Preparing for the H2H

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. -- Frank Herbert

OK, so you are thinking that this H2H thing sounds like fun and maybe you'd like to do some or all of it next summer. Excellent!! Barring catastrophes and assuming a positive outlook on life, you will have a wonderful time… if you prepare for it in the right way. If not… well, then depending upon how masochistic you are you might still have a great time, but it may well be painful. Below I'll suggest how to avoid this fate, but first a few words to those who think that they are fit enough already.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have I ever done something like this before? By "something like this" is meant: 2 or more consecutive days of hiking with a full pack in the mountains, where each day you go up (and then down) 1000+m (3300 feet) and cover 20+km... which takes around 7 hours.
  • And even if I have done this before... have I done something like this recently (i.e., in the last couple of years)?

If the answer to either or both of the above questions is no, then I strongly recommend you do some or all of the training program I describe below. After all, wouldn't it be better to make sure that you are in good enough shape before you start the H2H? And shouldn't you make sure of this early enough to be able to train if it turns out that you aren't?

What Works (and What Doesn't)

Being fit for other sports (running, tennis, cycling, whatever) is helpful but often insufficient. Even things that seem like they should transfer do so only partially (e.g., Stairmaster workouts -- they don't prepare you for the descents, which put much more stress on your muscles and joints than the climbs). Most importantly, no other sport stresses your feet quite like hiking with a full pack does. The simple truth is that the only real way to train for hiking in the mountains is to hike in the mountains. I'll give you a few painful examples.

In the summer of 2006 seven of us hiked across England on the Coast to Coast route (C2C -- trip report here). One of us, let's call him "Dave", was in great shape beforehand. He ran, he cycled, he did aerobics and yoga and pilates, and he was thin and wiry -- you know, the type of guy who does a triathlon on a whim and is better than most of the people who have trained for it. But he didn't hike. Well, on the C2C we averaged 25km a day… and although we were only carrying daypacks (around 3-4kg) Dave suffered from excruciating foot pain. This was due to two things: first, his feet weren't tough enough because he hadn't done any training hikes, and second, he had not tested his hiking boots on comparable hikes (and they turned out to be too soft).

The importance of training on comparable hikes and with the same equipment that you plan to take along with you on the H2H can't be overemphasized. My brother Russell and his girlfriend Sally dutifully did many training hikes in the mountains before the H2H -- climbing and descending up to 1200m -- but never longer than 5 hours and always with daypacks.

On the first stage of the H2H Sally found out that when fully laden her (new!) pack hurt her back after a few hours: she didn't find a good sports store to buy a replacement until four days later. In addition, during the second stage she developed a painful Morton's Neuroma on one foot. She couldn't have avoided the Morton's by training correctly (in fact, she would have provoked it), but she would have been able to discover how to alleviate the pain (through the use of custom-made orthopedic shoe inserts) while she didn't have to hike several hours a day. As it was she went through three sets of inserts and two new pairs of boots (because the first two sets of inserts didn't work, then the third set that did work made her first pair of boots too tight, and then the second pair of boots caused her other problems) before she finally found a combination that worked for her.

Russell had an even worse experience: he developed Morton's on both feet, tried out three new pairs of boots, and in the process injured one of his knees when one of his new pairs of boots turned out to be too stiff and changed his gait. Both Russell and Sally suffered debilitating pain and came within a hair's-breadth of abandoning the H2H because of these problems... which could have been avoided if they had trained appropriately.

Lastly, even if you have done this sort of hiking recently, say last year, with the same equipment that you plan to take with you, then remember that the first hike after a few months of inactivity typically leaves you feeling sore and drained the next day. No problem... unless you have to hike the next day, as will be the case on the H2H. There are people who are exceptions, but are you sure you are one of them? Bottom line: even if you are in great hiking shape, it is highly advisable to do at least a couple of full-scale warm-up hikes shortly before doing the H2H.

The Program

The good news, after all of the above, is that it isn't that difficult to get in shape sufficiently to enjoy the H2H. As long as you have no joint problems and follow the program, you too can hike the H2H with pleasure!! Here's how….

In the following program, choose your entry point based on how fit you think you are. Perhaps all you need is a weekend with two long hikes. If something feels too easy, skip ahead. The only critical stage is the last one.

  • Stage 1: Start off walking on the flat without a pack. 1-2 hrs, 3 times a week for a couple of weeks will send the message to your legs that they need to build up some slow-twitch muscles.
  • Stage 2: Add hills. Again 1-2 hrs, 3 times a week for a couple of weeks should be sufficient.
  • Stage 3: A longer hike in the hills or mountains. 4-5 hrs, 500+ meters (1,650 feet) of ascent and descent, with a daypack.
  • Stage 4: Two longer mountain hikes in one weekend. 5+ hours each, 750+ meters (2,500 feet) up/down, daypack.
  • Stage 5: Two long mountain hikes in one weekend. 7+ hours each, 1000+ meters (3,300 feet) up/down, 20+km, full (min 12kg - 27lb) pack.

If at any stage you feel like this is too much... repeat until you no longer feel that way.

If you can do Stage 5 on a weekend, and then on Monday morning you wake up and think that actually you would really like to be hiking today, then you are ready for the H2H! If not, repeat stage 5.

Training Sense

A few additional pieces of advice:

  • Get good hiking boots before starting the program; a good sports store will have salespeople who can advise you as to what to get. My recommendation: you don't need heavy, stiff, ice climbers, but neither should you buy light felxible day hikers. Get something with good ankle support, reasonably stiff (but not too stiff!) soles, and if possible Vibram on the sole, Goretex in the body.
  • If your boots are new, do stage 2 above before taking them on a 5+ hour hike in the mountains.
  • Listen to your body. If you experience joint pain, stop at once and see a doctor before restarting the program. If you get blisters on day 1 of a weekend, consider abandoning day 2 and re-doing the weekend a week later… by then your blisters will have recovered and your feet will be much tougher. If you have to hike with blisters, use something like Compeed or Nuskin.
  • Hike slowly in the mountains. Experienced hikers pace themselves so that they can walk up steep trails for an hour without needing to take a break. Hiking should be an aerobic activity: if you have to take a break to catch your breath more often than once an hour, then you are going too fast.
  • Consider buying and using hiking poles (ideally with built-in shock absorbers). Opinions differ -- violently -- as to whether on balance poles are good or bad, but I am a fan. I particularly appreciate them on the downhills, when they reduce the shocks on my knees, but I also like them on uphills as a way to get an upper body workout.
  • Drink lots of water. Surprisingly, one of the main reasons people get tired while hiking is that they are dehydrated. Water-needs vary from person to person and depend of course on the temperature, but as a general rule for a long hike you should have at least a couple of liters (quarts) of water with you.

Remember, even the training is supposed to be fun, at least while you are hiking (the next day is another story).