Not too long ago, I embarked with a group of seven others to climb the tallest mountain in New England. You may remember that I climbed Mount Washington for the first time last year (trip report here). Even though our route was the same, the second time around brings with it a completely new experience and many new insights that weren’t apparent upon the first ascent. Granted, Mt. Washington is little more than a hill compared to the Rocky Mountains and many others around the world. Still, it’s far more challenging than most climbs – and one of the most challenging day hikes on this side of the U.S.A.
There have been hikes that upon completion, have left me utterly exhausted. This was not one of them. Yes, there was fatigue. Yes, there was need of rest. But to such a lesser extent compared to many other hikes I’ve done. If anything, I felt tired, but also rejuvenated after finishing. During last years trip, I noticed that I was far less fatigued than I had expected to be from such a grueling hike. This time, I’ve experienced minimal fatigue while climbing and after finishing – to an even greater degree, and I think I know why.
After this trip, I have reaffirmed those 3 beliefs about why this was less strenuous than I had imagined it could be. The physical conditioning required for hiking is one of them. If you’re physically prepared, then of course, you’ll experience less fatigue. Along with that, the mindset adjustment needed to take your time and not rush – to get out of your normal zone of GO GO GO, and just enjoy the process rather than rush to complete a goal. Rushing almost always creates fatigue, so taking our time also helped a lot. But on top of that, was the choice to go barefoot. This year, I both ascended and descended barefoot, which contributed, in part, to one of the best hiking experiences I’ve ever had. I packed a pair of Vibram FiveFingers just in case I needed them, but never resolved to put them on (though the temptation was there as my soles began to get tender).
Though I didn’t mention it in last years trip report, my knees began getting fairly achy upon my descent while wearing shoes. It wasn’t a “this is a serious problem and you need to stop” type of achiness, but more of a general discomfort. I’d rank it at a 4/10 on a discomfort scale of 1-10 (10 being the worst pain I’ve ever felt). Up until I had put shoes on, my knees felt great – not even a hint of an issue while going barefoot up to the summit. However, shortly after I put shoes on, the knees began to act up, and I dealt with it the whole way down.
During this more recent climb, I experienced very little joint discomfort at all. I’d rank my knees at a discomfort level of 1/10 for the whole hike. I think this is largely in part because I went barefoot the whole way. There are a lot of reasons that going barefoot could contribute to this, but the main one is that you walk more gently when barefoot than when shod. My knee pain during last years trip was presumably because of the tens of thousands of impacts I subjected myself to all the way down the mountain. Moving down the mountain with gravity, with a pack on, while already fatigued didn’t help the situation either. Not only that, but I had well-supported, highly-cushioned shoes to deaden the impact and block out the normal signals that my feet would be sending me and greatly limit my normal range of motion in my feet and ankles. It’s logical to assume that all of those factors led to achy knees.
When you’re barefoot, you can’t sustain high-impact producing activities for very long – certainly not for miles down a mountain over rugged terrain. You MUST walk gently because you’ll be in pain or even get injured as soon as you get careless and start landing heavily.
As a side note, last year when I would take my Vibram’s with me for a run, I would begin the run completely barefoot, and then would put them on when my feet began to get very tender. Immediately upon putting them on, I noticed a stronger propensity towards heavier footstrikes, even when consciously trying to soften my landings. There might be a possibility of being able to consciously control your footstrikes so that you land gently while running or hiking in footwear, but I know that it’s much harder to do when you don’t have that direct feedback from your soles being directly in contact with the earth. That said, I think it’s possible to walk and run gently in footwear – it just takes practice.
For this particular hike, going barefoot indirectly contributed to minimize knee pain, prevent excessive fatigue, and improve the overall experience. I will be hiking completely barefoot whenever possible from this point forward.
The other element that made this hike interesting was that this was the first full day hike that I’ve done completely fasted. My last meal was dinner the night before, and I didn’t bring any food along to tempt me during the hike. What I noticed was a brief period of hunger on the way up, a stronger temptation to eat at the top, and I spotted a few possible food sources that would have otherwise gone unnoticed (mostly plants, animals, and small children). Other than that, the trip really wasn’t any different than any other hiking trip I’ve taken. Like I said above, I didn’t experience much fatigue, and my recovery from the hike the following days was typical.
I’m a fan of intermittent fasting for health reasons, and I’ve often wondered how prolonged vigorous physical activity would affect someone in a fasted state. I may be bringing some more info about this subject in the future.
In closing, I can attest that this was one of the most enjoyable hikes I’ve ever done. It was a wonderful day all-around for many reasons – mostly because I got to spend time with some of my favorite hiking pals. On top of that, the beautiful weather, the breathtaking views, the uncrowded trails and the excellence of a new adventure all made for an unforgettable day.
One last thing… with my unrelenting affinity for pursuing the principles of progression and variation – next year, I’ll be hiking Mt. Washington barefoot, fasted, AND naked. I’ll be posting my trip dates in advance for anyone who’d like to join me or to make sure you’re NOT hiking that day. Happy trails!
CST, CST-KS, NSCA-CPT