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How to Stay Healthy for a Lifetime on Trail

By Craig Romano

I have been hiking and running regularly since my early 20s. Now in my late 50s, I’m still going strong. In my 20s, I could never have imagined the kind of mileage that I am putting on the trail in my 50s. I regularly do 20-plus-mile day hikes and 30-mile trail runs. I ran 50 miles for my 50th birthday and to celebrate my next decade, I’m training for my first 100K (62-mile) trail run.

If you’re interested in endurance athletics, genetics might help, but it really comes down to lifestyle. And whether you’re 20 or 60, right now is the perfect time to make changes and commitments to living a healthy lifestyle. While living healthy may not guarantee longevity (there are factors we cannot control), it will almost certainly guarantee a more satisfying life — and one that makes hiking more enjoyable and rewarding.

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Photo courtesy Craig Romano.

So here is what I have learned over the decades and from tens of thousands of miles on the trail.

  • Eat well: Eat for performance and strive to eat healthy. I enjoy burgers, pizza and other treats like most people — but I limit my intake of them, often to after a long hike or challenging run. I eat plant-based meals about 60% of the time. On the trail, my intake is primarily carbohydrates and protein, and I graze as I go. This keeps my caloric intake consistent, my blood sugar from crashing and my engine continuously motoring.
  • Move your body: I engage in cardiovascular workouts 6 days a week, year-round. I hike, run, walk or bike almost every day. Keeping your heart strong is one of the best ways to stay conditioned for the trail. But regularly exercising is not everything. I also strive for an overall active lifestyle. I opt for stairs, park farther from the front of stores and embrace activities like lawn mowing. My vacation, down and leisure time is rarely sedentary. You’re at your own place in your fitness journey, so wherever you are, find a way to move that works for you.
  • Mix it up: Cross-training is vital. I stretch regularly (although never enough — and I swear this is the year I finally take up yoga) and do weight repetitions and resistance exercises to strengthen core muscles. Keeping the upper parts of your body in shape also enhances your trail performance — especially when carrying a pack, scrambling or climbing up and over obstacles.
  • Be gentle with your body: One of the most important lessons I learned was while backpacking (and hurting) on Vermont’s Long Trail during my 20s. Always listen to your body. It will tell you when it needs a break — don’t ignore it. Just as important as regular exercise are rest and recovery days. Get adequate sleep and take time off to recover after exhausting days on the trail. As you age, recovery time increases — don’t rush it. But don’t be completely sedentary. If you’re sore, take an easy walk to work out lactic acid and prevent muscles from tightening up. To really work out the kinks and tightness, I regularly schedule deep-tissue massages. These are intense — but the results are rejuvenating, and within a couple of days I am renewed and ready to push myself again.

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Craig near Mount St. Helens. Photo by Wendy Wheeler-Jacobs.

  • Gear up: Equally important as eating properly and exercising is having the proper equipment — especially footwear. Be properly fitted and purchase quality shoes. And consider trekking poles. They have many applications, but most important to me is that they redistribute half of my weight to my upper body when I am coming down a steep slope. That’s a lot of pressure off of my knees — and a lot of weight off of my feet, lessening chances of a sprain.
  • Stay hydrated: Always staying properly hydrated is tantamount to staying healthy on trail. Drink plenty of fluids. Sports gels and electrolyte tablets are great too — especially in warm weather and when you’re sweating profusely. Staying properly hydrated helps prevent heat stroke and fatigue. It also helps you think clearly and stay focused, which lessens your chances of being injured or getting into a bad predicament.
  • Mental health matters: Hiking and running are excellent for maintaining good mental health, which is more important than ever during this age of COVID-19. When we head outside and move freely through the backcountry, it helps validate our existence. And when we feel good mentally, it helps us stay physically healthy — creating a circle of positivity. 

And as we age, accept that we may not be able to do things like we once did. Set new goals. I no longer have the speed that I had when I was younger. Now I aim for endurance. And eventually I won’t be able to go as far as I once did — but that is okay. The mere fact that we continue to get outside, move and explore the world around us is enough.

Remember too that with age comes years of experience and conditioning that can very well lead you to doing things on the trail and pushing your body to points that were inconceivable to your younger self. Last summer, I chatted with a seasoned hiker on the top of West Tiger 3. I asked him if he gets out much. He told me yes, but not as much as he did 4 ago before he turned 80!

Living a healthy lifestyle is contagious too. Model it and encourage others to live healthy so that they too can look forward to many fulfilling years on the trail.

Craig Romano is a guidebook author who has hiked more than 27,000 miles in Washington. Learn more about him and his books at craigromano.com.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.