|My new cross-training tool is simple, cheap, and effective.|
I may ride my bike again this year, or I may not. It doesn’t matter much, as my racing season is surely over. And with the early arrival of winter weather, my thoughts have turned to offseason cross-training options. I like to hike, but I want to make my hikes more challenging without turning them into trail runs.
The simple solution is to hike with a weighted backpack. There’s actually a word for that: rucking. It’s an activity with military roots reaching back to the earliest days of organized armies. Modern armies still march with heavy rucksacks, both in training and in combat. The physical benefits of rucking are so clear that in recent years the activity has gained popularity with civilians looking to increase their fitness. Who wouldn’t want greater aerobic capacity, stronger muscles, and better posture? Rucking offers all of those without the impact of running. We’re talking about functional fitness, not some weight room exercise that looks cool but has little practical value. You might actually have to carry something heavy someday! And unlike so many fitness routines, with rucking there’s no learning curve: just walk.
Rucking also appeals strongly to the cheapskate in me. I paid $3.79 for 40 pounds of wood pellets—the smallest quantity I could buy—and transferred 25 pounds to a barely-used book bag from my children’s elementary school days. I’m considering a repurposed book bag to be fully amortized, so I’m all-in for $3.79! How’s that for a low cost of entry to a healthy new activity?
There are many ways to weight a backpack. I chose wood pellets not just because they’re super cheap, but also because they’re small and biodegradable. Being small, the wood pellets fill the pack in every dimension. That prevents the weight from shifting, which is a problem if you use something like a weightlifting plate or a couple of bricks. Being biodegradable, the wood pellets will do no harm if the pack ruptures and the contents spill onto the trail. They’re also not food. To avoid the attention of animals and insects, I didn’t want to go with something like rice or dried beans … probably not a concern while I’m in motion, but it could be an issue when the pack is in storage.
I mentioned last year that on a couple of hikes I was probably going too hard for the friends who accompanied me. Adding weight is going to make my effort harder at the same speed. Soldiers carry considerably more than the 25 pounds I’m using. Perhaps someday I will get a bigger rucksack and go heavier, but I have to experiment first. My chief concern is that my frequently damaged left shoulder will fatigue under the weight. I did my first ruck march on November 9 and my second on November 15. Each was 40 minutes on the Eisenbahn State Trail, through a subdivision, and around Forest View Park. The terrain wasn’t strenuous and the shoulder held up, but I could feel the extra strain the weight was putting on my hips and knees.
I went hiking again today: 2 hours, 15 minutes on the Ice Age Trail from Ridge Run Park down to Paradise Drive and back. But I gave the rucksack a rest. I didn’t trust my left shoulder to hold up that long, and I didn’t want to throw off my center of gravity on a day when the trail was sure to be slippery. In the week to come I will experiment with at least one 1-hour ruck march. If the shoulder still feels good over that duration, then I’ll try 90 minutes. Like any new workout, rucking comes with a break-in period and for a while I’ll be giving my body an unfamiliar challenge. But that’s the point. Let’s find the weak spots and make them strong.