Why is it that some people seem to bounce back and be ready for another day of hiking right away, while others may well be limping around in misery for days afterwards?
Any strenuous activity such as hiking causes some damage to the body.
This damage causes inflammation that kicks off the cycle of cellular repair, rebuilding your body so you can carry more, hike longer and faster. Exercise scientists refer to this process as hormesis. It may not make you into the bionic (wo)man — but it can come pretty close.
But, what happens when something goes wrong with this healing process?
Obstacles to healing
Your system is short on the right nutrients to repair itself properly so it stays inflamed for an extended period and takes a long time to finish healing.
Imbalances in certain nutrients can prevent your body from turning off the inflammatory process.
Hidden food allergies and sensitivities may be setting off your immune system and unnecessarily igniting the inflammatory process. Each of these things can contribute to chronic pain and inflammatory conditions similar to arthritis, muscle and joint pain, heart disease, diabetes and more, none of which make for good hiking (or much fun in general).
What to do?
What you eat day-to-day off the trail can determine how you feel on trail. Here’s a quick overview of foods to help your body control inflammation and repair itself to tackle another tough day:
Eat anti-inflammatory foods
- Choose wild and grass-fed meats. Just as you are what you eat, animals are made up of what they eat. Certain types of fats in your food help calm inflammation (omega-3s) while others will promote it (omega-6s). Having the correct balance of these fats is critical to controlling painful inflammation and healing properly.
Nowadays conventionally raised beef is fed corn high in omega-6 fatty acids. This inflammatory fat becomes part of the meat. In comparison, grass-fed animals have naturally low omega-6 levels and far more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. Wild cold water fish such as salmon and sardines are high in omega-3s used by the body to calm inflammation. Conventionally farmed salmon typically lacks these benefits.
- Eat your veggies!
Yup, you’ve heard it before, but you should “eat the rainbow”. Colorful veggies, plentiful servings of leafy greens and moderate fruit intake provide nutrients and anti-oxidants necessary to reduce inflammation and help you heal quickly.
Avoid inflammatory foods
These foods are generally highly inflammatory and will cause you far more pain than they’re worth in the long run:
- Avoid highly processed oils.
Your corn oil, sunflower oil, “vegetable” oils and yes, even “heart-healthy” margarine are usually highly processed with heat, pressure and some pretty nasty industrial solvents. Touted as “healthy” before scientists understood the importance of omega-3 to omega-6 balance. They are high in chemically reactive omega-6 fats easily damaged by the heat used for cooking, making them even more damaging for your body.
- Avoid highly processed “foods.”
In the words of Jack LaLanne: “If man makes it, don’t eat it.” While this might be a bit extreme, I’d recommend you take a look at the back of your packages with a skeptical eye. Most packaged foods are packed with inflammatory ingredients designed to make them addictive or shelf stable.
These will only worsen your aches and pains on the trail: HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), trans- and hydrogenated fats (linked to heart disease and diabetes), omega-6 oils and more.
Address common nutrient deficiencies
Veggies and leafy greens are high in critical nutrients and minerals such as magnesium and potassium. Magnesium in particular has strong anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety and pain-reducing effects, helps the body produce energy and has been shown to be unfortunately deficient in many people eating the standard American diet.
Discover hidden food sensitivities
These may be setting off your immune system and causing inflammation. If you have unexplained chronic joint pain, or an autoimmune condition, it’s worth it to try an elimination diet to see if it reduces your symptoms.
It’s more common than you think, but can be tricky to figure out, since symptoms can show up in any system of the body from the skin to brain (migraines anyone?) and can be delayed up to 36 hours. The most common sensitivities are to wheat, cow’s milk, soy and nightshades (tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant or potatoes).
None of these steps are magic bullets. They won’t immediately rid your body of aches, but as your body includes more and more quality building materials you will be in better shape for tackling a long day on the trail.