Condition your entire being
Conditioning involves your body, mind, and spirit—your entire being.
Except perhaps for people who are already in prime physical shape, there’s no doubt that conditioning your body will pay you dividends on the trail. Perhaps the simplest way to condition your body is to walk a lot. Gain elevation if you can. Walk on rocky trails if you can to help toughen your feet. Over the past few months, I’ve increased my daily walking from 3 to 8 miles per day mostly on sidewalks and streets. Those of you with a spouse, two kids, and a dog likely don’t have time in your day to walk 8 miles. But if you have a dog, how about walking Fido at least a couple of miles each day? You may be able to walk more on weekends. At some point, practice walking with your loaded pack to make sure it fits you properly. You’ll probably need to adjust the straps to optimize pack fit.
Depending on your baseline level of fitness, you’ll likely profit from repeated trips to the gym. I suggest finding a physical conditioning program that works for you and that you’ll actually do. I use a program featured in the book, Framework – Your 7-Step Program for Healthy Muscles, Bones, and Joints by Nicholas DiNubile. Many of the exercises can be done at home.
I supplement my gym routine with high-intensity interval training to build my cardiorespiratory fitness. This is the most time-efficient way to build your VO2 max. Over a seven-minute period, I spend a total of 60 seconds (three bouts of 20 seconds each) rowing as hard as I can. I flank each 20-second bout with low-intensity rowing at 70-80 watts.
But even if your body works well from the ankles upward you can still have trouble with your feet. This may sound self-defeating (as it were), but expect that your feet will require an extra measure of conditioning beyond what you otherwise achieve prior to embarking on the Camino.
For goodness sake, make sure that your shoes fit you well. That requires you to try on more than a few pairs, to buy what seems to be the best pair FOR YOU (not just a pair that got high marks in an online site). Feet seems to be pretty idiosyncratic. Expect that your feet will swell at least a half size, especially if you’ll be hiking during the hot summer months. Try out your new shoes to make sure they work well for you.
Nagging leg injuries prompted me to seek medical advice and enroll in physical therapy. The physical therapist offered a set of exercises designed to strengthen and stabilize muscles of my legs and hips. I’m pleased to report that I’ve faithfully done the exercises over the past six months. Plus, my legs and hips feel stronger and don’t hurt anymore when I walk.
These nagging leg injuries have had the undesired effect of undermining my self-confidence of being able to hold up for 531 miles. That even though I’ll experience relatively benign conditions compared to other long-distance hikes. I’ve managed to convince myself that I won’t crap out on day 1 on the Camino (4,300 feet of elevation gain) or maybe several days later if my leg ailment(s) return. How? By remembering that I’ve overcome major obstacles before, including exquisitely painful plantar fasciitis on the John Muir Trail, losing my only pair of shoes in Russell Creek in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail, and delaminating the skin on the bottoms of both feet during the first four days on the Continental Divide Trail. If (when) misfortune happens, I’ll figure out something, probably with help from Betsy and maybe other people.
In my opinion, it’s important to approach long-distance hiking in a spirit of optimism, gratitude, and forgiveness. I intend to hike on the sunny side of the trail, rain or shine. Optimism refers to my belief that things will generally go well. Of course, I’ll experience conditions and situations not necessarily to my liking, but that’s part of long-distance hiking and otherwise living in the world. Gratitude refers to being thankful for the opportunity and the resources to fly to Europe and hike the Camino. Most people on planet Earth don’t have the resources to enjoy what the Camino has to offer. Forgiveness refers to letting go of perceived hurts, slights, and rudeness from other people. Give other people the benefit of the doubt.
Betsy and I will meet lots of pilgrims on the Camino, relatively few of whom are Americans. Many pilgrims use the Camino to resolve painful or troubling situations in their lives. I plan to greet everyone warmly and to learn from the friends I find along the route. The camaraderie with other hikers will be one of the most memorable parts of our Camino hike.
I urge you to prepare for your next long-distance hike. You’ll be amply rewarded with a more enjoyable and memorable adventure.
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