Is Hiking in the Mountains Good Cross-Training for Runners?

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.

20190523_104007
Hiking Huayna Picchu was intense and as it turns out was good cross-training for me!

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!

Happy running!

Donna

Author: runningtotravel

I'm a long distance runner with a goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states in the US. I also love to travel so I travel to other places when I'm not running races. Half the fun is planning where I'm going to go next!

13 thoughts on “Is Hiking in the Mountains Good Cross-Training for Runners?”

  1. I’m headed for The Rockies next week and will be out there for about two weeks. I didn’t think just two weeks at elevation would do anything, I thought you needed longer.
    Hopefully I can get in a run or two after hiking all day! Hopefully my blood will be super-charged when I get home.

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    1. I’ve done a number of short stints up at altitude (a few days to two weeks) and I always found that at least for the immediate short term, I see a benefit in my running. It goes away pretty quickly, but I do see something. I’m an absolute wuss about heat and humidity, but I actually ran quite well in Florida (in summer!) after a week in Boulder.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can see why some elite runners train at altitude. It seems there are definite benefits even to short amounts of time spent at higher elevation. That’s awesome that you felt a boost after just a week in Boulder!

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  2. I’ve never been in elevation high enough to consider training benefits, but I know it’s supposed to be awesome! And while heat and humidity are bummers, I think hills are harder and so I’m surprisingly faster coming from Berlin (only slightly higher) to south Florida. Glad you saw an improving, and that the injury wasn’t too bad!

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    1. I agree that while heat and humidity truly suck, I can deal with them easier than hills, which just kick my butt. I think any little bit of an edge, whether it’s running at elevation or a hilly terrain is great!

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  3. I think using different muscles while hiking was another contributor to the uptick in your fitness in addition to the high elevation. It allowed you to strengthen areas you normally might not get to during your typical cross training.

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  4. I’ve done a couple of races at elevation. For UT, I mostly hiked the week before the race; I think I did one run on my schedule. I had a great race. The gals that just came in for the weekend mostly struggled.

    Being at elevation does have its benefits, but I don’t think you see too many in that short a time, and I don’t think that they hang around that long, either.

    My guess would be it was just the hiking in general that was great cross training, but no matter, obviously something is working for you!

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    1. Apparently the long-lasting effects come into play because of the basically super-oxygenated red blood cells that are made while at high elevation. Typically, red blood cells survive for about 120 days, so you’ll see the effects for up to that long.

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