Many people have asked me how to train for walking the Portuguese Camino de Santiago. I had already had my first taste of multi-day hiking with a 4-day stint on the Coastal Camino where I learned some valuable lessons thanks to my totally inadequate preparation. With that experience in mind, I was determined to get in better shape for the main event later that year.
Here’s what preparation Dori and I did for walking over 200 kilometres of the Central Camino Português in 10 days. And what we would do differently next time.
There’s a summary of training tips at the end of this post if you want to skip my personal experiences and reflections.
Physical training for the Camino de Santiago – my experience
Start training months in advance
I started the year with the best of intentions, setting myself a goal of walking an average of 2 hours per day.
Did I manage it?
My excuses? A couple of nasty colds, weeks of torrential rain, a sudden surge of freelance work and competing deadlines, visits from friends and family and a housesitting stint in Lisbon.
I ended up averaging about 1 1/4 hours a day over 4 months.
I also stepped up my somewhat neglected yoga practice in the final week just to make sure the rest of my body wasn’t too stiff.
The most important result of doing yoga was strengthening and remembering how to engage my core muscles, which I rediscovered, buried somewhere under my belly flab.
While we were walking, Dori and I kept reminding each other to “engage your core”. It really does help to take the strain off your back.
Daily stretches along the Camino de Santiago
During the Camino, I spent 10-15 minutes each morning doing a short yoga routine to loosen up before walking. The hip and shoulder stretches in particular helped prevent the aches and stiffness I’d felt on the 4-day walk.
Dori had been going to the gym several times a week and working with a personal trainer to correct her gait and posture so she had her own set of stretches to do before and after each day’s walk.
I would also recommend doing some stretches at regular intervals during your walking day, just to give your muscles a break.
Were we fully fit and prepared?
Both of us were suffering with bad backs and didn’t feel as though we’d done enough exercise in the weeks before we started for various reasons.
Did it matter?
On reflection, I think our muscles were ready enough thanks to months of regular exercise. And our backs just about survived, thanks to our core muscles, kino tape and walking poles.
Pacing, energy levels and planned rest days on the Camino Portugues
What took us both by surprise was the level of exhaustion we experienced, despite being no strangers to long walks.
We were averaging 20 kilometres per day and on most days, we were shattered by the time we got to our accommodation and longing for bed by 9 pm, if not before.
The early nights weren’t an issue but I had anticipated doing more sightseeing. In practice, I was too tired to care where I was or what I ate most days.
On reflection, we should perhaps have done a couple of consecutive long walks as part of our training in order to increase our endurance and stamina.
We would also build in at least one rest day to give our weary bodies a chance to bounce back and allow us to enjoy the places we visited.
As it was, we made a point of enjoying the actual walks and scenery. We managed to have a look around the most attractive towns and cities while we were there but it would have been nice to have the energy to appreciate them better.
It took longer than expected to cover the distances, too.
We average about 5 km per hour when walking at home for 2-3 hours. On the Portuguese Camino, our average dropped to about 3.5 km an hour, including rest and photo stops.
We set off at around 9 am most days and arrived about 4 or 5 pm. This wasn’t an issue in April/May but during winter months, the reduced number of daylight hours need to be considered. In the summer, it will be too hot for walking by mid afternoon so you should either set off earlier or plan to take an extended break until it cools down sufficiently.
In future, I’d rather aim to walk around 15 kilometres per day in order to fully enjoy both the journey and the destination. This isn’t always possible as the daily distance depends where accommodation lies but is useful as a rule of thumb when you’re planning your Camino itinerary.
Mindset matters when you’re on the Camino
On my initial 4-day foray into long distance walking, I encountered several setbacks, including poor signage and torrential rain.
I found it surprisingly easy to cope with and even enjoy the difficult day by not focusing on the negatives or how much further I had to go. For me, it was more about acceptance, perseverance and looking on the bright side when obstacles appeared.
Other days, that on the face of it were less physically demanding, I found to be more of a mental struggle. This was particularly noticeable on the days I walked alone and I now know that I could have done more to talk myself into a more positive state of mind. Don’t you just love hindsight?
When I walked with Dori, I also noticed that we approached the last few kilometres of each day with opposite attitudes that affected the way we walked. She was worn out by the notion that there were still X kilometres to cover and began to slow down with exhaustion.
I, on the other hand, found a reserve of energy when I knew I only had X kilometres to go and began to pick up the pace for that final leg. If I’m honest, I found it mildly irritating to have to keep stopping and waiting for Dori to catch up but there were plenty of other times when she cheered me up when I was frustrated.
Physical preparation for walking the Camino – summary
In a nutshell:
- Start training months in advance, gradually increasing the distances you walk
- Set a goal and do your best to stick to it
- Do some full-day walks and a couple of consecutive ones if possible
- Strengthen your whole body, especially your core muscles (the ones around your trunk and pelvis)
- Consult a personal trainer or health/fitness professional to get a personalised training programme
- Learn a simple stretching routine that you can do before, during and after you do a day’s walk
- Include one or two rest days in your itinerary
- Give yourself plenty of time to complete each stage and keep them shorter rather than trying to walk too far and wearing yourself out
- Learn some techniques for keeping a positive mindset on challenging days
- Consider how you view the last few kilometres and how that affects your ‘performance’
- Practice walking and carrying the bag you’ll be using with as much in it as you intend to take – this will help you resist overpacking if nothing else!
- Get two walking poles and learn the most effective techniques for using them
- Buy a decent pair of waterproof, breathable walking shoes and give yourself plenty of time to wear them in properly – see my full Camino packing tips
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