Walking poles – some pros and cons…

Obviously I’ve been walking pretty much all my life, and I walk the dog every day, but I’m a relative newbie to full-day-walking and have just completed my first long distance walk. To start with I was a bit self-conscious about buying walking ‘gear’ – I felt like an imposter – but over recent months I’ve started to see the benefits of having the right kit.

outdoor clothing
it didn’t take me long to start wearing all the colours!

One of the things I knew I wanted to try was walking or trekking poles. I had previously enjoyed some Nordic Walking sessions from a fitness perspective, and was keen to feel walking as a whole-body (and a mind-body) process, rather than just being all about my legs and buttock muscles. Luckily I have a trekking friend who kindly lent me her poles for a prolonged amount of time while I was training, and I acquired my own poles just before I set off to walk the South Downs Way.

pacerpoles & trig points
Pacerpoles & trig points

Over the course of a week filled with some long & challenging walks, I weighed up the pros and cons of walking poles as I see them. These are my thoughts as a walker (carrying an 11-12kg pack over 8 continuous days), but also as a fitness professional and massage therapist with a good anatomical knowledge-base and a sound understanding of posture & movement. These observations are not scientifically tested, and you may not agree with all of them, and I’m OK with that because you can write your own blog if you want to!!!

The pros:

  • using poles creates less muscle tension in the legs and buttocks because the body is working as a more integrated system, which incorporates more core & upper body engagement. I got back from eight days walking an average of 18 miles a day with no aches and pains at all in any part of my body and I think the poles are largely responsible for that
  • there is less load on the hip and knee joints, because the impact is absorbed through four points of contact (rather than two) and comes into the body via the deeper core (postural) muscles and then to the limbs of the upper and lower body
  • walking poles remind me to walk with a tall, open posture which means that all the systems in the body (muscles, connective tissue, joints & circulatory system) are in the optimal position to work well with each other
  • the poles give extra drive on uphill sections and added stability/deceleration on downhill sections, enabling the body to maintain this open, upright posture even when the walking becomes more challenging
  • as someone who experiences vertigo, I found that walking poles gave me a greater sense of connection to the earth on high and exposed areas, and they especially gave me the confidence to stand, catch my breath & enjoy the view when my brain was yelling at me to keep moving in case I fell!
  • even without vertigo, I feel that walking poles give a feeling of confidence in relation to balance in general, and particularly on loose scree or where there is a noticeable camber – they don’t take away or reduce your body’s natural ability to balance, but I think they definitely enhance it
  • I find that the rhythm of walking with poles is quite meditative – it actually helps me to get into a smooth striding pattern and also helps me notice if I’m not walking evenly on each leg
  • although not something I can personally vouch for, I understand that using walking poles can help to reduce oedema (swelling) in the hands and forearms over prolonged walks, which makes sense because they keep the arms active rather than passive
  • walking poles are also great for bashing nettles, moving brambles out of the way, testing the depth of streams, checking the stability of stepping stones, propping up lightweight canopies and redirecting spiders & caterpillars that are descending from the trees and floating across your path …

The cons:

I had to wrack my brain for these as there really aren’t many negatives – here’s what I came up with:

  • poles are another thing to carry in your kit (even though they don’t weigh much) and if you find yourself not using them for long stretches of your walk I guess that could become annoying (although my preferred poles have found a genius way around this)
  • if you’re walking a dog on a lead it is much harder to get the benefit from walking poles – you can make do with one pole but I think many of the benefits are lost in this instance; I tend to stow them when the dog is on his lead and use them while he is running free, but will also look into a lead for the dog which goes around my waist so that I can keep poling …
  • they can become a potential trip hazard… more than once, on tired legs, I have almost caught myself on one of my poles, but it is usually a case of not focusing on what I’m doing at the time
  • it is harder (but not impossible) to check a map/phone/watch, blow your nose or eat a snack while walking with poles in your hands – I get round this by either stopping and resting my poles against a fence or tree or by tucking them under one arm (like an army sergeant!) while I walk, until my hands are free again
  • using poles can leave your hands & forearms more exposed to the weather conditions (sun, rain or snow) but sunscreen, sleeves & gloves will obviously help you to get around this issue

Which poles are best?

There is a wide range of walking poles available to buy, to suit different needs and different budgets, and I don’t pretend to have tried them all by any means! I have however tried two different styles and have found a firm favourite.

Most poles have a foam, upright grip with a webbing wrist strap. With this style of pole, you slide your hand through and over the strap, and rest your wrist onto it whilst lightly holding the handle. As you walk your grip stays light and you keep the weight of your wrist on the strap.

I used this style of pole for nearly all of my training and had only one problem with them – on longer walks (bearing in mind that it was spring so I wasn’t wearing gloves) I would start to find that the strap irritated the heel of my hand and my wrist and this would gradually niggle me more and more as the walk continued. On a positive note, there are many brands that offer this style of pole and they are easily found in outdoor shops so you can have a try before spending your money.

Once I started researching my options, I saw lots of positive reviews for Pacerpoles but wasn’t entirely convinced that they would be better, until I tried them. They arrived a few days before I set off on my first long distance walk and I was slightly anxious whether I would get to grips (no pun intended!) with the slightly different technique in time. On the third practice day I felt much more confident with them, but in hindsight I realise that actually I didn’t fully find my rhythm with them until a couple of days into my walk. And then there was no going back!

Pacerpoles ergonomic handle design
the handles are left and right-handed

These Physiotherapist-designed poles have a unique moulded handle which is fantastic. Pacerpoles rely on the angled, shaped handle rather than a webbing wrist strap, and as a result they feel really light to hold and much more comfortable.

Pacerpoles unique handle
Pacerpoles unique handle design feels light and comfortable to hold

The handle is held between the thumb and first finger and the heel of the hand then comes to rest on the ledge of the handle as you move forward. The idea is to move from the elbow, lifting and lowering the forearm with each step, rather than swinging forward from the shoulder. It is hard to describe the movement but once you try Pacerpoles you’ll get it!

me and my Pacerpoles at the end of the South Downs Way
done!

I honestly believe that I couldn’t have walked the South Downs Way without poles and I firmly believe that Pacerpoles were the best choice for me.

There were sections that were so steep (up and down), and sections that were so windswept, that I would not have felt safe walking without my Pacerpoles. Even more importantly though was the fact that I never got tired heavy legs – even on days when I felt mentally fatigued and close to exhaustion, my legs never struggled. My pack was heavier than I would have liked (about 12kg with enough water for a full day) but my posture still felt great. Every time I put my poles in my hands I remembered to ‘walk tall’ so they acted as a great prompt as well as a physical support.

Is it ‘cheating’ to use poles?

A few months ago, I had a conversation with someone who said she would never use walking poles because she liked to feel that she was using the strength of her own body for balance and support. She suggested that for her it would feel like ‘cheating’ to rely on poles.

This conversation was a real turning point for me early in my training, when I was still undecided about using poles, because it had me really pay attention to what difference (if any) they made.

I honestly believe that poles help me to walk further (and faster) without any muscle or joint pain. I can feel that my core muscles are providing me with stability and that my leg muscles are then able to work efficiently without any tension. I also no longer feel a long-term persistent niggle in the attachment point of my left hamstrings. (I hadn’t realised that this had stopped being an issue, until it cropped up again when I walked without poles one day after having used them for several weeks)

My goal when working with my fitness & pilates clients is to have them experience movement which is generated from their core and then outwards into their peripheral limbs, without holding tension in any area of the body. Using the core muscles as the base for stability, allows the arms and legs to move more freely, and so it seems natural & obvious to bring this principle to my walking as well. I think this is where Pacerpoles make the difference.

Anything that helps the body move well is definitely not cheating in my eyes! I don’t think using poles is cheating any more than wearing walking boots or waterproof clothing is cheating…it’s just sensible.

Conclusion:

My body simply feels stronger and more efficient when I’m walking with poles. I walked a total of 146 miles over eight days, with a pack, at an average pace of about 2.6 mph, and didn’t feel the need to stretch out my legs more than once in that time. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have been true if I’d been walking without Pacerpoles.

pack, poles & Kendal mint cake
pack, poles and a little Kendal mint cake!

Of course we are all different so I will leave you to make up your own mind about what equipment to use for day- or long-distance walking. But if you are a regular walker and you haven’t tried walking poles, I would suggest that you borrow a pair (preferably not mine because I will be using them!) to see how you get on…you might be surprised at the results.

If you want to read more about my adventure on the South Downs Way, start here with my notes from day 1

[In the spirit of openness, I want to let you know that I was gifted my Pacerpoles, for which I am truly grateful. However, in writing this post, I have been entirely honest in my appraisal of them and other walking poles. If anything, I have been more analytical in my assessment of them, to satisfy myself that my views have not been unduly swayed as a result]

Random ponderings from the South Downs Way…

walking on the south downs way

I never listen to music, audio books or podcasts while walking because I just love the connection with all the sounds in nature and the chance to let my mind gently process thoughts as I go. I have to admit though, that before I set off to walk the South Downs Way, I did wonder if eight days alone with my thoughts would drive me mad!!

I started to notice what I was thinking about while I walked and there were definitely some recurrent themes:

1) Not surprisingly I thought about my Mum a lot, still processing my grief for her and trying to understand the huge shifts in my family since she died. I think that her life outside her career was quite ‘small’ which is not intended as a criticism of her choices, but more an observation that she perhaps wasn’t a brave woman and never sought adventure. I honestly don’t know if this was her choice or just how life turned out for her. Realising this about her over the past 18 months, has made me very determined to not live small – I do want to have adventures, I like to feel challenged, I’m ok with feeling a bit uncomfortable or scared (within reason!) and when my time comes, I want to know that I have lived before I die. I thought about this probably every day as I walked – in fact, I’ve probably thought about it every day since she died. I didn’t reach any earth-shattering conclusions about how I’m going to live a bigger life, but I definitely made a bigger commitment to doing so…

my Mum

2) I thought every day about vegetarian food!! I was astounded how difficult it was to find good vegetarian food options along the South Downs Way. Admittedly I don’t eat out very often at home so maybe it is the same in pubs everywhere, but the lack of choice or the lack of simple meals was really bizarre. Even shops didn’t seem to stock vegetarian sandwiches, which isn’t exactly hard! One shop had eight sandwich options, all of which included meat or fish. Unbelievable!! One pub had the choice of potato & aubergine curry, vegetable chilli or teriyaki salad – ie. two versions of sloppy spicy stuff or the most disgusting salad imaginable (I know, because that’s what I ordered and it was truly vile). I will happily admit that I’m a tad fussy about food, but a range of options isn’t difficult – something spicy, something bland, something with pastry, something light, something traditional, something exotic… exactly the same as you could reasonably expect for non-vegetarian options. And my biggest gripe was this: if you are a pub serving a (meat) burger in a bun, with fries and salad, why on earth can’t you keep veggie burgers in the freezer and offer a vegetarian version of the same thing??? You already have the other elements of the dish, there is nothing extra to make and zero wastage – so SIMPLE!!! There were of course some exceptions along the way, but they were few and far between and the lack of good nutrition made a significant impact on me. If you’re a pub on the SDW, please add a veggie burger option to your menu…

simple vegetarian food is good…

3) I also wondered every day why the ‘downs’ are called ‘downs’ when clearly they are higher up than nearly everything else and when walking it seemed that I spent far more time going up than down!! I Googled it when I got home…apparently the name comes from the Old English/Gaelic/Welsh name for a hill or hill fort – ‘dun’. So now you know…

high up on the downs

4) Whilst walking, I was surprised to see so few other walkers (it was mostly cyclists) and then it occurred to me that there were even fewer women. I felt like I had entered an alternate universe – a giant boys playground! I did see women walking their dogs but it took until day 4 to see another woman hefting a backpack. There were sometimes female cyclists, but always in the minority amongst a pack of male riders. Is it just that women generally don’t want this kind of adventure or perhaps were they at home enabling the men to enjoy a few days of testosterone-fuelled escapism?? I honestly don’t know the answer but as a lone-walking woman I would just say to other women that the South Downs Way is too beautiful not to get out & enjoy, that it never felt anything other than safe and that adventures are not just for the boys. We need to even-up the numbers ladies – let your men stay at home while you go out to play!

5) My final ponderance came after a great meal in a pub, which was then sadly followed by one of the worst chocolate brownies I’ve eaten…why is it so hard to find a really good, made-for-you chocolate brownie? I’m not the best at baking by any means but I think I can make an ok brownie. It’s not really rocket-science after all… The one in question was too light and sponge-cakey, with no chocolate chunks (or actually any real chocolate at all) and it tasted a bit plastic and burnt. I think it is true of chocolate brownies perhaps more than any other cake-thing, that they so often look really tempting, but nearly always fail to deliver – and yet I can’t seem to stop myself trying them out. But not any more! I hereby swear that I will not eat another chocolate brownie unless I know that it has been home-made (not necessarily by me) and has real chocolate incorporated beneath it’s soft delicate crust…

homemade chocolate brownies from now on…

So there you have my top five thoughts-while-walking. You probably didn’t even want to know what they were, but if you’ve read this far, you do anyway – and at least you now know why the ‘downs’ are called ‘downs’ Jx

South Downs Way – notes from day 2

(Beauworth nearly to Butser Hil)

Day one felt like I was just getting myself in the right place to start in earnest. I had high hopes that from today onwards the views would be spectacular…and they were!

On the road by 8.30am and reached my first trig point within the hour.

Also hundreds of cows so I decided the cycling route into Exton was a better option than the walking one. Took a stop at Meonstoke post office – an apple and a cheese & onion pasty gave me a welcome ‘bag break’ sitting in the shade for a while. I even had a moment with a dog lead in my hand – looking after Raffi while his dad went inside for a newspaper.

I’m feeling good walking today – I’ve settled into wearing my pack, boots feel good and I’ve found a good pace so far. 

Old Winchester Hill was brilliant – felt like I was standing on top of the world. Met two ladies at the top, one of whom has been going there since she was a child and now takes her grand-children there – how wonderful.

It’s way too hot but there’s patchy shade a lot of the time. Sitting inside at Meon Springs enjoying a cup of green tea, crisps and a chocolate brownie – slightly odd lunch but very welcome chance to sit and talk trout with the fishing crowd, as you do.

Added another 6+ miles after lunch, including a missed turn, some long climbs, amazing views over the Solent, more cows (happily behind a fence) and a shepherd’s hut to sleep in.

A good day today – everything I dreamed of and hoped for. Currently enjoying gnocchi and the first wi-fi since Winchester Jx

South Downs Way – notes from day 1

Departure!

Awake at 5.10am & too edgy to enjoy breakfast but left on time with 2 pyjama-clad girls. Finished reading ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ (Anthony Doerr) on the way to London & found a grateful recipient who told me her son would be very envious of my walk & that she’d pass the book on when she’d read it.

Glad I had extra time at Waterloo to find toilets and buy some breakfast. 1st drama was realising phone was only 40% charged – maybe I switched of the socket last night?!! Or actually, maybe it wasn’t plugged in – doh! No sockets on train to Winchester so already making use of portable battery pack… 

My pack is heavier than I might like (11kg with water) and the weather is a tad warm but I’m ready…

The walk:

Winchester was horrid – I just wanted to get in a green space but it seemed to take forever! Wandered towards the cathedral (didn’t actually see it); bought a spinach & ricotta pasty (it was actually a folded pizza filled with peppers); took it back but failed to find another savoury vegetarian option so left with nothing; missed the official start point, went back to find it and then started – beautiful but short stretch along the river; and then seemingly no signs! In hindsight I think they’d been turned around but still annoying. Once I found my way it seemed an age getting out of Winchester and then the road noise could still be heard for a few miles. Finally, after a few tears (thinking about all the things last year that had brought me to that point, missing my mum, tired & a bit frustrated at the patchy start) I took a few big breaths and found my feet.  

Met a ginger Archie and had a brief surge of homesick-for-my-pooch tears. Stopped to apply my first compeed (left heel) and ate my cheese roll from home. Stopped again the take out toe spacer. Realised I was going to reach my destination before 3pm!!!

I deliberately planned an easy day to start with but I think the desire to get going took over. Note to self – next time, set off later or sit and have lunch in Winchester! No matter – sat in the shade with water, book and snacks waiting for the pub to open. Remembering that this is a holiday and sitting down is permitted.

The evening:

The accommodation was fairly basic but the bedding and towels were clean and there was the unexpected bonus of a TV & a bath. Neighbours watched; clothes and body washed. I’d planned an early dinner but once I sat down I didn’t want to move, and then a big group of Harley’s rumbled into the car park and jumped ahead of me in the dinner queue!! It made for a really nice vibe in the bar though, as I half read, half eavesdropped, and ate a really delicious spinach & ricotta cannelloni.

When I woke at 5am to the calls of the peacocks next door it occurred to me that their owner must be the same man who had remonstrated with the bikers as they left at 8.30pm last night, presumably about the noise they were making! 

A beginner’s guide to preparing for a long distance walk (part 2)

my top 6 tips for planning any long distance event, new activity or life in general.

Here’s the next section of my beginner’s guide to preparing for a long distance walk, created as I prepare to embark on my first one. In case you missed it, you can read part 1 here

Consider what you need to spend money on:

When I started walking in January, I was wearing jeans, a cotton t-shirt, a cotton hoodie, a vaguely-showerproof dog-walking coat and some vintage walking boots I found tucked away in my shed! On long walks I was covering 13 miles so the lack of ‘proper’ clothing didn’t stop me walking, but I realised fairly early-on that I would need to up my game a bit…

My first purchase was a pair of decent walking socks. Unfortunately they weren’t the right ones for me, but the second pair was much better and I’ve stuck with those ever since.

The thing I resisted buying for longest was a pair of walking trousers, just because they seemed so geeky!! Happily I found a pair that weren’t beige and I haven’t looked back since!

NB If you’re buying new clothing for your event, don’t do what I did and buy three pairs all at once, only to find that loose and comfortable at home = chafing and uncomfortable over a longer distance. I have had to buy a couple more pairs, a size smaller than I would instinctively go for, to get the right fit. I’m hoping the larger size will come into their own in the winter as I’ll be able to fit a pair of leggings underneath, but I could have done without the additional expense.

The first time I wore ‘all the gear’ I felt like a potential fire-hazard, dressed head-to-toe in man-made (aka technical) fabrics, but over the past few months I have appreciated the benefit of said fabrics many times over.

all the gear…in all the colours!!

Finding the right footwear was a bit of a mission but now that I have ‘the ones’ I am glad that I didn’t settle for those which just didn’t feel quite right. The difference they make is huge and it is so good to feel confident that my feet will be ok, especially when I’ll be relying on them as my sole (see what I did there?!) mode of transport from the moment I step off the train in Winchester until I arrive on Hastings pier. If you only get one thing right for your event, make sure it is your footwear!

pair of boots #5

Unexpectedly, my best purchase to date has been a rain poncho. I’ve learned that the thing which annoys me & slows me down the most is faffing on and off with my backpack to put on/take off a waterproof coat when the weather just can’t decide what to do. The rain poncho goes on over everything (including my pack) so on days when I think I’ll need it, I hang it (rolled up in its little bag) from a hook on the front of my pack, ready to pull out and throw on at a moment’s notice. I believe that it is also the most truly versatile piece of kit – ground sheet, canopy, one-woman toilet-tent, hammock, curtain (for my dorm-room bed), talking point…I tell you, it is genius & I love it!

Of course you don’t necessarily need to spend money on everything – ask around and see what you can borrow, even if it is just to try things out before you buy. I have borrowed a sleeping bag for my event and have borrowed a trekking-friends’ poles to train with. In truth I could have used them for my walk too, but I had the romantic notion that I wanted my own pair of poles so that they would be with me for all my memorable walks, now and in the future. Daft I know, but that’s the way I roll!

[I’ll write a separate post about trekking poles soon…lots to say!]

Test everything:

Once you have acquired your kit, or as you are busy acquiring it, get it on and test it how you will use it for your event. Test it in every type of weather, over different distances, with different loads (if you’ll be carrying a backpack) and at different times of the day. Even if you feel silly walking the dog with a 50 litre backpack on, do it anyway! It will create no end of interest from your neighbours, but more importantly it will tell you what, if anything, you need to refine.

Things to consider (obviously the specifics will vary with each type of event):

  • does your underwear chafe? (it’s important to find this out early on)
  • how do your feet feel after  x-hours or x-miles?
  • are your waterproofs waterproof?
  • how does your backpack feel on your back/shoulders/hips?
  • how easy is it to get your gloves out when a sudden cold wind whips up a hail-storm without warning? (answer – far too long, but lesson learned!)
  • how quickly do your clothes dry off after walking through a field of long grass right after a heavy downpour?
  • how easily can you access the things you might need frequently? (in my case the things I like to have in easy reach at all times are lip salve, tissue, phone, map, snacks & water, plus gloves, hat & sunglasses accessible without needing to take off my backpack)

Use every training session as another chance to test out your kit, as getting things right will make the biggest difference for your actual event. Feeling confident before you start is one less thing to worry about when the time comes.

Work out the right fuel & hydration for your body:

This has probably been my biggest lesson.

When I started in January, I was covering 13 miles without any snacks (except for Christmas cake on one joyous occasion) and only rare, brief stops for sips of hot water. I didn’t think I needed any food because I wasn’t getting hungry, and I only noticed how thirsty I was at the end, but what I did notice was that I became very cold as soon as I stopped walking, and then felt totally exhausted for the rest of the day (and sometimes the next day too).

Over time I have experimented with different fuel options and have found a formula which seems to work for me, while I’m walking and afterwards. For a long walk I now carry:

  • a 2 litre water-bladder in my backpack, from which I take small and frequent drinks (I also have two 1 litre collapsible bottles for the SDW so that I can carry extra water on the really long days/in hot weather)
  • an insulated bottle with hot water in it for when I take a break
  • a nut bar or sesame seed bar for protein and energy
  • a raw fruit bar/snack for energy
  • a packet of oatcakes for slower release energy (and because sometimes I want something savoury rather than sweet)
  • Kendal mint cake as a back-up / treat towards the end of my walk
snacks for walking

snacks that work for me –
what are your favourites?

I won’t necessarily eat all of these things (it will depend on time/distance/exertion) but I now have a better understanding of the fuel I need to get me where I need to be and in good shape when I get there.

Giving some focus to this area of my preparation has been very important. To start with I didn’t like drinking cold water (because I don’t like how it feels in my stomach) but I have adjusted and become comfortable with the stomach-feel during recent weeks, spurred on by the knowledge that sipping hot water wasn’t giving me the hydration I needed. The benefit of testing out lots of different food options, has been that I now have four go-to products which my body copes with well.

There was a near-choking scare along the way – I was eating nuts and raisins, whilst walking and talking to a friend; as I did so, I partly inhaled a half-chewed nut, which got a bit stuck in my throat for a few worrying seconds, while I coughed and spluttered and my friend tried to work out how she would be able to perform a back slap while I was wearing a backpack!!! That one incident (and visions of choking to death alone on the SDW) did more to focus my mind on potentially suitable snacks than anything else.

As with your kit, test out your fuel options every time you train for your event – it is another area where confidence in a tried-and-tested approach will make a huge difference when it matters most.

When I started thinking about walking the SDW, I thought it was just about doing the miles and had no idea how much I had to learn, but the process of getting ready has been as positive as the practice walks and physical & mental health benefits. I am feeling slightly nervous about what I’m about to do, but so excited that I have this opportunity to challenge myself in this way.

I’ll report back soon to let you know if all my planning came good and to add anything new that I haven’t learned yet!

A beginner’s guide to preparing for a long distance walk (part 1)

my top 6 tips for planning any long distance event, new activity or life in general.

I’m not sure what age I was when I started walking (I think I was the child who was happy to sit in one spot for hours at a time?!) but given that I’m 53 now, I reckon I must have been on my feet for about 52 years. Over the past 18 months, walking has helped me process grief and hormone-related depression and has increasingly become an inherent part of me. There’s something in the rhythm of walking that makes me feel truly alive, which is why I’m about to set off for my first long distance walk (LDW) next week…

Earlier this year I decided that I was going to walk The Pennine Way (a vague dream I’ve had since I was a teenager) and then I looked into it in more detail and got a bit scared. It’s not my style to do an organised walk, with baggage transfers and plush b&b nights, so I realised that I wasn’t quite ready for this particular challenge for my first solo LDW. Instead, I set my sights closer to home, with a shorter, less challenging walk – The South Downs Way (Winchester to Eastbourne) plus an added day to get me to Hastings.

It occurs to me that this might be the most planning & preparation I’ve done in a long time, largely because this is the most I’ve stepped out of familiar territory for a long time too. I’m not worried about the walking itself, even though my longest distance so far is not equal to my longest days on the SDW, but I wanted to feel confident about following a map, having everything in my backpack where I can access it easily, staying dry in the pouring rain, not looking like a total novice, etc, etc.

rain poncho happiness
the joy of a waterproof
rain poncho 🙂

I’ve been thinking about the process of preparation a lot over the past few weeks and as result I’ve written my beginner’s guide to preparing for a long distance walk.

Although it is about walking for me, I think that many of these stages are relevant for any long distance event, new activity or life in general. I’ve tried to put them in some sort of order, but of course many will overlap. This post covers the first 3 tips (the getting started stuff) and I’ll share the next 3 tips (the practical stuff) tomorrow.

I hope you find something useful, whatever you’re planning.

Start where you are:

It sounds obvious, but it is too easy to wait until everything is in place before we start doing something new or challenging. We might wait until we have all the right equipment, or until we have lost weight, or until we feel fitter, or until the weather is better, or until someone can do it with us…but actually what we really need to do is just start.

I wanted to do a LDW so I started by walking further:

  • I signed up to #walk100miles which has been a great source of motivation and information
  • I began adding extra distance whenever I walked the dog (walking around an extra field, or going twice around the local woods instead of once)
  • I started planning longer walks on the weekends, discovering new footpaths near my home
  • I set up an informal walking group every Wednesday morning – making a commitment to be there for other people has helped me to make a commitment to myself
  • I have made more effort to walk instead of using the car for local trips, eg. going to the library, collecting parcels form the post office or a quick visit to the supermarket

The best thing is that over the past few months, walking has become such a great part of my day that it no longer feels like an effort to do it.

Plan your event:

Give yourself time to think about what sort of an event you want to do and then take time to research the various options available.

I knew from the start that I wanted to do an independent, unsupported walk – ie. not a pre-planned, organised walking holiday. For me, walking has been about learning to believe in myself, and so it feels important to do this by myself too. It wouldn’t be everyone’s choice, of course, so I think the first thing when planning your event is to know what is right for you.

Once you have decided on your event, and made some initial plans, step back a little and take time to review and re-plan as many times as you need. For the SDW, I bought a book which covers the whole walk plus lots of advice on suggested daily distances, places to stay, etc. I went through it in fine detail and planned out my daily schedule and places to sleep. The next week, I looked it over again and re-scheduled the whole thing. And the next week, after reading another book on the subject, I did the same again! Only then did I feel ready to book my accommodation and arrange time off work.

My main focus in the planning stages was:

  • getting the distances right (not too short – arriving by lunchtime – and not too long – arriving after dark)
  • guessing my likely average pace with a backpack (not something I had practiced at this stage)
  • sticking to a budget (ie. finding the most cost-effective places to stay without resorting to sleeping under canvas)

Try to plan well-ahead of your event so that you have plenty of time to review and reschedule if necessary.

Create a training ‘schedule’:

As a fitness instructor, this one is an obvious consideration but actually I only recently realised that I have been doing it all along without having specifically planned it out from the beginning.

Since I planned my event, I have gradually increased my weekly distances; walked over different terrain (to more closely replicate the terrain on the SDW); gradually added weight to my backpack; trained in different weather conditions; mixed in shorter, faster walks with longer, slower ones; and walked with and without the dog (he’s not coming with me on the SDW so I needed to check how it would feel – in truth quite lonely, but much easier to only think about me and not him too).

Archie’s face when I told him he wasn’t coming with me…

A few weeks ago I increased my weekly mileage by 50% and experienced my first (and only) blisters. It was quite an important lesson and luckily gave me time to review and change my boots while I still had time to do so.

Once the boot issue was resolved, I upped my mileage again for one week just to see how it would feel doing three long walks in a row; and since then I have tapered off again in the same way that I might if I was training for a marathon.

If you’re not sure how best to train for your event, get some help – talk to friends, look online, find a trainer, join a club or read-up on your activity. Training is not rocket-science but you don’t have to learn everything the hard way – unless you want to!

empty plate
scrambled eggs be gone!

With one week to go I am now focusing less on distance and more on making sure I eat and sleep well. I know I can walk, and I’m confident in my kit, so now I need to make sure that I’m in good shape to do it well.

Tomorrow I’ll add my next 3 tips focusing on what kit to invest in, how to check it’s the right kit for you and how best to fuel your body…