Why My Favorite Strength Training Equipment is a Backpack Made for Distance Running

Two years ago during one autumn week, I carried a load of food, water, a change of clothes, and some recovery slides on my back while running the Appalachian Trail between huts for four days. As one would expect, I worried how my body would hold up under the added weight. By the end of the trip, however, I felt stronger than I had when we’d begun. 

Back at home in Boulder, Colorado, I was getting ready to head to the gym one day when I thought better of it. I grabbed the same pack I’d used on the AT—a Black Diamond Distance 22—loaded it up with full water bottles and some extra layers, and I headed to a trail with my dog. 

Instead of doing leg presses and crunches on a machine, I ran slowly up a steep trail. Rather than staring at the news on the Rec Center TV between sets, I watched my dog’s tail wag and the dirt beneath my feet. After, I felt a familiar workout fatigue I don’t get with running by itself, and, immediately, a full-body sensation of strength—plus my hips felt more aligned, likely due to hearty glute activation under the weight of the pack.

Ever since, I’ve slung my full pack over my shoulders once or twice a week for a slow run or hike, or run-hike combo, for a bone-fortifying, connective tissue-strengthening, overall durability boost. (The bonus is that the bag slows me down to a pace that works well for my aging dog, or any two-legged partner who might be slower. It’s an equalizer.)

The pack fits like a trail running hydration vest, with two front-access storage pockets on the shoulder straps where I stash energy fuel, dog poop bags, and a soft flask full of water in the open mesh pockets. Those open-top, front-access pockets have smaller zippered pockets layered on top of them where I store my phone and my car key. I use the main compartment to carry added weight: I load up extra layers of clothing (even on hot days), large, full waterbottles (like one or two 32-ounce Hydroflasks), and, sometimes, whatever’s laying around in the back of my car or on my office floor, like a 24-ounce bag of peanut baking flour that I intend to test. The soft, meshy harness system holds the weight close and comfortably to my back. The empty pack weighs just 14.3 ounces. Full of my junk, the roughly eight pounds of weight feels evenly distributed, and it doesn’t slosh around or chafe me.     

This isn’t the first time I’ve trained purposely with a pack. There was a month or so a couple decades ago when I loaded a backpack with a giant bottle of Liquid Tide and hiked all over Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais. I was trying to prepare for an expedition-length adventure race I’d gotten a last-minute invitation to join. A few times I ended those hikes with blue Tide streaming down my legs–either the bottle had cracked or I didn’t screw the lid on tightly enough. I may have been strength-training, but I was kind of a mess. Back then, I was specificity training to be able to carry weight over days on my feet, similarly to how backpackers train for upcoming trips on the trail, but the weighted hikes had the side-effect of making me feel heartier than my lean frame appeared to be. Nowadays, I’m focused on simply running and hiking with a pack to get stronger for both running and daily life.

Yes, other people “ruck.” I’m aware that rucking, the act of carrying weight on your back while walking or hiking, has recently become a somewhat trendy fitness craze. I understand why. I’m convinced that purposely hiking and especially running steep terrain, up and down, with a lightly weighted pack has made me a better runner.

Last summer, I may have barfed on the top of Utah’s Mt. Baldy during the 7.1-mile, rugged Cirque Series Alta race, but I felt pretty dang strong climbing those 2,545 feet (strong enough to push myself to barf-level). And, as someone who used to feel like I’d tear something on an all-out downhill, my legs felt solid. I chalk that up to my regular run-rucking outings I’d been doing for about a year. The weighted uphills build glute, quad, calf, and core strength. The weighted downhills work my quads too, but differently. Downhill provides an eccentric load, muscles contracting while elongating, which studies have shown to be beneficial to all the tiny stabilizer muscles in my legs and around my core.

Knock on wood, I’ve been less injury-prone than I have in years past. Weight training has been proven to help with strains and tears, especially for a hypermobile runner like me. Plus, I’m thrilled by multitasking and combining a run, a dog walk (run/hike), and a strength-training session all within one outing. I’m sold. 

The feeling of durability has inspired me to also include more muscle-specific strength work in my routine. For more traditional lifts and as a compliment to carrying a weighted backpack, I’ve been using a DMoose 90-lb. Adjustable Dumbbell and Barbell. The set easily transitions between a single dumbbell and a barbell and takes up about as much space in my home as my dog fully stretched out while napping. I love it. I mostly use it in barbell mode to do deadlifts, front squats and overhead squats. I also occasionally do bicep curls, rows, and shoulder presses. The amount of weight you load up adjusts easily with one hand and a satisfying “click” sound, which locks the plates on either side in place. 

Yes, you can use a loaded backpack to do deadlifts, front squats, and overhead squats. But I find that I tend to round my shoulders when using a backpack, which creates other pains. Using an actual barbell allows me to focus on proper form with shoulder blades pinned and a flat back. 

I look forward to getting stronger using it—and my trusty backpack—for years to come.

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