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.

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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