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Expeditions are a big undertaking. They demand a lot from our bodies as well as our minds, so – unless you’re one of a select few for whom expeditions are a part of daily life – whether it be putting together a fresh fitness routine from scratch or adding some expedition specific conditioning to your current one, the likelihood is you’ll need to make some physical adjustments in the lead up to departure.
Finding the time to train isn’t always easy if you’re already juggling full time work and other commitments but the time invested in training before the trip will pay off when you’re feeling strong, fit and confident when it counts. The better you prepare, the more you’ll enjoy the adventure, the more you’ll achieve and increase your chances of avoiding injury. Below are some general tips to help you to prepare yourself physically before an expedition and how to plan your own training plan.
Long, multi-day, arduous treks carrying weight will quickly expose injuries and niggles so the first thing to address is that sore knee, lower back pain or stiff ankle. Get booked in with a physiotherapist for a proper assessment and diagnosis and then follow their instructions, including any corrective exercises. If you’ve got existing injury, this should be your first priority.
Strength is critical for moving efficiently over steep or uneven ground with weight on your back and it’ll keep you in control on the way down, helping to protect you from injury. Strength will also help you pick up your pack in the morning and carry it all day, pull yourself up that large step and will enable you to be a valuable member of the expedition team. You’ll need to focus on leg and core strength in particular, although upper body strength will also be beneficial on steep and complex ground.
Exercises such as squats, planks, press-ups and lunges which use your bodyweight are all fantastic to build your core, and all require minimal space and equipment. Lunges and squats in particular are a great way to strengthen legs for trekking. The key here though is using the correct form so if you are in doubt then seek the advice of a coach or personal trainer.
For more experienced gym-goers or for those of you who already do some form of strength training, then you should focus on compound movements such as deadlift, squatting (goblet or back squat) dumbbell rear lunges, pull ups, rows and press ups. Farmers walks and heavy sled pushes/drags at walking pace will also be hugely beneficial. Seek professional coaching if unsure of how to complete these exercises with perfect form.
Long, multi-day trips are primarily aerobic in their nature, meaning that your cardiovascular system uses oxygen to generate energy. To develop your aerobic system you should aim to do long, low intensity training like walking or running, however a little and often approach can also work well and often fits a busy lifestyle better. 2-5 mornings per week, get up early and go for a 30 minute brisk walk before breakfast.
Alternatively walk to work or get off the tube/bus a few stops early. At lunch, get out of the office and walk for 30 minutes. Take stairs wherever you can. Focus on breathing through your nose and walking silently with a tall posture. Your basic endurance work can also be done indoors on a treadmill if that’s more convenient for you. Walk on an incline at a speed that you can maintain at a heart rate of 120-130 bpm. Steep is better than fast as it will strengthen your legs more. Do not hold the handles or top of the screen whilst you walk, except to check your HR from time to time.
If a stairmaster is available then this is the best option. In the later parts of your training, you can also use a weighted vest or a full backpack to simulate an expedition scenario with the weight you’ll be carrying.
If you only ever walk or run on flat ground, tackling steep gradients are going to be really tough. Seek out some hills to walk, preferably in the same boots that you’ll use for the trip, so they break in and you get used to their weight. Simply getting some hill time in your legs will make a huge difference. If you live in a flat area, multiple reps of a small hill will work, as will stairs.
For most people, the weekends will be the only time you can get long days out in the hills to build your endurance. Start with a distance and duration that you are comfortable with and then build steadily from there. If the furthest you’ve ever walked with a pack is 10km, then don’t just go out and smash 25km – this is a great way to get injured! As you get closer to the event, increase the distance and weight and try to get out walking on consecutive days.
No, you don’t sign up for a triathlon, but do consider using other forms of training to boost your trekking fitness. If you’re finding the extra miles of walking and running hard on your knees then try cycling once a week instead of one of your runs. This will take some impact of of your body, whilst still woking your aerobic fitness and leg strength endurance.
Swimming is also a great way to improve your fitness with a really low risk of injury. If time is short, then a running rather than walking, (especially up a hill) is a great way to build your fitness. Spin classes, bootcamps, running clubs, yoga, core classes, there are loads of great ways to get out and keep fit, so there’s no excuse for unnecessary repetition.
Break down your time working back from the expedition into four week blocks of training where you do three weeks of increasingly hard training, followed by an easier, recovery week. You then start the next four week block at a slightly higher intensity than the last block, so over time you make large improvements in your endurance and fitness. Depending on your current fitness, you may need to train for 8 to 20+ weeks to reach the standard required. This is a safe and sustainable way to train.
The best results come from a training plan that is consistently followed over a prolonged period of time. Long term consistency always trumps short term intensity. Be realistic with the time and energy you have available week to week and plan your training accordingly.
It’s really important to look after yourself during your training so you reach the expedition feeling fit and fresh. If you have the time and money, then sports massage is a great option. You may also wish to include some yoga, stretching, breathing drills, mobility or foam rolling to help your muscles recovery.