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Long-distance hikers often talk about getting their trail legs, the superhero-like state where their leg muscles adapt to the callousing daily mileage and recover in time to rinse and repeat each day. Turns out there’s a physiological reason for this called neuromuscular adaptation. Training before a hike helps your muscles adapt to increased physical stress, feel invincible, and dodge overuse injuries. Here’s how the science breaks down.
Stress and Adaptation
Your body sends electrical signals through the nerves to contract your muscles. It knows to maintain as many nerve-muscle connections as required to meet activity levels, but no more. The body doesn’t want to work any harder than it has to, so when it’s faced with a consistent level of exercise stress over time, it stays efficient by increasing this muscle nerve activity.
For example, a typical training program lasts 12 weeks, but muscle growth doesn’t begin immediately. In the first 6 to 8 weeks of training, your body engages muscles through nerve pathways, and once those nerve-muscle connections are maxed out, your body starts building muscle to accommodate the increased physical demand. This is neuromuscular adaptation in action.
While weeks of daily hiking begins to supercharge neuromuscular adaption, it also has the potential to lead to overuse injuries. These injuries occur from doing too much activity too soon, without giving muscle tissues enough time to adapt properly. To reduce injury risk, use a well-structured training plan before a big hike. In doing so, the body will have already made many of these nerve and muscle adaptations.
A training plan helps the body handle the initial stress of a long hike because the muscle tissues have already learned to adapt to increased physical demand. By hiking daily on a long-distance trail, the body will continue to adapt over many weeks to keep the working muscles as efficient as possible. (Is it possible to “hike yourself into shape”? Yes, but you’re running a bigger risk of suffering a trip-ending injury.)
What About After the Hike Ends?
It can be extremely difficult to maintain your trail legs once your hike ends. Neuromuscular adaptation is at work here too, but not to your benefit: Because the body no longer has to work as hard as it did during the hike, it will reduce the number of active nerves that feed the muscles. This typically begins 10 to 14 days after reducing activity. Returning to a regular training routine can help you maintain strength, but because you won’t be hiking as much and as frequently as you were, your muscular endurance will still wane.
Lee Welton is a physical therapist assistant and personal trainer in Southeast Idaho. He thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018 and trekked through Italy’s Dolomites. He can typically be found hiking and exploring Idaho and Wyoming. For more information, videos, and resources from Welton, visit trailsidefitness.com.