The Adapting Magic of Our Muscles

on Oct 25, 2010

What’s easier to climb up: 100 feet of stairs or 50 feet of a gradual incline? For most people, it’d be the latter, but as I¬†learned firsthand in a recent hiking trip, our bodies can adapt in strange ways through regular training.

A few months ago, a couple of friends and I went on several challenging day hikes in Yosemite National Park. The first day was a hike between Cherry Lake and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which involved moderate elevation gain through gradual slopes. Still, my legs were feeling wiped out on the return hike. And this hike was supposed to be the warm up since the following days would feature significantly greater elevation gains.

The second day was the hike up to Half Dome and it began with¬†gradual inclines. My legs were already feeling it. Shortly after, upon reaching the Vernal Fall, we were faced with a whole lot of stairs carved into the stone (that explained how we’d be covering so much elevation). As I walked up the stairs, I noticed something strange – it was eerily easy. And that I wasn’t walking up the steps – rather, I was running up 2 steps at a time. Was it that my legs were warmed up or was there something more going on? Perhaps it had something to do with the way my legs were shaped from my everyday physical activity (inline skating and two forms of martial arts).

The third day was more grueling as we hiked up to the Upper Yosemite Fall and across to El Capitan, where some portions of the trail have alternating segments of inclines and stairs. At this point, my legs were pretty worn out from the previous days of hiking. Upon coming across inclines, I slowly struggled my way up with my legs in pain. Then as the trail switched to stairs, I was sprinting with all the energy in the world. That is, until I the trail became a slope once again.

My suspicions were confirmed: my legs were clearly faring very well on steeper segments, such as stairs, and badly on less steep slopes. In essence, the steeper portions require a hiker to bend the knee more and use a full motion of the leg. This was a very familiar motion for me, because in my skating technique and my martial arts forms I get into a low stance and use my entire leg for the technique at hand. My legs were not only used to this motion, but were quite efficient at it from years of training. The less steep slopes, however, require the hiker to use just a small portion of their legs, and this motion is typically easier. This was certainly the case for one of the friends I was hiking with. He was fine on the gradual inclines, but the stairs proved to be challenging (and I surmise that this is the case for most people). Yet for me, the situation was drastically reversed. My body had been transformed from years of training to provide efficiency in very different circumstances.

The big takeaway from this experience is that our bodies are very good at adapting to specific circumstances. It was obvious from my experience that my muscles had become very efficient in motions generally considered difficult. And vice versa – that my body was less efficient at smaller movements that most people find comfortable. It’s certainly something to think about when training oneself and in facing physical challenges. What style of activity are you training? What is your body becoming naturally better at? In some ways we may be able to face seemingly difficult challenges with ease and, in my case, be humbled by challenges we’re not accustomed to.