Wait…what? We’re Hiking 650 KM? – How to Train for a Thru-Hike!
The definition of a thru-hike is hiking a long-distance trail, end-to-end, within one hiking season. The very idea of a thru-hike from a physical perspective can be a daunting one. Day after day, week after week, month after month, one foot in front of the other. Relentless forward progress. A heavy (to a greater or lesser degree, depending on your gear and how you pack!) backpack, travelling over terrain that can include flat meadows, river crossings, mountains, roads, rocks, roots, and switchbacks, or all of the above in one day! Through sweltering heat, swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes and black flies, teeming rain, high winds, and even snow. Not for the inexperienced, the unprepared, or the faint of heart!
The total distance covered per day on a thru-hike will vary greatly depending on each person and their fitness and experience level. On our 650 km thru-hike of the Sentier International des Appalaches – International Appalachian Trail (SIA-IAT) in Quebec at the end of this month, we will be covering an average of 15-20 kms per day, for approximately 35 consecutive days. This trail should prove to be both challenging and stunningly beautiful as it traverses through Avignon/Matapedia Valley, Matane Wildlife Reserve, the Chic Choc Mountains, Gaspesie National Park, Upper Gaspe, Gaspe Coast, and finally to Forillion National Park. As you can imagine, you cannot simply just go and hike this with no training or experience.
Prior to this undertaking, my partner Stephen and I had accumulated several years of backpacking, packrafting, and canoeing experience. Each year, we strive to increase the number of days and nights spent on the trails and lakes, including winter camping and snowshoeing, and complete dozens of weekend trips and one longer distance trip. With several long distance hikes previously accomplished, we have a good sense of the difficulties of extended travel by foot through the backcountry. Our long distance hiking experience is as follows:
- La Cloche Silhouette Trail, Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario (2 separate times, 78 km, 3 and 5 days)
- Lake Superior Coastal Trail, Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario (out and back, 110 km, 6 days)
- Lake Superior Coastal Trail, Pukaskwa National Park, Ontario (out and back, 120 km, 8 days)
- Ottawa-Temiskaming Highland Trail, Temagami, Ontario (end to end, 120 km, 8 days)
In addition, we both come from a background in running, both on roads and on trails. Stephen is an accomplished athlete, having completed dozens of marathons, ultra-marathons, and 100 mile ultra-marathons. I have completed marathons and ultra-marathons as well, including a 50 mile ultra-marathon. This gives us a good base of endurance, strength, and conditioning.
However, even with this experience under our belts, there is additional training needed to prepare for this kind of hike.
Our training began in earnest approximately 8 weeks prior to our start date of August 28, 2017. We have each had somewhat of a different approach. The following comprises my training regime.
- Yoga: 5-7 times per week
It had long been on my mind to begin a yoga practice, and when I was restructured out of my job about 8 weeks prior to our trip, I thought it was the perfect time. Luckily, I found Moksha Yoga Brampton (www.brampton.mokshayoga.ca) within walking distance of my home. With ample free time, I was able to practice hot yoga almost every day and in a very short time, I found many benefits: increased flexibility; increased muscle strength and tone; improved respiration, energy and vitality; and improved cardio and circulatory health. All of this would serve me well in terms of athletic performance and endurance on the trail. In addition, these benefits combine to strengthen your body and protect it against injury. With the repetitive nature of the body’s movement on a thru-hike, it is essential to safeguard against injury as much as possible.
I found that my yoga practice built strength from the inside out – not just your muscles and bones, but your mind and spirit as well. In yoga, you learn to push past difficulty and increase your focus with the power of your breath. This can be applied to any situation in life and certainly would be helpful on difficult or monotonous sections of the trail. Yoga is a lifestyle where the mind, body, and spirit are in balance and I plan to continue the practice when we return.
- Strength and Conditioning Training: 2 -3 times per week
As luck would have it, my daughter Madison and her partner Ryan opened a new, 24 hour, fitness facility called Kingdom of Iron (www.kingdomofiron.com) in Bolton several weeks prior to our trip. Both are qualified, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable personal trainers and business owners, and their brand new facility is first-rate. At Kingdom of Iron, the emphasis is on functional training, not just endless hours of cardio. I decided that this type of conditioning was just what I needed to increase my all around strength and fitness level for this hike. Through a combination of classes and personal training, within days, I felt my muscles responding and becoming more powerful.
In addition to strengthening and conditioning, Madison and Ryan also taught me about the importance of mobility in our muscles, and under their guidance, I began a program of rolling out different muscle groups that had been sadly neglected over the years. The use of foam rollers and their hands-on manipulation always resulted in muscles that felt loose and soft, relieving the tense and knotted muscle tissue that had built up over time. This would be especially helpful for my shoulders, with weeks of carrying a loaded backpack ahead.
- Running: 10 km, 2 – 3 times per week
I continued our practice of early morning runs from our home approximately 2 – 3 times per week. This is a more sport-specific kind of training and helps to maintain your confidence level and endurance base.
- Hill Repeats: Once per week, with a weighted backpack
Once per week, we would head out to a local hill with our backpacks fully loaded and do hill repeats. The number of hill repeats would vary each time, depending on which hill we were doing. A long steep hill, such as the one leading to the Devil’s Pulpit on the Bruce Trail at Forks of the Credit, would only require a couple of repeats. The smaller ski hills at Chinguacousy Park would require 5 – 7 repeats.
Again, this was a very sport-specific training and its importance cannot be underestimated, both physically and psychologically. We knew that the valleys of Matapedia and the mountain range through the Chic Chocs would be full of relentless, challenging, ups and downs and we needed to prepare mentally and physically. Carrying heavy loads through these ups and downs would be one of the most challenging aspects of our trip.
In addition to physical training, there was also a certain amount of mental preparation. We meditate several times a week, and this is a good practice to train your mind to silence the sometimes incessant mental chatter and inner voices that may tell you you’re tired, you’re sore, you’re hungry. Our bodies are often capable of much more than we think, and our body will always follow our mind’s thoughts. Like yoga, meditation teaches you to focus on the power of your breath, combined with the use of a mantra, to clear your mind and keep positive. Yoga also helped in this regard, as I visualized myself hiking with power and confidence to the very end and finishing strong.
In 35 days of consecutive hiking, there will undoubtedly be some days where fatigue and doubt creep in. I am confident, however, that the above training will allow me to rise above those moments and to accomplish our goal with strength, positivity, and awe for the wondrous and beautiful land we will be travelling through. See you on the flip side!