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More Training Info > Training, Conditioning and Preparation for the Camino

Training, Conditioning and Preparation for the Camino
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS

Walking trips such as the various routes collectively referred to as "the Camino" in Europe, draw people of all ages, religions, and walks of life who wish to explore on foot while staying in albergues, where they can eat, sleep, meet others, and experience a "pilgrimage" for themselves.

El Perdón Camino de Santiago

Such trips are different from rugged alpine hikes along the John Muir Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Divide Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail, but many of the same training principles apply to Camino walkers as to the American thru-hiker. Walkers on the Camino should train to carry 12-20 pounds for roughly 35 days. Herein we present important steps you can take to get in proper condition for long, multi-day walks that might lead to covering 450-500 miles or more on the Camino frances.

WHERE TO START: PLANNING

Your first step is to begin with the end in mind. This means you'll need to do some research. Find out about the specific route you'd like to walk. www.americanpilgrims.org lists twenty Camino variations. Talk to some people who have done your intended route. Read online about what your longest day hike will be and start thinking about the gear you absolutely need to take with you. This will help you answer these important and strategic questions:

  1. What is the heaviest pack you'll need to carry?
  2. What is the longest hiking day you'll cover?
  3. What is the most elevation gain and loss you'll encounter in a single day?
  4. What is the longest stretch between water and food replenishment?

PACK WEIGHT

Online guidelines suggest striving for a day pack that is not more than 10% of your bodyweight. That means for the average 150-200 pound person, your heaviest pack should not be more than 15-20 pounds. What's nice about going in summer is you can get away with a very light sheet and pillow case rather than a sleeping bag, and lightweight, thin summer clothing doesn't weigh much. See Summer Packing List for a sample packing list for summer trips.

If you want to carry extra luxuries-- to you, they may feel like necessities--be prepared to train a little longer in order to be comfortable carrying more weight. One recent traveler said a hiker who had a pack over thirty pounds sent it ahead of him by way of taxi each day. Another couple walked with a two-year-old in a stroller. Think about what you want your overall experience to be like. Light, unencumbered? Or comfortable, with reminders of home? On a heavier-traveled route where you can encounter lots of folks from around the world? Or on a lesser-traveled route where you might be alone part of the time with beautiful scenery? On a trip where you can get by with just a little Spanish, or test your fluency?

Don't forget about hydration and fuel. Water and food will add to your base pack weight each and every day. We recommend you have at least two one-liter water bottles with you; while you may be able to get away with carrying only one full bottle, it gives you the option of having one with a flavored drink for variety, and two for any particularly long, hot stretches. According to www.americanpilgrims.org if you travel the Camino francés, a stretch of 6 miles (10 km) without water or services is unusual; on some of the less common routes, 18 mile (30 km) intervals may not be at all unusual.

Bottom line: if you tend to get thirsty in spring and fall, plan to carry plenty of water in case the temperature soars while you're there. It will be hard to be TOO hydrated on something like the Camino, but the alternative can knock you off your hiking game for a few days -- or completely.

DISTANCE

A recommended reference book is the most recent edition of John Brierley's Camino de Santiago: St-Jean-Roncesvalles-Santiago The Way of St James. Brierley breaks the walk up into 33 stages and provides a wealth of information about places to eat and stay along the way. Be prepared to climb and descend several mountain passes with altitudes of up to 5,000 ft (1,500 m) high, such as the flat high plains of Castilla-León. To learn more about what to expect beyond physical conditioning on the Camino, please visit Frequently Asked Questions.

Whichever route you choose, wherever you start your journey, figure out the total distance and how long you wish to be overseas, then divide distance by number of days to get your average daily mileage. If you plan on hiking 500 miles over a fifty day visit, your trek will require an average of at least ten miles a day (with no rest days), more if you start out with shorter days to find your hiking legs.

TRAINING

The next step is to assess your physical starting point. Can you walk 5-6 miles with 10 pounds on hilly terrain tomorrow and feel okay the next day without any issues in hips, feet, lower back? If so, that's your baseline or starting point.

Increase hiking mileage gradually, not more than 5-10% per week (so .5-1 miles per week is reasonable with a baseline above). The goal is to get your feet, hips, shoulders, and tendons and ligaments ready for repeat days of pack carrying. If you increase your pack weight too much, or too quickly, you will reach a point where the weight feels too heavy. Best to sneak up on the heavier pack weight.

To properly load your pack on training hikes, carry water bottles so that if you need to, you can remove weight by dumping out water. Cinch your hip belt so the weight is in your legs and hips, not shoulders. For more tips on pack loading, see Pack Loading Tips.

SAMPLE TRAINING PROGRAM

Plan to include at least one weekly hike (weekends work great if you need a day with more time) and one mid-week workout (Wednesdays work great if you hike on Saturday or Sunday) for "over weight" hill walking with a pack. For such "over-weight" days, you will be carrying slightly more weight than on your endurance hike for the week, in order to build strength above and beyond what you'll need on your heaviest day on the Camino. After all, you may want to help a friend with her pack, add some souvenirs for family back home, or carry a favorite snack (fresh juicy watermelon, anyone?) for part of the trip. On these mid-week pack workouts, add 3-5 minutes and 2-3 pounds per week until you can walk up and down hills or stairs with 23 pounds for 45 minutes.

A sample week that includes five weekly workouts might look like this, a month from trek start:

  • Monday OFF / yoga
  • Tuesday: hour walk with the dog, afternoon upper / core strength workout 45 minutes
  • Wednesday: "over weight" pack intervals walking stairs or a hill with 18-20 pounds for 45 minutes
  • Thursday: recovery walking, flat, up to an hour OR yard / house chores, stretching anything sore
  • Friday: jog-walk 30 minutes / lower strength workout 30 minutes focusing on step ups and step downs for hills, squats and maybe some lunges, hip extensions (bridges on the floor) making movements as functional as possible and working on any weaknesses in core and other pack carrying muscles
  • Saturday: hilly walk without weight up to 90 minutes
  • Sunday Endurance - pack hike outside increasing stamina until you can do 8-12 miles with 23# pack.

REPEAT EFFORT

The crucial month before any long-distance pack carrying training would not be complete without a few Back-to-back hikes . For more on how to apply this important concept to your own training, see Back-to-back Training. In short, one month and two weeks before the start of your walk, include two (or three if possible) days in a row, with no rest, of walking with a pack on terrain similar to what you will be traveling over. While the Pacific Crest Trail may include alpine and forested paths with 2,500'-3000' elevation gain and loss, on the Camino you will encounter rural roads with dirt paths, gravel, and cobblestones with 500-750' of elevation gain and loss. Try to simulate conditions so that you prepare physically and psychologically for what it feels like to walk multiple days in a row under load. Plan for blisters. Know where your hot spots are.

A Body Results client training for her fourth visit to the Camino shared a beautifully written Blog about her first experience walking on the Camino in her local New Orleans paper, Inside Northside. It provides a great perspective of one 80-year-old woman's 500 mile journey. Prepare for the experience of a life time. Read everything you can get your hands on. Then go out and have a great pilgrimage of your own, whatever the reason.



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