Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mountain fit vs. gym fit, functional fitness at it's core

First off, I’m neither. I have no identity crisis. However, I’ve had a few opportunities over the last few months to hike with people that were either gym fit or mountain fit. And even in my relatively poor conditioning (mostly my BMI, I’m actually in pretty decent trail shape at this time), I was amazed by the difference between being functionally fit (trail fit), and looking good (gym fit). 

One of the biggest areas that that gym fails is at proprioception. It’s a word tossed around after major connective tissue injuries, brain trauma, or reconstructive joint surgeries, by physical therapist and surgeons. But it’s something that you need even when healthy. You never gain sport specific proprioception at the gym, no matter how good your gym fitness.

Don’t get fitness confused with proprioception, which is basically your body being constantly aware of it’s positioning. For example, your knee knows without you actively thinking about it that it is at maximum extension, thus you don’t hyper extend your knee. Your ankle knows where it’s maximum roll point is before you trip and fall, or worse twist and tear ankle ligaments and then fall. Slightly more complex, your quadricepts muscle knows when it should fire in relation to your hamstring muscle, a simple action that allows you to walk, run and sprint without injury. 

Often you’ll see backpackers on the trail who could probably lose 15-30lbs, yet they are able to hike 15-20 miles and gain thousands of vertical feet with a 40-50lb pack, without batting an eye. They somehow don’t get injured or look uncoordinated, though everything you know about fitness and performance says they should.  You could certainly call these people functionally fit. You put that same 50lbs on your standard urban gym rat and you are going to be in for a long day. As a matter of fact, that 50lb pack has a better chance of injuring that specimen of human kinesiology than someone who is has developed functional trail fitness. 

On Independence Day weekend, I had the honor of hauling 60-70lbs of climbing gear on some short hikes, while my wife and sister carried Camelbak half day packs, and my little brother and sister just carried 30oz Camelbak reservoir packs. The kids are only 8, so they get a pass. Though my little brother Om is a natural mountain goat. My wife gets a pass because she’s just lazy. My sister, Heather, on the other hand spends many hours a week, I’d guess in excess of 8-10, working out at the gym or similar activity. She looks extremely fit, but she struggled with many basic camp/hike daily task. Pumping and carrying water to the campsite seemed like it was going to break her. Yet she probably tosses 25lb weights like feathers at the gym. 

Someone reading this is going to call a bullshit on my 60lb pack claim, but I’m being conservative. The pack easily felt heavier than my multi-day overnight winter packs with technical winter gear. Here is the bulk what I was hauling: 2 60M dynamic ropes, 100ft of 8mm cord, ½ rack (passive gear; nuts, tricams, hexes, and a few mid size cams), 100ft of webbing, 5 harnesses (yep, lazy bastards couldn’t even wear their harnesses), 3 pairs of shoes, helmet, first aid kit, 1.5 L water, lunch, snacks, a camera and a hefty guide book. Since we had 5 people, the idea was to set up two ropes at a time and pair off. 

Enough about my Sherpa load, back to my gym fit sister. I’m not busting on my sister, the last time I was that gym fit was the summer of 2005 when I was at my pre college weight. However, this was with one big exception, I was also trail fit. At that time I was able to haul 65lbs over the continental divide in rotten waist deep spring snow on multi-day backpacking trips.  I was hitting the gym 2 times a day several days per week and hiking long days on weekends. But looking at my sister strain, struggle and just not seem to have the energy, reminded me that hitting the gym isn’t necessarily going to give you sport specific strength or endurance. It certainly won’t give you the body control and proprioception needed in the mountains. 

The problem with the gym is that it isolates muscle groups. While this can be good for overall strength and joint protection; and I’m quite certain it prevented my knee(s) from being destroyed in 2006 when I fell on the Trap Dike and merely had a 40% tear of a single ACL, it isn’t something that conditions you for the sports you are playing.

My specific sports these days are backcountry travel. This might mean being on skis, snowshoes, in a canoe or kayak, climbing vertical rock and ice, or merely lacing up the boots and putting a pack on my back and covering distance and elevation. 

As my sister and wife needled me during the short but steep .6 mile and 550ft up Owls Head, I wasn’t too happy, but at the same time I was ok with hauling the gear. Why? Getting trail fit involves three things: 1) building endurance 2) building power/strength 3) building cardio fitness. 1 and 3 might seem the same, and perhaps if you are running 20 flat miles it’s similar cardio output to gaining 5000ft, but the reality is they are completely unrelated, at least initially. Since these hikes to the base of our rock climbs were short, they were a good distance to overload my pack and build some strength and cardio fitness.

When I’m climbing a 20-30% grade with a pack on my back, my heart is pounding very similarly to when I’m running sprint intervals. My legs need oxygen and thus blood and they are taxing my heart and lungs to get that oxygen carrying blood as quickly as possible. At the same time, any living human without some serious health concern can hike 20 flat miles in a day without serious consideration. Your heart will never work very hard if you keep a moderate pace. Try keeping your HR down on an ascent, you’ll never get to the top! This why endurance and cardio fitness aren’t necessarily the same. 

This winter, I had the power phase taken care of, but I’d bonk after 5-6 miles under the load of a winter overnight pack, and my cardio fitness just wasn’t there. I remember being in the Presidential’s and simply hitting a wall about 2500ft into a 3000ft ascent, while my older but more trail fit partner pushed ahead. I underestimated my fitness. I had been day hiking with a loaded winter day pack, but I wasn’t hauling more than 30lbs. 60lbs is a lot different. A day later we were summiting with daypacks on semi technical terrain, and I was perfectly fine again, leading the way and setting a good pace. 

Fitness equals safety in the wilderness, but it also equals fun. To be mountain fit you need have all three of the above, but ideally change only a single variable at a time while getting there, slowly over time. Because I’ve been disappointed in my winter conditioning the last 2 winters, a season which in this part of the world is unforgiving on the unfit, this spring I began working on the endurance aspect. I started out hiking 15-20 mile days with a day pack over moderate terrain. Then I added some weight to the pack and even did a little backpacking over similar terrain. New boots and associated blisters slowed down the backpacking. This was OK, I didn’t intend to backpack much, I typically don’t backpack over the summer because of heat, water and crowd considerations. Following that I started adding big elevation days with the daypack, and much rougher terrain into the mix. When the cooler weather of the fall comes, I’ll start backpacking again, adding strength and power into the mix. 
I can’t stress enough, that while being in great shape is always a great head start to being in sport specific functional shape, it CANNOT replace actually training in the mountains. As my partner in the Presidential’s noted and my other partner on Mansfield, a steep 3000ft descent with a 50lb pack isn’t necessarily much easier than the ascent was. Descending takes body control, muscle fitness, and strengthening of muscles that the gym just fails to train those muscles or teach body control.

The moral of the story is, be in shape regardless of how you get there. But don’t expect to translate leg pressing 700lbs into ascending 7000ft in a day. Don’t expect to translate back extensions, situps, and shoulder presses into carrying a 60lb pack over rugged terrain. Don’t expect the treadmill and eliptical to translate into cruising up a mountain. 

Most of all, the worth remembering lesson is, carrying a 60+lb pack is always gonna suck, but if you want to get really trail fit, it’s a lot better workout than mindlessly chugging away on the hamster wheels at the gym.  I’d personally rather life suck in the mountains than at the gym! Pine smells a lot better than the sweaty fat guy (that would be me) next to you, pounding away on the “deadmill” like a pack of buffalo. The best part about the 60lb pack was that it was the last pack load I carried till the following weekend. And when I picked up my 20lb full-day pack and did a 15 mile hike on the Adirondacks Great Range, it felt like a feather!


  1. i give you a great amount of credit for being the team sherpa. when i see this on the trail, one person carrying another's load, it always gets me ruffled. i am a small framed woman, but always carry my fair share...it's part of being out there.
    as both a gym attendee (?) and a hiker/backpacker, i can't agree more with your assertions here. additionally, there is something to be said for the mental part of hiking and backpacking that physical fitness earned at the gym doesn't prepare folks for. it's not a simple mindless repetition. i know that there's times, especially on descents, that i wish i could just walk with my HEAD UP instead of planning and preparing for my next wobbly, rock jump. there's a mental battle in that "walking" that trail naive folks aren't often ready for.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your breakdown of being gym fit vs trail fit, as I have been noticing this lately as well. I recently took on a decently fit (and "thinner")trail partner, and she is always commenting on how much better "shape" I am in compared to her on the trails. I constantly tell her I just am used to working the different motions and muscles.

    So thanks!!

  3. You are welcome, and thanks for the comments!