Two days ago I climbed the tallest mountain in the continental United States. Mt Whitney in the Eastern Sierras of California is nearly 14,500 feet tall. As we drove up the winding road to the campground at 8,500 feet the day before the climb, the peak loomed above us, craggy and menacing above the high treeline.
When you do a day hike that covers 22 miles with 6,000 feet of elevation change both up and down, you need to start early. The alarm went off at 1:30 after 3 hours of restless sleep and we were off. All I had in my pack was the gear below.
I ate all but 2 Epic Bars, 1 Quest Bar, and only finished one pack of trail mix. I also had 3 bananas and a few apples not pictured. We refilled water at a hike lake camp on both the ascent and descent using a water pump. All in all, I probably drank 6 liters of water during the 14 hours in addition to a liter just before the hike. I could have easily survived on less food, but this was a good amount and gave me a steady stream of energy. Apparently you don’t burn more calories at high altitude, but it sure feels that way, so I think eating a lot just made things easier mentally.
I had done zero specific training for this hike, yet it would be the most distance I’ve ever covered in a day, in addition to the highest I’ve been and the biggest altitude change I’ve experienced. All in all, it went great. Our crew of 8 made summit at 10:30AM after 7 and a half hours of hiking. We caught an incredible sunrise about halfway up, pictured above. We left the peak at 11AM and reached the bottom at 4:50, just shy of 14 hours for the round trip. Taking into account the elevation change, the 22 miles we covered was equivalent to a marathon and more.
We had the smart idea to spend the few days after the hike in a 3 bedroom apartment in the Mammoth Mountain Village. The Village Lodge is a great little getaway located in the heart of Mammoth and just a stone’s throw from great food, shops, bars, the Mammoth Brewery, and free access to a pool and gym.
After a ton of food and a great night’s sleep, I woke up the day after the hike with a good amount of soreness in the shoulders, upper back, hip flexors, low hamstrings, and significantly in the calves and feet. Despite this, I decided to get myself over to the Lodge gym and get in a workout. Given what they had in the gym, I came up with the following:
Every minute on the minute for 15 minutes: 4 pull ups, 8 goblet squats 30lbs
For Time, 6 Rounds: DB Curl 30lb x10, DB Press 30lb x10, 10 Pushups
To my amazement, these two circuits actually felt pretty damn good as I was doing them. Granted the weights I was using were light since that’s all they had at the gym, but my joints and my movement felt really solid. Usually when I’m run down, my back, knees, and calves will give me some issues and it’s difficult to recover during circuits. I actually felt better in there than a lot of training days where I do nothing the day prior.
Why Climbing a Mountain is Better Rest Than Sitting on the Couch
I’ve seen it time and time again in my own training that doing absolutely nothing on a given day leaves me less recovered for the next day than doing something. I shouldn’t say less recovered…rather, less prepared to train well on that following day. I first noticed this when I was doing the Starting Strength program. That’s three days a week of heavy lifting with days off in between training sessions. The goal is to put on muscle and strength, so the idea is to eat and rest as much as possible without putting in any extra training beyond the three days. I certainly took this to heart on Sundays when I would lie on the couch all day, watch the NFL on Red Zone, and eat 7,000+ calories. Even though my lifts were going up, this type of ‘rest day’ left me feeling as creaky as an 80 year old on my Monday training days.
I’ve learned over time how crucial ‘active rest’ days can be. Whether it’s mobility work, yoga, sports, or something aerobic and monostructural like swimming, rowing, or running, this type of activity is a key part of recovery. By getting the joints moving, warming the body, and speeding blood and nutrients to the tissues that are trying to repair after hard training sessions, these active rest days can leave you feeling significantly better than if you had just propped your feet up on the couch or sat at your desk for 10 hours.
The Mt. Whitney hike was basically an extreme version of this type of monostructural active rest. I never reached muscular or aerobic failure and kept my joints moving and warm throughout the whole thing.
We Need More Movement
In general, human beings in the developed world need to move more, not less. Too often professionals in fitness circles get ultra dogmatic when it comes to regimented programming and this tends to trickle down to the masses. For the majority of people, doing extra activity (as long as it’s varied) is going to be beneficial, not detrimental.
“Overtraining” is a very nebulous concept and honestly does not come into play for the majority people. The average person would have to beat themselves into the ground about 6 days a week for more than a month to truly be overtrained. And people have still done that and haven’t been overtrained.
I was listening to Joe De Sena (creator of Spartan Race) on a podcast and he was talking about how he and his very young son did a marathon together. The host asked him if he was ever afraid the son was too young and wouldn’t be able to make it and Joe replied, “If you go slow enough, you can get through anything.” I absolutely love that quote and it has great significance for doing a marathon, hiking a mountain, and just moving more and trying more things in general. A lot of people refuse to move because they’re ‘not in shape’ or ‘not good enough’, but if you follow DeSena’s logic, you can do absolutely anything as long as you start slowly enough. You could go into a CrossFit class and do half the reps at half the weight or do the shortest triathlon possible while going as slowly as possible. Not only is this far better for your body than doing nothing, but you’ve also started the process of getting better at those things and building the grit to push through.