How My Yoga Practice Helps Me Hike Farther, Faster, Longer

Rafael Mujica
Yoga Practice for Long Distance Thru Hikers Backpackers

Triangle Pose, a very powerful and invigorating pose that takes balance, strength, and proprioception to pull off. Now forget everything you just read. Today, we focus on taking it easy!

When people see me, I imagine they don’t peg me as a yogi. Little do they know that I've been practicing yoga nearly every single day for the last five years. I even have a 500-hour teacher certification and Masters in Exercise Science to go with my well-worn yoga mat. 

The truth is, I wouldn't be who I am if it wasn't for yoga. I couldn't constantly string together 30-mile days on trail. I wouldn't stay cool under pressure, trying to find my way out of a slot canyon in the middle of the night. My body would still be recovering from numerous head, knee, and back injuries, if it wasn't for a diligent yoga practice.

It starts every morning, with a simple yoga routine to unwrap my body from the deep sleep and stiffness that comes with the morning sun. I pour myself a cup of coffee, unfurl my yoga mat, and begin a simple yin yoga routine. This is the very same routine that I practice at the end of each day when I'm out backpacking; the only difference being that I unfurl a Gossamer Gear ⅛" Thinlight on trail instead.

My Yin Yoga Routine

Yoga Practice for Long Distance Thru Hikers Backpackers

While laying on your back, bring your arms into a t-shape, palms facing the sky. Start with your legs stacked off to the left, as your head peers right. Hold this pose and breathe as your spine lengthens. On an inhale, lift your legs together to the ceiling, pausing for a moment, before slowly easing them to the ground on your right while your head turns left. 

As backpackers, it's important to rehabilitate the muscles and joints that help us crush miles. Let's take the hamstrings, for example, which many hikers say feel tight on trail. This muscle group is often underdeveloped, making them prone to being overwhelmed by a day of hiking. 

The psoas major is another muscle for hikers to become familiar with. Originating in the spine, it passes through the hips, and inserts into the femur.

Tightness in all these major leg muscles can lead to many common trail injuries, like sciatica and overuse knee injuries

That’s why, in addition to yoga, I incorporate Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching into my end-of-day routine on trail. 

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)

Yoga Practice for Long Distance Thru Hikers Backpackers

In the top picture we have the “Hold-Relax Phase,” where we explore our ROM. In the middle picture we have the “Contract-Relax Phase,” where we build on our ROM. In the bottom picture we have the "Hold-Relax with an Agonist Contraction Phase,” where we move our leg into a new ROM. The arrows demonstrate the direction your leg is moving. 

PNF has been known to increase Range of Motion (ROM) in trained and untrained individuals, which in turn can deter injury and the limitations that come with inflexibility. 

I'll start in the "Hold-Relax Phase," where I'll try to extend my leg a little past my comfortable Range of Motion for 10 seconds, while using a strap to passively move my leg into this position. This is the easy part, enjoy it. 

In the "Contract-Relax Phase," I hold the yoga strap in place, using it as a resistance band while pushing against it, engaging my quadriceps for 10 seconds. The sensation this creates needs some getting used to, but is well worth it in the next phase.

In the last phase, "Hold-Relax with an Agonist Contraction Phase” (what a mouthful), the hamstrings are engaged, instead, as you move your leg, via the strap, into a new position, which again only feels slightly uncomfortable.

Congrats, you’ve just increased the range of motion in your legs! With practice, your body will adjust to your new found freedom. 

On Trail Practice vs At Home Practice

Yoga Practice for Long Distance Thru Hikers Backpackers

This book is a classic if you’re looking for ways to cut weight for your big hike coming up. 

My practice on trail is much the same as it is at home, with only three main differences. First, I opt to practice in the evenings, after a long day's hike. There isn't a rhyme or human physiological reason; I just hate being cold and choose to warm up by putting miles under my feet first. 

Secondly, instead of using a yoga strap for my PNF practice, I use a belt from my pant's waistline. If I happen to be wearing shorts on my hike, I instead use my hands, a tree, or boulder as a resistance band. 

Lastly, on trail, I add another step to my practice: using my trekking pole to roll my calves and the bottom of my feet. This deters Delayed Onset Muscle Syndrome (DOMS). If needed, I'll even bring a cork massage ball to apply a deeper targeted massage. 

Use a Trekking Pole to Roll Out on Trail!

Yoga Practice for Long Distance Thru Hikers Backpackers

Massage sticks, like foam rollers, act as tools for self-myofascial release; a trekking pole can work in much the same way. 


Upper-Body Stretching

Yoga Practice for Long Distance Thru Hikers Backpackers

On the left side, we have the easiest way to stretch your shoulders and chest, which is just trying to touch your hands together. On the top right, I’m using a belt to extend my ROM. In the bottom right, we have full ROM by being able to clasp the hands together. 

Both on trail and at home, I finish my practice by lengthening and relaxing the upper half of my body. It's especially important to target your shoulders and chest if you use trekking poles or find yourself doing extended exposed scrambling. 

When I first started practicing yoga, my little t-rex arms could barely wrap around my sides and onto my back. With some strap work and diligence, I can now shake my own hand behind my back … and reach further for hand holds on tough scrambles. 

Parting Thoughts

I didn't always practice yoga when I was on trail. When I began my LASH of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2019, I would thrash my body by putting in 30 miles everyday. By the time I made it to Warner Springs, four days into my hike, I had to get off trail for a week to recuperate. My knee was in constant pain, and I had developed a limp. After some rest and by incorporating my daily yoga practice into my trail routine, I was able to continue the trail with no further problems. 

I’ll leave you with this: no one is "good" or "bad" at yoga. It's called a yoga practice, not a yoga competition or performance. The only rival you have to face is your past self, and the goal is self improvement. Just remember that everyone starts somewhere, and that consistent work pays off eventually.

Yoga Practice for Long Distance Thru Hikers Backpackers

Fire log pose is a great hip and glute muscles opener. Feel free to stuff your puffy jacket between your knees and legs to soften up the pose. Thanks for reading. 

Rafael ”Horsecake” Mujica is a freelance writer and adventurer based in the Mountain West. You can find him trail running, backpacking, or sampling the best tacos during his free time. Follow all his adventures over on Instragam @horsecake22, or read more of his work over on his website
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