and I wasn’t experiencing any noticeable digestive symptoms. However, it turns out there’s much more I could’ve been doing to build a healthy, resilient gut.

Short of getting your microbiome tested, it’s difficult to quantify gut health. Luckily, that’s not necessary. You can ensure good gut health, and therefore your ability to get the most nutrition from your food, with the following tips:

Increase Variety and Prioritize Whole Foods

The more diverse the diet, the more diverse the microbiome, and the more adaptable it will be to disruptions.

Up Your Fiber

Aim to eat at least 30 grams of fiber daily. Research indicates that soluble fiber is the best food for sustaining a healthy, diverse population of microbiota. Legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are all great choices.

Probiotics

Consume probiotic-rich foods, like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and kombucha or supplement with a high quality probiotic.

Limit Inflammatory Foods

Lastly, it’s important to stop taking in inflammatory foods (discussed next) as well as behaviors that inhibit gut health. These include taking antibiotics (obviously), consuming alcohol, consuming preservatives and food additives, smoking cigarettes, not getting enough sleep, and being stressed.

Limit Inflammatory Foods with a Personalized Diet

One of the largest sources of inflammation in the diet for many people is undetected food intolerances. These are foods, specific to you, that trigger inflammation.

Because I didn’t have any overt digestive symptoms, I assumed I was healthy. I was a baker at the time and even though the bread I was eating was made from organic, locally milled wheat, it turns out that it was creating a lot of inflammation that kept me from being my healthiest.

I figured this out by completing an elimination challenge. This is where you remove potential food triggers for three to four weeks, then reintroduce them one by one to see if your body reacts. This method is the least expensive and most reliable way of detecting food intolerances.

Once I discovered and removed offending foods from my diet, things turned around quickly. My inflammation went down, my energy soared, my digestion improved, and my muscles stopped aching.

Even if you don’t think you have any food intolerances, I encourage everyone to try this at least once. Often it’s not until you remove a potentially triggering food, allow the body to reset, and then reintroduce it, that you may find it’s not working for you. Sometimes you don’t know how good you can actually feel.

To complete an elimination challenge at the most basic level, follow the following process:

  1. Eliminate gluten, dairy, caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and processed foods for 28 days.
  2. One by one, reintroduce each food. Ideally this is twice daily for two to three days before moving on to the next food.
  3. Track your symptoms. If you notice a reaction in your body (such as changes in digestion, energy, or sleep), remove that food again. If not, move on to the next.

Focus less on the idea of elimination, and more on removing the impediments to success, so your body can become stronger and truly thrive.

To get the best feedback, it’s important to follow the process properly. Because this was a game-changer for me, I created a guide on how to properly complete an elimination challenge. No more guessing in the dark about which foods are good or bad for you. You can find out exactly what works for you and what doesn’t. This leads to better energy, better endurance, and it may just clear up any nagging symptoms you’ve been dealing with, like skin rashes, headaches, joint pain, and digestive issues, like bloating, gas, and heartburn.

Live an Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle

There’s a lot that goes into this piece, but here’s what it boils down to: we live in a time when most of us have some level of chronic inflammation.

Acute inflammation is a beneficial healing response. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, slowly breaks down the body and is at the root of most diseases. Inflammation is caused by different stressors. Sources of stress can include environmental (i.e., pollution), physical (i.e., overtraining or eating inflammatory foods), and emotional (a fight with a partner or inability to pay your bills).

We can’t control it all, but we can manage it. With every action or decision, I ask, “Will this lead to more or less inflammation in my body?”

Use the following three practices as a foundation to manage stress:

  1. Make sleep a nonnegotiable. Aim for eight hours per night.
  2. Engage in some form of mindfulness practice, such as meditation, for ten minutes daily.
  3. Have a wind-down ritual each night, whether that’s dinner with a partner, a walk with your dog, or a good book and a cup of tea.

Applied consistently, these practices can make a massive impact on your overall health, as well as on how you feel each day of your hike. It’s a great starting point. We dive much deeper in my six-week online course Adventure Ready. It’s designed to optimize your health, so you have the energy and endurance you need to hike long days and stand at that terminus monument, having successfully completed your adventure.

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Top 5 Supplements to Take on Trail

hiker supplements

The ideal scenario is to get all the nutrients you need from whole foods, but there are many circumstances when supplementation can benefit nearly everyone.

Supplements can be a controversial topic. On one extreme, there are health advocates claiming you need a supplement for every ache and pain. On the other extreme, you have skeptics claiming that supplements are unnecessary, a waste of money, and even dangerous.

As with many divisive topics, the truth is somewhere in between. Nutritionally speaking, we know that the body requires certain levels of nutrients to function optimally. We also know that due to the abundance of nutritionally poor foods available today, many of us do not get the daily requirements of several key nutrients. Furthermore, chronic illness, gut dysbiosis, exposure to toxins, stress, and heavy physical demands on the body all deplete nutrient stores more quickly.

For that reason, supplements can be a good form of nutritional insurance. During the extreme physical demands placed on the body during a long distance hike, supplementation is helpful for optimal energy and endurance, enhanced immune function, faster recovery, and reduced illness and fatigue. If you’re curious how certain deficiencies manifest in the body, here is an excellent article on that by Dr. Aviva Romm.

A long distance hike is unique in that it’s a feat of extreme endurance. In most sports, you exert the body, and then you have recovery time to restore depleted nutrients. It’s not unusual during a long distance hike to walk a marathon a day, with a pack on, day after day for 5 months. Couple that with the lack of fresh foods and the notoriously ultra-processed diet of the thru-hiker. It’s no wonder that many hikers end up emaciated, sick, injured, and ending their hike early.

colorado trail

Supplements for the Trail

Supplements are not a substitute for a good diet. A high quality, anti-inflammatory diet is always the place to start when you want to feel and perform your best. Nutrients in their whole food form are absorbed into the body better than in supplement form, and there’s often more control over sourcing and quality with food.

As detailed in this post about my Oregon Desert Trail resupply, in addition to packing nutrient dense food in every box, I almost always include the following supplements.

For high quality supplements, I prefer to shop exclusively through specific trusted companies. Shopping from random sources can be hit or miss in terms of buying products that are real, safe, and effective. To ensure you’re buying safe products, you can access my online dispensary of professional-grade supplements by clicking here. There are hundreds of brands and you can save 10-20% with this link. There are no gimmicks. It’s simply a resource I want to provide to readers. If you insist on shopping Amazon, you can find links to a few of my favorites by clicking on the supplement name below.

One last note before we dive in: I am not a doctor and, as such, I don’t diagnose, prescribe, treat, or cure. The following ideas are simply what I’ve seen work for myself and for others. For personalized health advice, see a qualified practitioner. If you’re on prescription medications, don’t start supplements without the guidance of your doctor.

High Quality Multi-Vitamin

To cover your basic nutritional bases, a high quality multi-vitamin is helpful. This is especially important as we live in a time when our food sources are compromised, we don’t always take time for proper meals, and we experience more stress than ever. This certainly applies on a long distance hike when you’re consuming fewer fresh fruits and veggies, which are likely a major source of your nutrients in off-trail life.

Probiotics

You’ve probably heard me say it before, and you’ll likely hear it again, which is that gut health is one of the most important foundational pieces to optimal health. Over 80% of disease can be linked to lifestyle choices, and our gut is ground zero for our immune health, brain health, and production of important hormones. It’s also where digestion, absorption, and assimilation occurs.

To be sure you’re getting the most out of the foods and supplements you’re ingesting, it’s important to pay attention to your gut health. This includes eating fiber-filled prebiotic foods, as well as eating probiotic foods. Because it’s difficult to get probiotic foods on trail, consider a supplement with a diversity of strains, and rotate brands regularly. Also note that these microorganisms are sensitive to heat and light, so store capsules in a dark container deep in your pack.

Krill Oil

Krill Oil is fantastic for brain and heart health and for keeping overall inflammation low. Most modern diets are high in inflammatory Omega 6 fats and low in anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fats. By increasing Omega 3 fats in the diet, we get closer to the ideal 4:1 (omega 6:omega 3) ratio. By comparison, most modern diets are closer to 20:1.

As explained on the Bulletproof website, “Krill oil is a superior source of EPA and DHA because the polyunsaturated fats are packaged as phospholipids, which can be used immediately by your body. The EPA and DHA in fish oil, on the other hand, are typically packaged as triglycerides and have to undergo additional processing in order to make them bioavailable. Krill oil is also more stable because it includes astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant, that protects the fragile fats from oxidizing.

Animal-based omega-3’s from krill and fish oils are both better sources than vegetable-based omega-3’s, such as the Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA) in flax oil. Only about 1-4% of ALA is converted into DHA, so getting those higher potency sources from krill and fish is more efficient.”

Storage of your krill oil is important because fats are prone to oxidation. This not only makes them ineffective, but makes them damaging to the body. Heat, air, and light degrade oils. Use capsules rather than liquid, and store in an airtight amber or cobalt bottle. Place them in the middle of your pack, where temps are more stable (ideally below 100*F).

Turmeric

Turmeric is a major source of the plant polyphenol Curcumin, which has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. A 2017 research review of it’s effects on human health attributes the following benefits to this powerful spice:

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 important to choose a high quality source that contains piperine (the active component of black pepper), which increases the bioavailability of the curcumin by 2000%.

Magnesium

Magnesium is involved in over 300 biochemical reaction in the body. It’s important for several functions including muscle and heart function, immunity, nerve cell function, energy production, and strong bones. Nearly half of all Americans are deficient in Magnesium.

There are many forms of magnesium to choose from. For sound sleep and a healthy morning BM, magnesium citrate is a great choice. For general magnesium deficiency and a highly bioavailable form, magnesium glycinate is helpful. Do your research and choose what’s best for you.  

If you’re curious about the strategies I use and the types of food I pack for optimal energy and overall health on a long hike, download my free Eat for Endurance eBook here. It includes a sample menu and principles I use to stay illness and injury free.

supplements

Supplementation in the ‘Off Season’

Beyond supporting performance goals on trail, supplements can be a key additional to optimal health at home as well. In addition to the above supplements, which I also take at home, I often cycle through others. My choices depend on what aspect of my health I’m focused on improving, such as adrenal or hormone health. This may include vitamin D3, B vitamins, antioxidants (like glutathione and Vitamin C), and adaptogenic herbs and mushrooms (like Reishi, Ashwagandha, and Cordyceps).

A Word on Choosing Supplements

Not all supplements are created equal and it’s important to choose high quality supplements and buy from trusted sources. The bottom of this post by Dr. Aviva Romm has good recommendations for choosing supplements.

Every body is different. For an individualized approach and deeper guidance, working with a health practitioner is helpful to determine what supplements may be helpful specifically for you. Again, if you’d like access to my online dispensary where you can save 10-20% off top brands, click here

With a bit of planning and preparation, you can vastly enhance the experience of your hike with targeted support and supplementation. In addition to whole nutrient-dense foods, consider taking some (or all) of these along on your next big adventure.

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Improve Your Digestion Today with 7 Simple Tips

veggies

“All disease begins in the gut.” This oft-cited quote from Hippocrates still holds quite true, especially in modern times when so many factors are impacting our microbiome, our digestion, and our overall gut health.

Improving and maintaining strong digestion is essential for robust health. Healthy digestion is responsible for optimal nutrient absorption, proper energy production and metabolism, and elimination of toxins and other waste products. A diverse microbiome protects us from infection and supports a healthy mind and mood, among many other things.

Employ the following tips to optimize your gut health and improve digestion immediately.

relax digestion

Relax

Healthy digestion begins in the mind, before food even enters the mouth. Sit down to eat. Take a few deep breaths to relax and feel gratitude for your meal. The sight and smell of food allow the salivary glands to begin to produce the enzymes necessary to initiate the breakdown of food. Eliminate distractions, such as watching television or reading, so you can actually taste your food and sense when you’re full. Slow down and eat mindfully. This allows the nervous system to shift into parasympathetic, aka ‘rest and digest’, mode.

Chew More

The teeth break down food into smaller pieces which make it easier for the digestive system to process. Proper chewing also produces more saliva which contains enzymes that further break down food for increased nutrient absorption.

sauerkraut digestion

Feed the Gut

Creating a healthy microbiome involves nurturing a wide variety of microbes and feeding those microbes what they need to thrive. Inoculate the gut with probiotics through fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, and consider high quality supplements with a variety of strains. Nurture healthy gut microbes by eating a diverse range of foods, focusing on whole unprocessed foods, and consuming a lot of fiber. Legumes, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables are all great choices.

For a list of foods I enjoy on trail to maintain a healthy microbiome, download a copy of my healthy hiker grocery guide for FREE here.

Hydrate

Maintaining a steady intake of non-caffeinated beverages throughout the day is important to ensure healthy elimination and avoid constipation. Water is the ideal choice. There are many opinions on how much, but the old 8×8 rule, or eight eight-ounce glasses, is a good place to start. Increase this amount in hot climates or with heavy exercise.

Drop Unhealthy Habits

Eliminate the following activities which have been shown to disrupt digestion and a healthy microbiome: consuming artificial sweeteners and other food additives, drinking alcohol, smoking, over-consuming caffeine, being overly stressed, late night eating, and taking unnecessary pharmaceuticals.

exercise digestion

Exercise

Movement helps food pass through the digestive system. Even a short 15-20 minute walk can improve digestion. Gastrointestinal motility is important not only for physical comfort, but because it helps maintain a healthy bacterial population in the small intestine.

Consume Herbs to Enhance Digestion

Incorporate the following herbs to support liver and gallbladder health, stimulate digestion, and repair the digestive tract: Ginger root, Dandelion root, Peppermint leaf, Milk Thistle seed, and Slippery Elm bark. Use an infusion or decoction to prepare these herbs, depending on the part of the plant with which you’re working.

Incorporate any or all of the above tips to ensure robust digestion and all the benefits that go along with that!

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Simple Sauerkraut

New research is coming out daily about the impact of gut health on almost every aspect of human health, from immune function to mood and brain health. A PubMed search for “microbiome” (the term used to describe the collection of 100 trillion bacterial cells that inhabit our bodies) returns over 60,000 results!

Needless to say, our gut bacteria play an important role in our health. and keeping a healthy population and diversity of the right bugs is key to optimal performance in every area of your life.

One of the best ways to support a healthy microbiome is to include both prebiotic and probiotic foods in your diet. Prebiotics are the food that feed the good bacteria. Probiotics are the good bacteria themselves.

Put quite simply, foods high in fiber are good prebiotoics (think fruits and veggies). Examples of probiotic-containing foods include fermented and cultured foods such as kimchi, yogurt, kefir, miso, and the focus of today’s post: sauerkraut.

If you’ve never heard of the microbiome, including gut-healthy foods may feel intimidating to you. But, fear not!

It can be incredibly simple, tasty, and affordable.

While you can purchase your fermented foods at the grocery store, you can save money by making your own ferments at home. An easy place to start is with sauerkraut.

Below is a basic recipe from which you can create many variations!

Simple Sauerkraut

Ingredients

  • 1 large head green or red cabbage
  • 1/8 cup sea salt
  • Water

Directions

  1. Cut the cabbage in quarters, cut out the stem, slice finely, and place into medium bowl.
  2. Sprinkle the salt over the cabbage.
  3. Squeeze the cabbage with your hands until it begins to break down and ‘wilt’.
  4. The cabbage will eventually begin to release liquid. When this happens, pack the cabbage into a clean Mason jar. Push the cabbage down hard to remove most of the extra space.
  5. Pour remainder brine from the bowl into the cabbage jar.
  6. Be sure to submerge the cabbage below the liquid.
  7. If there is not enough liquid, add salt water until the cabbage is completely covered. To do this, mix 1 cup of water with 1 teaspoon sea salt.
  8. LOOSELY place the cap on the mason jar, but do not tighten it.
  9. Keep jar at room temperature, out of direct sunlight. (e.g. on a counter top).
  10. For the first few days, check on the cabbage and add extra liquid to keep the cabbage submerged. A bit of white foaminess is normal. However, be on the lookout for anything that looks or smells moldy.
  11. Taste the cabbage after 6-7 days. It should be tangy, but will probably still be quite crisp. Speed of fermentation depends on the ambient temperature  in your home.
  12. Ferment your kraut until taste and texture meet your preferences. I like to ferment mine about 10 days.  At this point, cap the jar and store in the refriegerator.
  13. Enjoy a dollop daily with meals!

For variations, I add different spices, such as caraway seeds or peppercorns. You can use this same method to create kimchi or ferment any other vegetable easily at home!

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