This is the question I asked myself after taking two weeks off from running while I was hiking the mountains of Peru. I had planned on trying to run while I was in Arequipa towards the latter part of my vacation, a city that I thought would be more manageable as far as running, but that turned out to not be a viable option either. Everywhere we were in Peru, I found challenges to finding a safe running route, from uneven cobblestones to massive crowds of people to wild dogs (and their inevitable poo left behind) to very high elevation, and then I was sick. At least on this trip to Peru, it was not meant for me to run.
Unfortunately when I returned home from my two-week vacation in Peru, I returned home to ungodly heat and humidity. The day after I got back, I ran and immediately felt the heat and humidity hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought perhaps my legs would be stronger from all of the intense hiking but instead I found my inner thighs to be so sore that I felt it pretty early on when I started running. I had to ask myself were they just sore from hiking and I didn’t feel it until I started running or had they gotten weaker from not running? Either case, it was unexpected.
I had to jump right into half marathon training for my next race and actually skip ahead a few weeks, so there was no easing back into running. I felt like I was terribly slow on my first few runs, but then I was curious. I looked back at my runs this time last year and found something surprising.
My runs were on average one minute per mile faster compared with runs this time last year. What? That was unexpected. In fact, five days after I got home from Peru, I saw a notification on my Garmin watch that I had run my fastest mile ever, or at least since having Garmin Connect, during a 5-mile run. That was most definitely unexpected. I ran in the evening too, at the peak of the high temperature for the day (yes, no morning run for me that day, despite the fact I recently proclaimed I have become a “sometimes” morning runner).
Maybe there is something to hiking mountains as cross-training for runners after all. I don’t think there is any substitution for acclimating to heat and humidity but maybe hiking, especially the extremely difficult hiking at high elevation that I did helped me not only maintain my fitness level but helped my legs and the rest of my body get a little stronger. I did a little research and found an article on the subject, Two weeks in the mountains can change your blood for months.”
Now I’m a full-on believer that yes, hiking, especially at high elevation is great cross-training for runners. If only there were some mountains within a reasonable drive for a day-trip near where I live. In the meantime, I have some super-powered red blood cells that will hopefully help power me through not only my half marathon training cycle but also for my race next month. I’ll need all the help I can get because the race is at 5,906 feet, high enough to have me a little concerned. After all, the Boulder Rez Half Marathon in Colorado was at about 5,300 feet and it was so difficult my legs felt like lead when I was running it. I’m curious to see how/if there are any lingering effects from my time in Peru when I run in Wyoming. Only time will tell!
Have you experienced increases in fitness levels after exercising at high elevation then returning home to lower ground? Do you have a story to tell about this? I’d love to hear about your experiences or someone you know!