Do you worry that your weight is holding you back in the outdoors? Are you anxious to lose a few pounds before the big hike or climb?
If you do, I totally feel you.
I had a mortifying experience the weekend before I climbed Mt. Rainier. We were at a teammate’s house doing gear checks. He had just purchased one of those biometric scales that claims to read not only your weight but your body fat percentage.
We took turns hopping on. According to the scale, most people were 16, 17 percent body fat.
I was 30 percent.
WTF? What the French toast?! I had been working my ass off for 5 months in training, and … 30 percent fat. Shame and failure overwhelmed me. I was already nervous about the climb, and now I had yet another reason to doubt myself.
And do you know what happened? A week later I climbed Mt. Rainier and was totally fine.
I’m not saying it was easy. But I doubt it was much harder for me than for super lean person with 6 percent body fat.
It was also enlightening to watch the teams coming off the mountain at Rainier. The climbers represented a large range of body sizes. They certainly weren’t all Instagram fitness influencers with 6 percent body fat.
The Mt. Rainier climb made me look at my body with new respect. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you fit the stereotype of a super lean outdoor athlete.
If your body can climb 10,000 ft. in the sky in just a day or two, it’s pretty f*cking amazing. Period.
(And by the way, those biometric scales are notoriously inaccurate. Almost everyone I know who uses one has been needlessly freaked out by it. Don’t waste your money on a biometric scale until the technology advances, OK?)
So for those of you who are feeling a little nervous that your weight may be holding you back, let’s take a look at some of the myths about outdoor athletes, weight, and weight loss.
Hopefully, these will ease your mind, and also give you some positive direction if you DO choose to lose weight as part of your training.
Here we go.
1. Skinny people are healthier.
Repeat after me. Weight is not health. Weight is not health. Weight is NOT health.
Health is a complex idea that encompasses all aspects of your physical and emotional well-being. Your weight is just one small part of that. So it’s possible to be “overweight” by our society’s standards and still be extremely healthy and vital.
Research suggests it’s healthier to have a BMI in the “overweight” range and be active than have an “ideal” BMI and be sedentary. (By the way, BMI is big load of horse crap, so don’t get too hung up on it. I mention it here only because it’s what researchers use to categorize people based on body size.)
Another way to think about it: health is behavior. Good health is about eating more fruits and vegetables, eating purposefully, staying active, connecting with others, and processing your emotions in healthy ways.
You know what’s not a behavior? Your weight.
It’s possible to be “overweight” and still have very healthy behaviors. In fact, weight loss approaches that focus on healthy behavior are far more effective than ones that focus on pounds, inches, and body fat percentage.
2. You have to be lean to hike, backpack, climb or do an ultra endurance event.
As my Mt. Rainier story above demonstrates, this is total hogwash. And it’s continued to be true. I’ve done a few big events, including a climb to 20,000 ft. and the Grand Canyon R2R2R when I was actually heavier than I was on Rainier!
Social media, particularly Instagram, gets a lot of crap for promoting unrealistic body image. But there are also some great influencers who are proving that running ultras, hiking the Inca trail, and thru-hiking are possible for all body sizes. A couple to check out:
- Vanessa Friedman (hiking and thru-hiking)
- Mirna Valerio (ultra endurance)
- Brandi S (hiking)
- Christa (adventure travel)
(If I’m overlooking someone awesome, let me know in the comments. I would like to add some men to that list.)
When you think about hiking fitness, think of weight as pure economy. Economy (body efficiency) is just one factor of many that determines your endurance and performance. There are actually world class athletes who have a high VO2 max and lactate threshold, but not-so-great economy.
So if you choose to lose weight while you’re training for a goal, that’s awesome. But don’t get hung up on the idea that there’s a magic weight or body fat percentage that ensures success. You can do your hike, pack, climb, or run even if you don’t hit your weight loss goal.
3. Long hikes are the best way to lose weight.
Long hikes do burn a lot of calories! Most people burn about 400 to 600 calories an hour while hiking. So if you’re out for 10 hours, that’s pretty amazing.
But unless you’re retired or a sponsored athlete, it’s hard to get more than one long hike in a week. So if you’re a hiker with weight loss goals, it’s a good idea to have some shorter, fat-burning workouts in your program that you can squeeze into a busy schedule.
There are two types of workouts I recommend for outdoor athletes. with weight loss goals.
The first is strength training. Lifting 2–3 days a week can give your metabolism a continuous rev. For more info on strength training for weight loss, check out my blog post, How to burn fat in your sleep with strength training.
The second workout I recommend for people who are hiking for weight loss is interval training, especially HIIT. The most amazing thing about HIIT is that it produces an “afterburn” affect that revs your metabolism for up to a day afterward! You can read more about it in my post, 8 proven benefits of interval training for hikers. HIIT workouts are also short and easy to squeeze into busy days!
4. It’s fine to eat whatever you want after a big hike.
Do you crave a burger and fries after an epic day on trail? That’s only natural! It’s just your body’s way of asking for iron, carbs, salt, and protein. These are all good things to replenish.
When I was younger (up through my 30s), I would eat practically anything on a hike day and wash it down with a beer. However, as I’ve headed into my 40s, I find that my body has a lot less tolerance for junk food.
Also, the typical woman hiker burns about 2,000 calories on a day hike. While that sounds like a lot, a big restaurant meal and a few pints of beer will put almost all of those calories back in. This is especially true if you use your hike as an excuse to eat with abandon all day long.
So now if I feast after the hike, I don’t deny myself a treat, but I also try to focus on moderation and health. For example, I’ll cut the burger in half and take some home. And if I find myself ravenously hungry (which happens), I’ll try to make up the balance with healthy, whole food.
5. Hikers should eat a low-carb diet.
Low carb diets like paleo and keto are all the rage right now in both the outdoor and weight loss communities. And cutting carbs makes sense if weight loss is your primary goal.
However, if you’re training several days a week for a goal hike or climb, you are an endurance athlete. And in this scenario, you need plenty of healthy carbs for fuel.
Are there keto athletes out there? Absolutely. And if that’s working for you, that’s awesome. I don’t suggest you stop.
However, if you’re new to sports nutrition and wondering which way to go, the research is pretty overwhelming. When endurance athletes on high-carb and high-fat diets go head to head in controlled studies, high-carb wins almost every time.
High-carb diets are also a lot easier to stick to for most busy athletes.
So if you’re in training, eat like a marathoner (or a mountaineer) and add plenty of fruits, legumes, and healthy whole grains to your diet.
6. Eating the perfect clean/keto/paleo diet is the fastest path to weight loss.
Diets are a big deal in the outdoor sports community. Everyone is keto, paleo, gluten-free, clean, eliminating sugar, intermittent fasting, or carb cycling. Just the terminology alone can make your head spin!
If any of these approaches appeals to you, there’s no harm in trying it. And if you’re doing it already and it’s working for you, that’s awesome! I don’t suggest you stop.
However, while you can learn a lot from diets, they aren’t a magic bullet. In fact, most strict dieters (over 90 percent) can’t maintain their weight loss long term.
It’s important to avoid falling into a cycle of dieting, weight loss, and weight gain, because this can impact your metabolism and make it harder to lose weight down the road.
The science suggests that the best approach to weight loss is to focus on healthy, weight-agnostic behaviors. These include eating more fruits and vegetables, getting at least half your daily carbs from whole grains, following hunger cues, and limiting processed foods to one meal a day.
7. Hiking is dangerous for overweight people.
Exercise (including hiking) is generally safe for almost everyone and for people of all sizes. In fact, the risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle far outweigh the risks of exercising.
In very rare cases, exercise can lead to serious cardiovascular events such as stroke, heart attack and death. Participating in very high intensity exercise like HIIT or lifting heavy weights increases this risk, though the overall risk is still quite low.
People with risk factors for cardiovascular disease and chronic heath conditions should consult their healthcare provider before beginning a new exercise program. This is true regardless of your body size! In almost all cases, you will still be able to hike and train with a few adaptations to your program.
Many plus-size hikers worry about wear and tear on their joints. This is actually something that all hikers (and especially backpackers and trail runners) should pay attention to!
Some tips for promoting joint health:
- Use hiking poles to protect your knees.
- Don’t neglect strength and functional training.
- Correct muscle imbalances that could affect your posture and body mechanics.
- Make some of your weekly cardio workouts low-impact cross training like cycling, yoga, or elliptical training.
- Stretch all of your major muscle groups after each workout.
So there you have ’em. 7 icky myths about hiking for weight loss that you can bless and release for good!
I hope that letting these bad boys go helps you to feel freer and more confident in your body. Happy training!
Originally published June 28, 2019.