Since walking the Portuguese Camino de Santiago, several people have asked how I trained for walking over 200 kilometres of the Central Camino in 10 days. Here’s what preparation for walking the Portuguese Way of Saint James Dori and I did and what we would do differently next time.
There’s a summary of tips at the end of this post if you want to skip my personal experiences and reflections.
Physical training for the Camino de Santiago
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 house sitting stint in Lisbon.
I averaged about 1 1/4 hours a day over 4 months. The 4 days I did on the Coastal Way of St. James helped bump up the average and taught me a few useful lessons.
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 are 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
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.
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 and walking poles.
Pacing, energy levels and planned rest days
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 beforehand 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 sure to enjoy the actual walks and scenery and 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 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 future, I’d rather aim to walk 12-15 kilometres per day in order to fully enjoy both the journey and the destination. This isn’t always possible as it depends where accommodation lies but is useful as a rule of thumb.
Physical preparation for walking the Way of Saint James
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 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
- 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
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