Exercise-Induced Inflammation and Thru-Hiker Diets: Are You Helping or Hurting Your Recovery?

Published by Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD on

Thru-hiking is an intense physical undertaking that, over time, can cause significant inflammation in the body. This physiological process is called exercise-induced inflammation and is a normal response to the muscle damage caused by high-intensity physical activity. With proper rest and recovery, this inflammatory response will be used in a positive way to regenerate muscle tissue.

When inflammation becomes chronic, it can affect the entire body and cause fatigue, muscle damage, soreness, and decreased recovery capacity. Avoiding exercise-induced inflammation while thru-hiking may not be possible, but the good news is that your diet can play a big part in reducing (or increasing) this chronic inflammation. 

Exercised-Induced Inflammation and the Traditional Thru-Hiker Diet:

Honeybuns, ramen, and candy bars, oh my!

These foods are delicious, cheap, and easy to prepare, so it makes sense that so many thru-hikers would rely on them for sustenance. While all foods can fit into a healthy diet, it’s important to understand how they may help (or hinder) performance and recovery.

Research shows that the standard American diet, which is high in saturated fat and added sugar and low in fruits and vegetables, is associated with higher markers of both acute and chronic inflammation in the body. Unfortunately, many thru-hikers forgo fruits and vegetables and eat more added sugar and saturated fat on trail than in their daily life.

Pro-inflammatory eating patterns, such as the traditional thru-hiker diet, have been shown to have detrimental effects on both exercise performance and recovery. Over time, the decreased recovery capacity, fatigue, and muscle soreness caused by prolonged inflammation can seriously affect your hiking!

To learn more about traditional thru-hiker diets, consider watching this video…

Anti-inflammatory Diets and Performance:

On the flip side…

Diets rich in antioxidants and heart-healthy fats have been shown to assist in reducing exercise-induced inflammation.

Antioxidants are compounds found in foods such as berries, leafy greens, and beans; while Omega-3 fatty acids and unsaturated fats support brain and heart health while reducing inflammation. They can be found in nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and olive oil.

By focusing on consuming anti-oxidants and heart-healthy fats, to lower long-term exercise-induced inflammation, an athlete can reduce muscle soreness, increase muscle growth, and decrease recovery time. All of these benefits can be incredibly helpful for day hikers and thru-hikers alike! 

What does this mean for you and your hiker diet?

You can make an impact on your muscle recovery AND long-term health by creating an anti-inflammatory eating pattern on trail. It may seem daunting to increase antioxidants and healthy fats in your diet while also trying to reduce cost, weight, and preparation time.

Thankfully, there are many simple dietary changes you can make to improve your diet and reduce exercise-induced inflammation.

Tips for Following an Anti-Inflammatory Diet On Trail:

  • Add chia or ground flax seeds into your morning oatmeal for healthy fats.
  • Use olive oil instead of coconut oil in your recipes.
  • Focus on dried fruit (which may have more antioxidants per gram than its fresh counterpart!)
  • Swap milk chocolate or candy bars for dark chocolate.
  • Incorporate fruits with antioxidants into your breakfast.
  • Prepare fruit and vegetable-rich recipes for lunch or dinner.
  • Get some easy liquid nutrition by using meal replacement drinks.
  • Eat fresh fruits and vegetables on town days whenever possible.
  • If you’re eating meat, focus on tuna or salmon instead of pepperoni and sausage.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Kellan Morgan is a former dietetic intern mentored by Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD.  She is a recent graduate of the Montana Dietetic Internship in Bozeman, MT, with an undergraduate degree in dietetics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She hopes to create a career focused on non-diet disease management and eating disorder recovery using a Health At Every Size approach. When she’s not studying or talking about nutrition, she enjoys rock climbing, backpacking, and trail running

 

Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD is the founder and owner of Backcountry Foodie™. Aaron is a registered dietitian and ultralight long-distance backpacker with a passion for food. She spends much of her time experimenting with new ultralight recipes in her kitchen and later trail tests them to ensure that they meet backcountry adventurers’ needs.  You can follow Aaron’s adventures in the kitchen and in the backcountry via Instagram and Facebook.

References:

Chait, Alan, et al. “Saturated Fatty Acids and Inflammation: Who Pays the Toll?” Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 1 Apr. 2010, www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/ATVBAHA.110.203984.

Nieman, David C, et al. “Influence of a Polyphenol-Enriched Protein Powder on Exercise-Induced Inflammation and Oxidative Stress in Athletes: a Randomized Trial Using a Metabolomics Approach.” PloS One, Public Library of Science, 15 Aug. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3744465/.

Spano, Marie. “Postexercise Recovery – Proper Nutrition Is Key to Refuel, Rehydrate, and Rebuild After Strenuous Workouts.” Today’s Dietitian, Nov. 2013, www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/110413p18.shtml.

Totsch, S K. “Effects of a Standard American Diet and an Anti-Inflammatory Diet on Male and Female Mice.” National Library of Medicine, 22 Aug. 2018, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29436058/.

Wehrmeinster, A A. “Antioxidant Content of Fresh, Frozen, Canned, and Dried Blueberries.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Aug. 2002, jandonline.org/article/S0002-8223(05)00850-3/fulltext.


2 Comments

Dan Gonzales · July 4, 2020 at 11:09 pm

Once again, you presented easy to understand information. Many of your recipes fit in nicely with my whole food plant based lifestyle. Thanks!

Rudek · July 6, 2020 at 2:25 pm

Glad somebody is trying to change the perspective on hiker food, hiking could be a tough physical activity, specially a thru hike, and nutrition needs to be considered and optimized for improved performance, recovery and injury prevention. Thanks for your work and contribution.

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