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How Backpacking Is Perfect Cross-Training For Runners

While recovering from injury, one runner discovered that backpacking helped her maintain cardio and build strength.

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As I am slowly coming back from injury, I’ve been making the rounds of different cross training methods to ensure that I don’t lose all of the fitness I have gained from putting in serious mileage. Of course, I’ve been at it preparing for my next two Tough Mudders (Tri-State and Dallas!), trusting that the shorter runs I’ve been doing will get me through the non-obstacle portions of the courses. I’ve got a lot of miles on my legs anyway, but it would be nice to have logged a bunch of long runs this summer. Perhaps those long runs weren’t meant to be. If you were in the north and southeast this summer, you know it was a very hot and humid summer. So maybe this is a good thing.

I worked with a trainer for the first time in a few years and learned a bunch about obstacle course race-specific movements and exercises to make my body stronger. I continued to lift weights and I did yoga, all in an effort to gain and maintain flexibility, strength, and well, to lift my spirits too. I got a gait analysis at the NY Custom Performance and Physical Therapy Center and did my exercises to correct a hip imbalance. But it was still frustrating not being out there hitting the pavement everyday.

As all runners know, not being able to run at all or as much as you are accustomed to sucks. It was hard to see runners outside prancing about and being all runner-like. It was also hard to not run races that I had been planning to do all summer. But I knew that my time would come and that I’d be able to put in the miles again provided I was patient.

It’s all coming back, albeit at a pace that is akin my own running pace. I’m still doing some heavy aerobic and strength-focused cross training because the New York City and Marine Corps Marathons wait for no one!

One cross training method that I’d like to recommend is backpacking.

A few years ago I discovered this truly challenging way to move your body through nature, and I have NEVER looked back. Aside from the amazing opportunity to live outdoors for days (months, too) at a time, there is the incredible benefit of hauling many unwieldy pounds on one’s back up and down mountains, across slippery moss-covered rocks in swiftly moving streams, and essentially doing weighted step-ups, squats and lunges anytime you move.

Two weeks ago, I went on my fourth backpacking trip with some students in Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. Our route ascended EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. for miles with little respite. But it was grand, with mountain vistas and all, and perhaps most importantly, my legs feel stronger than ever! My pack was at least 40 pounds when dry, and on the second through fifth days, had accumulated enough moisture to weigh it down even more.

Needless to say, that leg strength has allowed me to lengthen my runs a little without feeling the pain that I felt earlier this summer. Backpacking has also given me back some running confidence, and the hope that I’ll be at it on the pavement and trails in no time.

What is your favorite unorthodox way of cross training?