Thoughts on “Conditioning”

On conditioning or “training” for a long distance trek (500+ miles)

Should a long distance backpacker do some conditioning?  How much?  If we are about to soon be hiking hundreds of miles can you and I just get up off the couch and start hiking 20 or 25 miles a There are two general approached to conditioning for a long distance trek:

A.        The used car approach.  This approach treats the human body like a used car-if you bought a used car and planned to take a 100,000 mile trip in it you wouldn't take it out for a 50,000 mile spin to "get it in shape."   This zero-sum-game philosophy assumes you've only got so many hiking miles in you and doing too much hiking in getting in condition will only uses up those miles.  It is popular among older hikers who do have a point.  For instance, you might make an argument that the more miles on your knees the greater the chance of injury.  And really, how does one get into shape for hiking 15 hours a day…other than hiking 15 hours a day?  And if you're going to be hiking 15 hours a day-why not hike them in beautiful country on the trip, and not in town while conditioning?   If you take the used car approach you'll take your body on the trail with no conditioning and schedule a slower pace the first few weeks and do your conditioning on the trail.

B.        The training approach.  This approach assumes the body can be "trained" to do extraordinary things and strengthening muscles ahead of time will prevent injury on the trail. Proponents of this approach (Ray Jardine being the foremost, and Burt Webb being the local promoter) argue that a regular regimen of preparation is the only way to survive the rigors of the trail.

Like most people who adopt any philosophy, the philosophy is not the basis but the explanation of their behavior.  Me too. I've been an advocate of either approach depending on my behavior!  Often we choose the philosophy that matches our behavior not the reverse.    When I don't have time to condition properly I claim the first philosophy; when I do, I claim the second.  For my PCT '2002 hike from Mojave to Lake Tahoe with Paul Kind and Marcelo Santana I took the "Used car approach" limiting us to walking only 15-16 miles a day for a week or two until I got into shape gradually on the trail.  On the PCT'03 thousand mile hike from Manning Park BC down to California I took a "moderate training approach" as follows:

I first looked up the data—the first few weeks of Washington's PCT average about 15,000' elevation gain per hundred miles.  This means that on one of the harder days my body will have to haul itself up about 5000' of elevation gain-climbing the equivalent of a mile straight up.   Thus my purpose in training is to develop a regimen to "train" my body for that hard 5000' day. 

Actually I know I'm training and strengthening my muscles, but that's not how I think of it.  I think of training my body like I'd train a dumb animal-as if it is a separate thing from me.  Thus I assume my body has become comfortable with city life, with sitting in front of a computer screen, standing in front of a class, sitting on the couch grading papers in the evening, sitting in committees, sitting too much time.  My body says, "This is what we do."  We sit.  It is used to sitting.  So my body has arranged itself to live life sitting and standing with the exception of a little bit of walking in order for its owner to get the University wellness points. 

So, my job in training is to communicate to my body that we are going to be climbing as much 5000' up on some days.  It won't like that idea-it has become accustomed to sitting.   If I just hit the trail without training my body will learn that too-but it is a slow learner.  It will rebel at first as if I am attacking it.  When a body is attack dir reacts vigorously.  It will do whatever it takes.  It will start aching, going out of commission, vomiting or trying to curl up in a fetal position-whatever it takes to get me to take it home and sit it down by a computer screen again!  So in training I see my job as persuading my body "this is what we do now" when facing a 5000' climb.

Thus my pre-PCT'03 regimen started one month before the hike.  I had the time, but I was also more fearful of : The thousand-mile length of the hike, the high mileage we were expecting (a marathon-a-day in Oregon) and both students I was hiking with were in tip-top physical conditioning-I had seen them both knock out 3mph on very steep trails and I was afraid of being the laggard.

So I climber every other day on that tortuous stair-climber.  Doing whatever it took to knock out 5000' or "500 stories."  The first day it took a lot-a full three hours to finish, and I had to stop several times to rest even then.  My body kept suggesting "Hey, let's go grade papers-I'm well trained for that."  But I kept at it.  The second time on the stair-climber two days later was even worse-I only made 4000' before deciding "You know a few miles on that level treadmill would polish off this day nicely" and I caved in.   Every other day after I faithfully did the 5000' and gradually I was able to "beat my body under."  I've notices my body inevitably submits to my mind but always slowly.   The mind will always wins in a body-mind shootout.  But the body always starts out the faster draw.  Thus the mind just has to keep shooting-for the body only holds a six-shooter and the mind has endless clips of bullets-it just has to keep firing when the body has runs out of ammunition.  So I keep firing-commanding my body to get up on the stair-climber until finally it submits and says, "This is what we do."  I finally got my time for 500 stories down to two hours, but never better than that.

Once the body accepts 5000' climbs as normal I figure I'm conditioned as good as I can be.  Of course climbing 15,000' per week on a stair-climber can't really train a body for what one faces on the PCT… but it helps.  It's a start.  And it is better than nothing.  At least that's my philosophy this year.  But of course when Burt Webb reads this he wqill respond telling you that all the stair Climber dies is strengthen muscles, and doesn’t do enough aerobic training.  He’s right of course, but running is too high-impact for an old guy like me to risk my knees getting in shape then getting injured.  I prefer training that is as close to the actual work as possible—hence my preference for the stair climber.

Actually there is a third approach-"transferable athletics."  This third approach assume conditioning from other athletic endeavors transfers to backpacking.   This is most popular with young people-especially the college students I often hike with.  The idea goes like this:  "I play softball and soccer and I'm on several intramural basketball teams and am really active-I'm already in good shape and backpacking will be a breeze for me-my athletic conditioning will transfer to backpacking.  I've seen this work repeatedly on the trail with the young people I usually hike with.  It works for people under 25 fine.  The only warning is that backpacking takes a whole different set of muscles than most other sports, so everything doesn't transfer.  Running, for instance conditions one aerobically for backpacking, but does not build up the same muscle groups used in backpacking.  Most young people can make it on the trail with this third approach, though they feel it the first few weeks as new muscle groups go through basic training.  If you fit this approach you still might hop on a stair-climber and knock out 5000' just to make sure you're OK.


ENDURANCE CONDITIONING   Will you be able to last?  90% of long distance hikers drop out.  That's right-only 10% of those who begin a long distance hike (500+ miles) finish it.  So, how to condition your endurance?  Face it, there is no way to really prepare yourself to persevere. We'll carry packs at 8000'-10,000' on rocky trails from morning to night, 15 hours every day, day after day, week after week. About the only way to test this would be to carry packs at 8000'-10,000' on rocky trails from morning to night, 15 hours a day, day after day, week after week!   So forget it-it can't be done ahead of time.  But you can prepare your mind for it.


MENTAL ATTITUDE CONDITIONING.    Here is the most critical conditioning factor of all.  Long distance trekking is 90% mental. Every day there will be a new reason to quit. Yesterday it was that new blister right on the ball of my foot. Today it is the constant rain all day and my wet sleeping bag, tomorrow it will be something hurting in my left knee, day after tomorrow it will be homesickness for my girlfriend/wife.  How to train mentally?  You can't. Your mother trained you for this. And your dad. It started when you were three years old. You were training for it when you tried to put together that complicated model and you wanted to just get up and quit. It started when your dad or mom taught you to stick to a job until it was done. It started when you learned to work through supper to get a job done.  It continued through school when you determined to finish a paper instead of handing it in half-done. Mental attitude is a character thing. Sticking with things that are hard because you said you would.   Paying the price for getting the rewards.   It is too late to condition your core mental attitude. All you can do is commit to doing your hike, commit to those you're hiking with, and strengthen the characteristic of "not giving up" in stuff you're doing right now-particularly when it gets hard. "Giving up" is the enemy. Persistence is the character quality.

On the other hand don't get too worried if you've been a whuss all your life and run away from everything difficult…people like this can change.  Indeed a long distance hiking is one of the primary routes to this radical change in such a person's life. For some long distance hikers the hike is the first difficult thing they stuck with and completed in their entire life. And it becomes a watershed point in life-from then on their character changes… they do the hard work in everything and carry it through to completion…for they live with the "trail ghost" constantly haunting them when they think of quitting.

There are a few things you can do to prepare yourself mentally.   

"Decide to finish.  Don't make allowances or play "if" "maybe" and "I hope so" games.

"Expect the worst-imagine wet feet and 25 continual days of rain with cloud cover and fog so thick there are no views, with nightly wet campsites and gradually all your stuff including your sleeping bag becoming soggy-day after day of this for three weeks… and determine to make it anyway…then if it is better than this you'll be happy.

"Determine to avoid injury.  Beware of too much of the macho "pushing on" mindset - this is how injuries happen.  If you are setting out to hike 500 or a thousand miles or more, you've got to go for the long haul.  Backpacking is not a sprint-it is a marathon-indeed it may be several months of marathons day after day-you can't get injured.  In conventional sports an injury may only cost you sitting on the sidelines for a week or so-in backpacking sitting on the sidelines usually means going home and losing the trek. 

Other than these things, build some mental toughness into your mindset and develop a cheerful spirit.  Twenty days of rain can be quite funny, not just depressing.  Ninety percent of all long distance hikers drop out along the way-but you can be in the 10% that persist-it is mostly mental.   Decide that's where you belong-in the 10% that persist.    I have hiked with students on long distance hikes since 1996-and in all that backpacking not a single hiker has yet dropped out before their predetermined ending point.  That's a high rate of success.  Partly it may be because I pick people with the character to finish-but partly it is because they've practiced this kind of mental toughness thinking I've outlines above.

OK… for the lesson in all of this.  Rethink all of the principles here and apply them spiritually.  Think about the struggle between the flesh and spirit, the body and mind and draw out some principles for other shootouts between body and mind/spirit.

To respond to Keith Drury on this topic write:


RESPONSE FROM  BURT WEBB-Microbiology professor at Indiana Wesleyan University

My Two Cents (Keith you knew I couldn't leave this one alone J)

 1. The Used car approach. "A body at rest tends to remain at rest…" Newton.

We are humans not used cars… this means we have immune and repair systems that can fix broken parts quite efficiently for most of our lives. The problem with this approach is that it often leaves us sitting by the side of the trail waiting for these two systems to become activated because they are not accustomed to working at the pace we need.

Let me explain. When you are in the "sitting mode" your body maintains itself. This requires a certain number of calories, cells, and time. The body likes balance, so it gets used to this "basal" rate of repair. All of a sudden you decide to jump up and go hike 18 miles a day. The first day is OK, a little joint inflammation and muscle soreness. The second day starts out stiff, but your body eventually wakes up and gets going. The third morning is really tough to get going and about half-way through the day your body starts to rebel. It displays a lot of the symptoms of "flu" elevated temp, body aches, head aches, sometimes even vomiting. These are the warning flashes of the immune and repair systems telling you to stop for a while. The real trouble with this approach is the tendency toward injury. Statistically, people who do not train tend to have a higher injury rate that those who do.

The more you hurt, the tougher it is to stay mentally tough. Keith is right, if you are distracted by a new blister, a wet bag, and an aching love life, it is hard to stay in the game mentally. Now add to that a body that is on the verge of physical collapse and you have a recipe for disaster. 

            Now if you are young, you might be able to get away with this, because young bodies tend to repair themselves easily. But the older you get the harder this approach will become. (Fortunately mental toughness tends to improve as we get older)


2. The Training Approach. "A body in motion tends to remain in motion…" Newton

Getting the body used to at least some of the pounding that it will need to endure on the PCT will pay dividends on the trail. Your feet, legs, arms, and back will thank you immensely if you invest a little time getting ready for those 5000 foot climbs. I am not saying that you need to become "Flyin' Brian" but there are some things you can do in the three weeks before you leave that will help prevent injury on the trail and keep your spirits up.

            What I do and why:

1. Run - there is no better cardiovascular workout than running. Sure there are a few different muscles that are used for running than walking… on flat ground. However, the more you are going uphill, the more the muscles used are similar. Getting your heart used to working at an elevated pace will help you climb and recover at altitude. The thing that will beat your tail in the mountains is your heart pounding in your chest so hard that you can't hear your hiking partner talk. Running also strengthens the collateral muscles around the knees and hips. Especially if you can find dirt trails to run on.

2. Stairmaster - Keith is absolutely correct. There is no better simulator for climbing a mountain than climbing stairs. It is not the same, but it comes close. If you have access to a treadmill; put your pack on, set it on the highest possible incline and walk at a 15 - 20 minute mile pace for a couple of hours. Stairmaster strengthens your legs, muscles around your knees and your heart.

3.Weight training - One of the toughest things for me in the mountains the first week is coming down hill. This is because my running tends to cause weakness in my hamstring group of muscles. I also tend to get sore in the upper back and shoulders. For these reasons, when I am prepping for a long trek I will add high-repetition low weight resistance workouts to my regime.

4. Abdominal and lower back work - the core of your body's strength are the muscles that wrap around your torso. Strengthen them with various sit-ups, crunches, etc. and you will be thankful later.

5. Stretching - after working out there is no better injury prevention activity that stretching. I typically do about 6 - 8 different stretches for a total of about 15 minutes. Tendons, ligaments, and muscles all tend to shorten while you are resting. However, to provide the maximal contractile force, they must be as long a possible. Stretching actually places the fibers of the muscle in the correct physical position to contract efficiently.


Mental Toughness:

I am with Keith. Your mental toughness is something you already have… you just don't know it yet. 

Last summer I took 6 students to the Rocky Mountains for three weeks of hiking. One of the things we did was conduct a research study looking at the role protein plays in the physiology of hiking. Along the way we had the students take se4veral exams that measure, among other things, their assessment of how fatigued they were. Early in the hike, all of them rated themselves on a scale of 1 - 10 (10 being severely fatigued) between 8.5 - 10 on a daily basis. Then came the "day from hell" total elevation gain of over 7,000 feet (3,000 in the last 2 miles) across 18 miles, with only one water point along the way, and temperatures in the 90s. To make matters worse this hike occurred our first day back on the trail after a really nice day in town. That night there was no talking around camp, no one playing cards, or looking at the beautiful sunset in the Mummy range. Everyone had been pushed to their real physical limit. That day's fatigue score was a 10 across the board… but from then on, though the mileage went up, the fatigue scores went down.

 Your mental toughness depends on your definition of what is "tough". My research would suggest that right now what you perceive of as "tough" you will come to see as pretty simple by the end of the PCT.

 In the end, you will survive not because of great preparation, but because of great company and an awesome coach. He will push you, prod you, and occasionally make you rest. Not by force of personality or because he is a dictator on the trail. But because you will want to hang out with him as much as possible.

Burt Webb

Biology Professor

Indiana Wesleyan University