Numerous people have noted that I can be difficult to keep up with on the trail. I don't really attribute these comments to any innate advantages I might have. A long stride, for instance, helps, but that is just a minor plus. Real speed in the backcountry takes training, experience, and the development of systems that eliminate inefficiencies.
I'm fit, but not extraordinarily so. I don't run mountain ultras. I don't through-hike 30 miles a day. There are books that reduce endurance sports to a science. This is not my goal here. All the nutrition, gear, and fitness advice in the world won't help you if you don't know how to walk, so let's start there.
1.) Pace/Cadence: Set a pace that will get you there. When I set out on a hike I set a pace that I can live with, a pace I can sustain for miles, regardless of the steepness of the trail. I settle on a cadence (the rate of time step-to-step) that can be maintained. Set the metronome in your head to a certain cadence of step. As the angle of the trail changes, instead of speeding up or slowing down, change the length of your stride. An analogy would be to think of the gearing on a mountain bike. The gears are set up to change the distance gained per crank depending on the gear you're in. Change the gear and you change the distance traveled per crank, yet you can still pedal at the same speed (cadence). Lose the bike and apply the same principle to your feet, and you'll be able to travel farther with fewer rests. Stay with your cadence and shorten your steps when on an increasing angle of climb. Lengthen your stride as the angle backs off, but stay with your same step-to-step cadence. Over distance, this technique can save time and energy.
We've all hiked with people who charge ahead on easy terrain but can't sustain that speed on the steeps. This method steals energy from the over-all effort because the hiker is hitting the gas on the easy stuff when he should be walking at the same pace that would get him up the next hill. Hikers who control their cadence will inevitably catch up with the sprinter because they maintained a more stable expenditure of energy, need fewer rests, and recover faster.
Regulate your breathing. If you're sucking air you're being inefficient and should drop your cadence down a notch. Much like interval training at the gym, an oscillating heart-rate and respiratory effort, while cardiovascularly good for you, is a huge drain on the amount of energy you have available over the long haul. Remember, the goal is to get to where you're going, have the energy to enjoy the journey, and not be dead on arrival.
A word on foot placement. Be aware of where you put your feet. Well-placed steps save alot of energy over the course of a day. Conversely, poor foot-work stresses the joints and accessory muscles that keep you upright and stable, can lead to slips and sprains, and generally wastes energy. Think like a ninja when it comes to your feet.
2.) Calories: Hiking of any sort requires energy (calories). Start thinking of your body as a car. A car needs two things, fuel and air, to run the engine, the electrical systems, the transmission, etc... A car can't go unless it has a reliable, steady stream of fuel. We're no different. Now think about what we use to fuel our own engine.
Everybody seems to have a different idea about what makes good "trail food". Most people's solutions to what and when to eat while hiking don't work for me. Indulge me while I explain what works for me and why I think that is.
I start the morning of all my hikes lean, maybe 400 calories. I go for black coffee (caffeine has been shown to improve athletic performance by as much as 35%), fruit, and/or a bar of some sort (Clif Bar, Power Bar, Pure Protein). The trick is that I take in calories that are easily and quickly converted to energy. I avoid fats, salt, and cheap sugars. If the goal is to start the morning feeling lean and mean then skip the McDonald's.
A hiker on a moderately steep trail will burn at least 500 calories per hour. I replace about 100-200 of those calories hourly. Mostly I use GU maltodextrine gels and my own blend of Gatoraid/Creatine/Whey Isolate. These foods are liquid based, absorbed quickly, and provide a sustained release of energy. I don't think about trail food in terms of "meals", I identify food as "calories to get me there". Sure, I eat what I want when I've arrived at my destination for the day, but I think very differently about the calories that will most efficiently get me to that point. To my way of thinking, if you want to be light and fast, then eat light and fast. Stay on top of your intake of calories and don't wait until you're about to bonk before replacing them. Caloric replacement should be more like a small but steady stream, less like a bucket-full every four hours.
3.) Drink Water: Water is the stuff of life and we don't perform well at all without it. The human body can absorb only about a liter per hour. That's just about what you're likely to lose in an hour of hard hiking. The body loses actual muscle strength and endurance as the body loses water. Joints and muscles become weaker, sloppier, when deprived of water. Fatigue is more pronounced and debilitating without water. Start out the day hydrated and stay that way. Monitor yourself during the day, nag yourself to drink water, and have an all around better day on the trail. Simple.
4.) Pick the right gear for success: Yvonne Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) once said that most of what we bring with us into the outdoors is "superfluous". I don't buy into that idea much. I use the gear that will either improve the quality of my experience or provide a margin of error for unforeseen difficulties. For example, I always carry a first-aid/repair kit, a mylar emergency blanket, extra calories, a multi-tool, compass, and clothing that will get me through the worst weather I could expect to encounter should I become disabled. I'm an Eagle Scout and the "preparedness factor" has paid me big dividends. I suggest that you consider everything that goes on you and into your pack in terms of: Will I use this item today, or will I need it in a emergency? If you're unlikely to use it, or need it, don't bring it.
5.) Mission: What is your goal, how can you accomplish it, and how can you best enjoy the process? Tailor your thinking about a day in the outdoors to these three questions and you'll have a better experience. Utilizing the first four of the points I made will make the day faster, more efficient, and more fun. Selecting a firm goal for the day makes it happen.
Knowing what to bring, how to get there, and how much time and energy it will take comes with experience, but these are all part of a process (or system) that gets you to where you want to go, shows you what you want to see. These points I've mentioned are all factors in forming the bigger picture, which is to see/do/experience the outdoors. The outdoors is not the Stair Master or a treadmill, it is an environment full of ever changing influences, populated with life and scenery, rejuvenating for mind and body. In order to see the things other people miss, one must have their eyes and mind open. This state is nearly impossible to achieve if one is uncomfortable, poorly equipped, or flogging themselves up some steep hill. Greater efficiency in the basic steps of a day outdoors improves the ability to enjoy the experience more. Think smarter, hike smarter, enjoy the experience more.
As always, I welcome your comments. I would enjoy reading your own stories of what
works for you in the mountains.