PCT Training: Preparing Mentally and Physically for the Longest Hike of My Life
I have talked quite a bit about my fears on this website but never about my biggest fear of all: quitting the PCT before I complete it. Full disclosure: I have quit two hikes early before.
The first hike I quit early was the Pennine Way in England. It was my first long hike ever and I didn’t train at all. The first day on the Pennine Way is quite difficult, with lots of different terrain and technical challenges. On the first day, I did 30 km (18 miles). I wore 50 euro trail runners that I had only walked in once. Achilles tendonitis struck the second day and I quit by the third.
The second hike I quit early was the King’s Trail in the North of Sweden. This hike was definitely a mental challenge: it was cold and rainy, there were clouds of mosquitos and I had no service so I felt very lonely. I was very hard on myself: I wanted to be ultralight so I only packed the bare necessities. And I planned lots of long hiking days in a row, with no zeros. I quit after five days.
Yet, something about that hike really stuck with me. The freedom and self-reliance I felt, the beauty of the landscape. I tried the hike one more time, to learn from my earlier mistakes and to decide once and for all if thru-hiking was for me or not. This time I absolutely loved it and I completed the hike. I decided: One day I am going to hike the PCT! In this blog, I talk about how I learned from my mistakes and how it helps me prepare for the biggest challenge yet: the 2,650 miles of the PCT.
The Mental Game
I learned four really big lessons about the mental game on that first hike in Sweden, that helped me tremendously on my consecutive hikes:
- Focus on small goals. As I stated in the introduction, the first days of that hike were incredibly tough: cold, rainy, lonely, mosquitos. Long hiking days. I kept thinking: “I can’t do this for a month.” Of course, what I didn’t realize was that the stops along the way would offer me a little break to recharge. I could have thought of it as four hikes, with breaks in between. Unfortunately, I didn’t take that break but I bailed. And I always regretted it.
- Negative thoughts are often caused by basic needs not being met. I tend to be very tough on myself when I hike solo: I just hike, hike, hike. I don’t take (long) breaks. No stopping to get that fleece out of my bag when I get cold. No time to eat my snacks. And at some moment during the hike, I will think: “I hate this.” By now I’ve learned that moment doesn’t mean I hate hiking. It means that I need to take a break, eat a snack or put on some warmer clothes.
- This too shall pass. We have to accept that some days are going to be extremely shitty: “embrace the suck.” It is a lot easier to see the fun and the challenge in difficult moments when you know it’s not going to last forever. After that cold night, there might be a morning sun to warm you up. After that grueling climb, there is that amazing viewpoint. Difficult moments make for great stories and build character. I have entertained many family members and friends with my “number two on top of a mountain” story. It really sucked in the moment, but now I can laugh about it.
- Go easy on yourself. To use that old hiker adage: hiking is about “smiles not miles”. Take an hour-long lunch break in the sun, appreciate that viewpoint for a few moments longer, eat, chat with other hikers. It all makes the hike so much better. Go slow when you just start out, take as many zeroes as you need. We don’t have to be so tough. You know yourself and you know what you absolutely need and what you can skip. I like to feel clean, so I will take that extra weight in clothes and soap (Just to use in trail towns – I take LNT very seriously!). But I sleep very easily, so I won’t take a pillow.
When I quit that first hike in Sweden, I felt extremely depressed and disappointed in myself. Something I had been dreaming about for months went up in smoke. Such a waste of time and money. I never want to feel like that again. This was the biggest lesson of all: no day on the trail is going to feel as bad as quitting. Another lesson was not to romanticize the trail: I expected sunshine, to swim in lakes every day, and to make campfires with new friends every night. Now I expect the worst because it can only go up from there.
A lot of the mental game takes place on the trail itself. But I will prepare beforehand: by spending a lot of time thinking about why I’m doing this hike, what I hope to gain from it, and what I will miss out on if I don’t finish. I think about the tough moments, being tired, the heat, the dirt, the hunger, the insects, cold, danger, instead of just looking forward to the fun. I’ve also written myself a letter for the really tough moments on trail, reminding myself why I’m doing it.
The Physical Challenge
This one is actually a lot easier. I’m not an athlete at all. I have a desk job so I’m on my ass at least eight hours a day. But I do what I can to get fit for the trail. I don’t need to be running up those hills. But I also don’t want to get an injury that forces me to get off trail. Achilles tendonitis was an awful feeling, that I don’t ever want to feel again.
How I Train
So to train, I go on a long hike (+20 km/ 12 miles) with my full pack at least once a week. I go on walks wearing my trail runners after work. And I do barre: exercises that combine ballet and pilates. I once read an article on Backpacker about how practicing ballet is actually really good for hikers. Ballet strengthens your legs, core, and glutes, which is supposed to help with hiking. This made me very happy because I love ballet.
So my advice to you is: do what you love. That is the only way you will stick with your training regime. Now I do barre twice a week, following Youtube videos. This was the workout regime I followed before embarking on my hike in Sweden (the successful time) and it worked out very well.
The one thing that gave me trouble was the down-hills, which hurt my knee. The Netherlands is very flat so practicing climbing and descending mountains is difficult. I now practice on the stairs and seek elevation where I can. On the trail, I will be hiking with trekking poles for the first time. I will also take it very easy in the first weeks, so I can train on trail and get used to the weather and terrain.
Do you have any tips on preparing mentally or physically for the PCT? Please let me know in the comments!
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