I am not a medical doctor or physical trainer, nor have I consulted either on this post. I have also not walked the Camino yet! I have spent a fair amount of time on the trail, but it’s not the same thing. Practically nothing is. What I say here is based on my hiking experience, and stealing lessons from the experiences of others.
It is now almost exactly one year before my Camino, and I have nearly all of the gear I plan to use on it. (I would have it all, but there are a few things I do not want to buy until it is nearly departure time such as tech and perishable items that would be useless in the meantime.) Part of the reason I got my kit together so early is so that I could start saving for the actual trip.
Another reason was so that I could begin training realistically as soon as possible.
I have become increasingly convinced that Camino prep requires “doing what you’re going to do” on the Camino. That doesn’t just mean walking paths similar to the Primitivo, it also means actually using the gear I plan to have with me. However, to train with my gear, I needed to know what it would be – and that meant getting a lot of testing out of the way. I’ll post gear tests elsewhere, but for now I want to explain this important part of my training strategy.
Train, Pain, or Fail: (Pick Two)
I’ve read several guides for preparing physically for the Camino. Many basically boil down to “walk a lot” and differ by rate of increase over time. One thing I do not think gets stressed enough is the importance of training with your gear and in your environment. So I’m going to stress it here.
The Camino is a pilgrimage, not a vacation. It’s not supposed to be comfortable, and some pain is required to be successful. However, there is no point in needless suffering – especially if it means failing to complete the Camino at all! After following some pilgrims online and talking with people who have walked various Caminos, I noticed a trend: Their worst experiences were all directly related to preparation issues.
For example, one person trained for the Camino in Florida, and nearly died on his first day when he climbed the Pyrenees and ended up dehydrating before he could get to a water source.
Conversely, another person trained well for both distance and uphills, but nearly had her toes destroyed by her shoes while going downhill for more extended periods.
A third man (an avid jogger, backpacker, and mountain climber whose physical prowess is legendary among his friends) reported that on his Camino, “My feet were two swollen water balloons, a golfball-sized lump had developed on my shoulder under the pack strap, my strength was simply dried up . . . my feet had never felt such an agony.” What on earth is wrong with my feet? he wondered, and then answered himself: “But come to think of it I’d never hiked 13 hours straight before.”
It would be nice if these stories were about people who were simply unfit or ignorant of what they would face on the Camino. But that’s not the case. I have a lot of respect for these folks for accomplishing what they did in spite of these challenges – but that isn’t going to stop me from trying to learn from their misery so I can avoid some of my own!
It seems clear that training for the Camino is best done doing (as close as possible) what one will do on the Camino. The problem is that no one can train for everything. No one has unlimited access to what is needed to train for every possibility. Sometimes there isn’t enough time, tall enough hills, or the right kind of weather available. My goal, though, is to attempt as much as possible to train by “doing what I plan to do.”
Training: Doing What I Plan to Do
Training How I’ll Travel
Generic exercise is great for your general health, but it is not necessarily a good indicator of Camino preparation.
Exercise type matters. If I’m going to be walking in wet, steep mountains, then walking the indoor track of my local gym isn’t a good test for how I will do. Walking up and down stairs (or on a Stairmaster) isn’t going to be a good test for I’ll do on the non-staircase sections of the Camino. Activities that contribute to my cardio and strength are good prep for any physical activity, but if they do not accurately mimic the Camino, they do not serve as good indicators of how I’ll do on it.
Walking a daily 2k or a bi-weekly 14k or a monthly 24k won’t tell me what daily 25ks will be like. These walks are fine to get and stay in shape, but eventually I’ll need to be able to do these sorts of things consistently and with the gear I will actually bring, and in the kinds of environment I expect to be in.
Training With My Gear
I can test my body and my gear separately to see how each performs on its own. I can also focus on training specific parts of my body for specific tasks. However, bodies, gear, and environment form a relationship – one that doesn’t always work out very well!
If I had chosen to wear hiking boots instead, I need some serious time and distance to properly break them in. Otherwise it’s going to be blister city (and with blisters comes other physical adjustments that strain different muscles). If I trained in my thick, squishy hiking boots and then switched to my zero drop trail runners for the Camino, I could injure myself as my calf muscles lengthen and my ankles take on more strain. Those shoes that seemed so perfect running up and down stairs might smash my toes together when I walk downhill under pack weight.
My comfy, lightweight backpack is going to feel very different after 8 hours of hot trudging than it did when I first tried it on. My posture will change when I carry it, and that means new muscles will be used. I don’t want to start developing those muscles on the Camino itself!
Besides evaluating gear while in realistic use, it also needs to be tested with other gear. Maybe my water bottle is the perfect size – but what if it doesn’t fit the backpack’s pocket very well? Maybe I finally found the perfect waist pack and hiked with it for days with no issues. Then, when I tried to wear it with my backpack, the padding pushed the buckle into my back causing chafing or bruising.
Here is a fairly undeniable fact: I won’t know how my gear works until I use it in the way I plan to use it. That means using the gear I plan to use while training for what I’m going to be doing in the way I’m going to be doing it.
It must all also must be done in the environment I’ll be in.
Training in the Environment
Environment forms another variable that must be included when training with gear. Two training activities in particular taught me important lessons about how my gear worked with moisture.
For years I would have sworn my beloved Marmot jacket was waterproof. Turns out it’s only water resistant – a fact that would have really sucked to learn during a Camino downpour (technically this is true, but SEE CORRECTION)! How did I go so many years without knowing this? Well, the truth is I had never worn it in the rain for more than a couple minutes at a time (usually while running between my house, car, or office). It wasn’t until I spent some real time in serious rain that I found out how it would really do.
On one of my first non-winter hikes I made another startling and uncomfortable discovery. I was on a short, relaxed hike that I had been on before on a day that turned out to be a bit hotter than I expected. The result was that I developed some heat rash / chafing that I had never before experienced. The temperatures had not differed that much from previous hikes, but apparently it made all the difference. If this is the case here, imagine the difference between it and doing an hour of stair master a day in an air-conditioned gym wearing form-fitting active wear!
Even Camino sleeping requires training! The albergue environment is famously loud (peregrino snoring) and often cold (to save on heating). Earplugs and a minimal sleep system are therefore non-negotiables for those who want to sleep on the cheap. However, earplugs that fit nicely while swimming in the pool may be very uncomfortable when assuming a favorite sleeping positions. That wonderful, soft blanket that is plenty warm in my 70+ degree home is going to feel very different when the temperature drops into the 40’s and the person in the bunk above me keeps opening the window for fresh air!
No matter how good of shape I’m in, or how good my gear is, or how the environment I’ll be in turns out to be, a bad combination will create a bad situation. If this turns out to be the case, I want to try to find that out before I go on the Camino.
I don’t think anyone can truly know how they will do on the Camino until they are on it. To know how my body, my gear, and my environment will function together, there simply is no substitute for real life experience. What I do know is that I don’t want very many “firsts” on the Camino except the Camino itself!
So, as much as possible, I’m going to train for what I want to do by doing what I will be doing. That’s why, in addition to trail conditioning, I’ve tried to get my gear vetted and collected as quickly as possible. Now when I go out for training, I’ll know more exactly what I am working with – and how it works in the real world.