When it comes to nutrition, the average thru-hiker generally has one thing on his mind: calories. This is a valid concern for a person walking over 20 miles per day for months at a time with a 15- to 30-pound pack on his back. However, not all calories are created equal.
Many high-calorie foods like potato chips, ramen, beef jerky, candy bars, and ice cream are very low in nutrients. Eating processed snacks and foods high on the food chain (in other words, animal products) puts additional strain on your body to break down unnatural substances and detoxify your system. On top of the incredible demand of hiking marathon distances day after day, a poor diet can be just another challenge for your body to deal with. You don’t just need calories, but also nutrients.
The Tarahumara Indians are perhaps the most similar model to the thru-hiker lifestyle. In a culture where running anywhere between 200 and 400 miles without stopping is a regular occurrence, these folks have their diet figured out. Their fuel consists primarily of corn, beans, and chia seeds. Their diet is high in complex carbohydrates and very low in fat and cholesterol, yet they still get enough calories and protein to run for days on end. Though the Tarahumara people do eat meat on occasion, it is not a fundamental element of their diet.
It may also be helpful to look at the diet of some of the greats in the world of endurance athletes:
In 2015, ultrarunner Scott Jurek accomplished the fastest known time for a supported hike of the Appalachian Trail. Jurek averaged over 50 miles per day and did it all on a plant-based diet.
Venus and Serena Williams fuel their champion tennis career on a plant-based diet
Rich Roll is a triathlete who completed five Ironman races in a row on a plant-based diet
Current NFL stars Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady follow plant-heavy diet
Marathon runner Fiona Oakes, bodybuilder Jahina Malik, racecar driver Leilani Munter, former NFL star David Carter, and countless others are reaping the benefits of a plant-based diet for athletic performance
Knowing this diet works for Tarahumara Indians, professional athletes, and supported speed records is one thing. But how does this diet apply to the average thru-hiker who depends on resupply boxes and small grocery stores in mountain towns? Everything you eat, you carry on your back—meaning green smoothies are out and dehydrated noodles are in.
why a diet high in plant foods is beneficial to the athletes?
Let’s go over just a bit of the research that helps explain why a diet high in plant foods is beneficial to the long-distance hiker. One of the main benefits reaped by vegan hikers is an increased recovery time, meaning less soreness after exercise. This is attributed, in part, to a higher intake of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients found in plant foods.
Any athlete who makes the switch from an omnivorous diet to a plant-based diet will tell you that the first benefit they notice is faster recovery. Whenever you put a strain on your body by exercising, tiny micro-tears occur in the fibers of your muscles. In addition, the act of exercising causes free radicals (damaged molecules) to form, which then go on to cause oxidative stress, injuring proteins, enzymes, and sometimes DNA. The combination of micro-tears and oxidative stress can lead to muscle soreness that lasts for days after the event.
One key to combating the damage of strenuous activity is eating foods high in antioxidants. These plant chemicals quench free radicals and help repair torn muscle fibers. For example, berries are extremely high in antioxidants. Studies show that cherries and blueberries can decrease muscle soreness in athletes
Antioxidants are also found in other fruits (apples, berries, oranges, etc.), vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, beets, carrots, etc.), whole grains (brown rice, oats, whole wheat, etc.), and legumes (beans, peas, lentils, etc.). Their primary purpose is to protect plant cells from damage. Fortunately, they also help protect human cells. The more of these foods we have in our diet, the less likely we are to experience soreness and injury.
In addition to being able to quench free radicals, plant foods also have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. A certain amount of inflammation happens after straining the body with any kind of exercise. When this exercise is hiking for hours on end, day after day, inflammation is inevitable. Perhaps the two most powerful things you can do to help your body deal with this stress are to rest adequately and eat a diet high in plant foods.
When vegan and vegetarian diets were put to the test against pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diets, people following a vegan or vegetarian diet showed lower levels of inflammation. Further studies have shown that even just cutting down on red meat can lead to lower levels of inflammatory markers in the blood. This means that the specific compounds in the body that cause swelling, pain, aches, and redness are lower in vegans and vegetarians. These benefits can’t be attributed to any one vitamin or mineral, but are noticed most profoundly when the balance of foods shifts away from animal foods and more toward plants.
Another strategy to decrease inflammation in the body is to avoid foods that specifically cause inflammation. Excess animal protein and fat has been shown to be inflammatory. While some inflammation in the body is necessary, too much can be detrimental. Researchers speculate that excess inflammation is due to a particular kind of fat that is found in animal foods: arachidonic acid. This is the exact material the body uses to make inflammatory molecules that, in excess, lead to aches and pains. In other words, when you give your body more of the ingredients (animal fat) to make harmful substances (inflammation), it will. If you give your body more of the ingredients (plant foods) to make helpful substances (anti-inflammatory compounds), it will.
Whether it is through speeding recovery, reducing inflammation, or simply providing fuel that is easier for the body to assimilate, plants work wonders for the endurance athlete and the thru-hiker alike.
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