View Full Version : Hiker Legs or Hiker Brain?

Gambit McCrae
08-24-2018, 10:41
Lots of folks talk about these legs hikers get after miles and miles of walkin... Is it really the legs or is it the brain change of knowing what your body can actually do?
My vote is possibly a combination of both even though the brain never gets mentioned.
If I had to pick hiker legs or hiker brain - eliminating any lack in experience, knowing what I am actually capable of etc
Then I am picking the brain, with the brain the legs will come with time if they are needed :)

Part of what got me thinking about this is I sit at a computer and work all day, and then those times of the year finally roll around and I exit the computer chair and get to walk for 1 week, and at another time 2 weeks. And I seem to pickup a thru hiker pace which thru CT, NY and NJ was an average of 18.25 MPD, for 2 weeks. Could I have sustained this pace for longer? I think so, did it for 16 days.

Disclaimer** This thread is not about me, or my MPD - Just using that as my reference point.

Captain Panda
08-24-2018, 10:45
Definitely both.

08-24-2018, 11:33
As I understand it, and experienced it, it is a physiological change that the body makes when put under extreme periods of intense activity daily, such as 3-4 weeks of hiking. I like to call it 'refugee mode', and a survival adaptation.

It is just not the legs, but the body goes into a overdrive mode, and so does the need for food. I've even seen sickness such as colds be much more minor during this mode.

I don't think for a second it is 'hiker brain' as you describe it, it is a change in ability, and a change in the need for food, I don't believe one has that capability without that change into 'refugee' mode, and I believe if one tries to they will find that instead of being overly hungry and feeing great and almost superhuman, one after such a thing would feel depleted, loss of appetite, and possibly nauseous and not able to keep it up day in and day out.

Just Bill
08-24-2018, 12:02
It's all three.

Simple enough; pick nearly any exercise or sport and you'll typically see immediate results and improvement in roughly 4-6 weeks. Then it will taper and perhaps bottom out. Hiking may not be 'peak performance' oriented physically, but it is an endurance sport with millions of 'reps'. So regardless of past experience, like any exercise... some parts of it fade. If you squat xxx pounds after 6 weeks of training... taking a year off will not result in you returning right to that level despite any knowledge or experience gained from the initial training. Stop walking 20+ miles a day, and you won't slip back into it really.

Hiker hunger or metabolism increase is not unique to this sport either. And is really just a direct result of sustained physical activity.
When I was a field carpenter who also worked side jobs... long distance hiking was a welcome break. Often I ate less hiking or really just switched from high output to high output.
As a desk jockey- I often eat less than I do at home for the first few days and my hiker hunger doesn't snap back simply because I've returned to the trail. Occasionally on some quicker trips... I force myself to eat.

Now that said... what doesn't fade so quickly is muscle memory.
Learning to woods walk, how to carry your body, how to carry a pack. If you use trekking poles. What it feels like to extend a stride to increase ground covered. Or how to short step with increased cadence on slippery ground.
I'm sure someone could chime in with some studies on inner ability to adapt once more to a sport specific stress... but the body at least has some idea of how it handled this before.
Having a solid sense of what you're capable of is a good part of it- ideally in both directions from several different reference points. Tell a newbie they will hike a 10 mile day it seems ridiculous, tell that same NOBO hiker that 12 weeks and several hundred miles up trail and a ten mile day will seem like a nero. So in that respect what one is capable of is something one works up to and doesn't forget.
Basically- you may not always be physically able to endurance race or do tricks- but once you've learned how to ride a bike you never forget.

Mentally- Hiker brain can work against you too. You might expect to do something you are no longer in shape to do. Or misjudge an aproaching storm, water carry, or other habit you might have you aren't quite in step with if your physical ability has decreased. All those little benchmarks you built that from (especially if it only comes from long distance hiking) may be off. Dead reckoning, pacing, or other knowledge that depends on a steady output physically may flounder a bit.

Ideally you have added up a little hiker knowledge and hiker experience to equal a little hiker wisdom.

So I agree with what you said, "with the brain the legs will come with time if they are needed"
I'd just add that the physical body has a brain of it's own as well... so an experienced long distance hiker coming back a decade later... may indeed be 2/3rds of the way there despite physical fitness.

However those with a decade more than me would point out that your knees, hips, and back have their own form of memory too.:eek: