How to Maintain Your Gains on the Trail: Stop Muscle Loss During Thru-Hikes

Thru-hiking often leads to muscle loss, but it doesn't have to. Learn how to maintain your hard-earned muscle mass with proper nutrition, sleep, and bodyweight exercises while trekking the Appalachian Trail or other long trails.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

Woman hiker on top of a peak looking out over the surrounding wilderness
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If you’re looking to hike the Appalachian Trail or any other thru-hiking trail, you might be wondering how hiking affects muscle growth.

Many people think that they will lose all their strength and muscle if they go on a long hike, but this is not necessarily true, so this begs the question of how to not lose muscle thru-hiking?

You can minimize the loss but can’t stop it entirely as you will be in a caloric deficit for a vast amount of your thru-hike time. The best way to maintain muscle mass will be to ensure you eat as much protein as possible each day to help provide the needed amino acids.

In fact, thru-hiking can actually help you build stronger leg muscles! However, you may lose some muscle mass on the top half of your body, as there is less need for arm muscles and upper body in general feats of strength.

Reasons for Calorie Deficit on the Trail

There are some big reasons why most thru-hikers will begin to lose weight on the trail which can be linked to the following:

Massive Caloric Burn Over Normal Day-to-Day Life

For most people, even very active people, a thru-hike is just a level higher than any normal daily energy expenditure.

This is due to the fact that you are constantly walking for long hours each day which takes a lot more energy than most people, and their bodies, are used to.

Additionally, many thru-hikers also tend to move faster than they would if they were just out on a day hike. All of this extra movement will increase the number of calories burned each day (basal metabolic energy).

For most, the average energy needs for a person each day comes out to around 1800-2000 calories but on a thru-hike, each day’s energy use could be 5000 to 8000 calories or more!

This caloric difference is often too much for the body to make up for the food that a hiker can carry and thus body fat is tasked with supplying the calories which result in weight loss.

Leg Muscle Growth from Miles of Hiking

Most humans will have far below optimal leg muscle for the effort required on a long-distance thru-hike which means the body will see this as deficient and work to build up these muscles in both strength and durability.

This is how you can often see a change in leg muscle size and shape during your thru-hike as the body will be building these muscles to be bigger and stronger for the trail, this is why a hiker will start with 8-mile days but by the end will be cruising on 20+ mile days or longer.

This will help you on the trail as you will have the strength and endurance to cover more ground each day but this same lack of focus on upper body work can often lead to a decrease in muscle size on the top half of your body.

Muscle Burns More Calories Than Fat

Where fat is pretty flat metabolically speaking as it requires no real energy use for activity, muscle is metabolically expensive and the more muscle you have the more calories you will burn due to the need to maintain it.

This is one of the big reasons why long-distance hikers often start losing weight as they are in a growing caloric deficit month after month which forces the body to use whatever it can for energy including proteins and muscle tissue as necessary.

Preserve Muscle By Losing Fat Stores

Weight loss itself isn’t a bad thing in general as many of us carry more than a few excess pounds of body fat but it’s how that weight is lost that matters.

Ideally, you want to lose body fat stores and not muscle mass as this can lead to a host of issues down the road including injuries, slower recovery times, and just a general decrease in how you feel.

This is one of the main reasons why protein becomes so important on a long-distance hike as it helps to protect your muscle tissue from being used for energy by the body and can help you maintain a healthy weight.

Strategies to Maintain Muscle Mass

There are a few keys to helping maintain muscle mass on a long-distance thru-hike which include not just eating things like junk food but focusing on a few more specific approaches:

Ensure Enough Protein Intake Daily

Something which is frequently overlooked is the actual protein content in the foods they carry, focusing instead on brute force calories to sustain energy needs.

This can often lead to a hiker not getting enough protein each day which will impact how much muscle they can maintain on the trail.

The optimal protein intake that would stimulate the protein synthesis is about 0.3 g/kg (or 0.4 if you are in an energy deficit, which is likely during long hiking) or 20-30g per meal/snacks for most adults.

Gourmet Hiking

This may seem like a lot but when you consider how much muscle mass is being used and abused each day it becomes clear why this is important.

Additionally, protein isn’t processed all at once and if possible you should look to spread snacks and meals throughout the day with at least 20-30 grams consumed with each meal or snack to ensure optimal utilization.

Planning Your Meals Effectively

As stated above you want to manage your proteins throughout the day, so planned with each meal and snack how you will be getting in your daily requirements.

This means looking at how many calories each food item has and how much protein is in it so you can roughly plan out how much you need to eat over the course of a day.

There are a few different ways to do this but often plotting it out on paper or using an app or spreadsheet like Google Sheets can be helpful to see how you are doing prior to leaving.

Additionally, many of the commercially available freeze-dried meals will also have this information on the packaging which can make it easier to plan out as well.

Supplementing with a Protein Powder

Another way to help ensure you are getting enough protein each day is to supplement with a protein powder like these TB12 packs.

This can be a great way to get in additional protein before or after a long day on the trail and can help you hit your daily numbers with relative ease, many will add to a coffee or breakfast item in the morning as a kick start to their day.

There are many different kinds of protein powders available so finding one that works for you is important, some even have added vitamins and minerals which can be helpful as well.

Getting Adequate Quality Sleep

Recovery and repair happen mostly during sleep, so getting adequate quality sleep is important to muscle maintenance.

This means trying to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night if possible and ensuring you have a good sleeping setup on the trail that you are comfortable in and won’t wake frequently.

There are many different ways to do this but often will be down to a tent, whether semi-freestanding or trekking pole version or they use a hammock which suspends you off the ground giving high-quality rest on the trail.

Make Sure to Work Your Upper Body With Daily Calisthenics

If you somehow still have energy in the AM before you leave or in the late afternoon when done hiking for the day, you could look to do some upper body work with calisthenics since this is an area where muscle loss can happen.

Doing things like push-ups, sit-ups, and dips are all great exercises on the trail with little to no equipment needed and will help you maintain some upper body muscle mass.

Readjusting Your Diet Post-Hike

When you have been eating less than you need for a long time, your body craves any calories.

This is what happens when hikers encounter “hiker hunger” and tend to pound calorie-dense food in towns like ice cream, fries, burgers, etc.

However, after your thru-hike is finished, your body will require less food to recover than it is needed on the trail.

It might be difficult to maintain a post-hike diet because many hikers continue to feel hungry after the trek.

Your body may still be hungry even after you stop walking. This can happen after a thru-hike that lasts for many months.

It can take a few weeks to months for some to readjust back to their more regular diet.

Tendency to Overeat Continues For Months

If you don’t change your diet when you finish your thru-hike, you might gain a lot of weight. This is because our bodies naturally store fat after intense physical activity stops.

When attempting to break unhealthy food habits that may have developed on the trail, you must consider these elements while balancing your nutritional needs.

It’s critical to evaluate weight changes after a trek objectively in order to have a healthy relationship with your body. This implies that beginning and stopping a hike leads to two unavoidable natural results: weight loss and weight gain.

You shouldn’t fear this but should be aware of it and the extra mental and physical care your body will require.

Key Takeaways for Muscle Maintenance

Hopefully, you now have a better grasp on why it is very possible to not lose muscle on a thru-hike but that it will take some serious focus and effort on your part to maintain energy levels and as physical fitness grows your miles per day.

There are many things working against you such as low-calorie intake, high mileage days, and intense physical activity but with a little knowledge and planning, you can avoid any serious muscle loss.

Just remember to focus on getting enough protein, quality sleep, and doing some upper body work each day and you’ll be in good shape to maintain that muscle mass. Thanks for reading!

How have your thru-hikes changed your body? Let us know in the comments below.

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