I’ve always been amazed at the ability of the body to adapt to a training stimulus and get stronger and faster. Lest you think this only happens in younger people, think again. Even older adults (and by older, I mean those well into their 70s and 80s) can adapt to a well formulated training program and improve their physical performance.
But what does this have to do with traveling to far flung exotic places?
If you want to be a more adventurous traveler and not the person whose travel experience takes place behind the windows of a comfy tour bus, great. If you want to get out and get physical with the places you are visiting, there is good news: It is possible to prepare your body for the rigors and challenges of adventure travel!
Whether it’s climbing a mountain or doing walking tours along a New Zealand coast, all it takes is a bit of know-how and commitment to a fitness training program and you’ll be ready to take on your next adventure!
Working toward a Goal: Preparation and Planning is Key
Let me start with a story. The wife of a semi-pro mountain biker, we’ll call her Lisa, asked if I would coach her to help her get more fit and lose some weight. Lisa was about as non-athletic as her husband was athletic. She didn’t exercise at all and was, in fact, too shy to even go into a gym. She hadn’t engaged in any consistent exercise program.
As a coach, I find greater success if I can coach someone towards a specific goal. I suggested she train for an event. This would help her reach her fitness goals and lose weight in the process. The event I suggested was the Pikes Peak Ascent, a mountain marathon/half marathon running race in our local area of Manitou Springs, Colorado in the US. It starts in Manitou Springs at 7,000 feet and ends 13 miles later on the top of Pikes Peak, which sits at an elevation of over 14,000 feet. Why I chose this I am not sure, but in retrospect, I can see why she balked at the idea.
While she agreed to give it a go, she later confided that she believed she could never do it.
She agreed, at least, to do the training I prescribed. The first training sessions were to walk a few blocks. Then we gradually introduced some run/walk sessions (still around the block). After a few months, she ran her first 10km. Gradually her runs got longer and steeper. A year later I hugged her at the finish line on the top of Pikes Peak after she cruised through the 13 miles. She made it look easy, but her commitment to the training plan and some of the principles below helped to get her there.
Commitment to a Plan
I tell this story to illustrate that with patience and commitment to a plan, one can take on physical challenges that at the outset, might seem daunting. It is amazing what the body can do. Sometimes it is only our minds that are the hardest to change.
Outlined below are some ideas and principles to help you prepare for your next travel adventure.
Principle 1: Specificity
Ultimately, you want your training to mimic as much as possible the demands of what you are training for. If you are doing a walking tour on flatter trails, you will want to prepare by doing more walking on flat terrain. Perhaps there are hills or even mountains involved, then walking/hiking on hills is important. If it is a cycling tour, then you will need to cycle. If you will be carrying a pack, carry one in training. Hopefully this is self-evident, but it is surprising how many people don’t train specifically enough. This is not to say that doing some weight training (which I highly recommend for women, especially as we age), or some cross-training (like cycling) isn’t helpful, it is. It’s just that the bulk of the workouts need to be specific to what you will be doing.
As an example, a few years ago I decided to train for a 100-mile mountain run. This was different than anything I had tried to do before, and quite frankly, scared the hell out of me.
It was going to be a long slow grind. My running pace was going to be a lot slower than what I was used to, plus I planned to add a lot of hiking. Thus, for my training I had to learn to run slowly, more slowly than I was currently running, plus, I had to hike. This is harder to do than one might think. You would think running trails would prepare you for hiking trails, and while it certainly helps some, the two are different. Yes, training is that specific.
Principle 2: Overload and Recovery
To get stronger and fitter, the training load needs to get harder and longer over time. Lisa started by going around the block a few times and gradually the sessions got longer and harder. But overload means you are stressing the body and tearing it down. Thus, overload always needs to be balanced by recovery. It is in the recovery period that you actually adapt and get stronger.
This means doing easy or days off during the week and then doing an easier week every few weeks. For go-getters and goal-orientated people, this can be hard to do. Sometimes my hardest job as a coach is to get my athletes to slow it down, take easy days or days off.
Principle 3: Be Patient With the Process
As much as we all want a quick fix and fast results, it just doesn’t work that way. Remember, it took Lisa over a year to go from doing nothing to getting to the top of Pikes Peak. The harder the event and the more out of shape you are, the longer it will take. If you already workout regularly it might only take a few months of tweaking to get prepared. It takes about 6-8 weeks for endurance adaptations to even start to kick in. It takes longer for ligaments, tendons, and joints to get stronger. You can’t fast track the process without risk of getting injured. The key is to be patient and consistent.
A good rule of thumb is to increase your total training volume by 10% per week, then every 3-4 weeks, back off to where you started for an easier week.
Principle 4: Variety
The adage that variety is the spice of life holds true for training. Variety in training helps prepare you for those unexpected bursts of speed. If you are getting ready for a walking tour of New Zealand where the average walking speed is 2-3 mph, it is still a good idea to train at faster paces.
Including high intensity training helps build up what I call “fatigue resistance” which stresses the muscles and cardiovascular system a bit harder such that lower intensity efforts feel easier.
Even though my average pace for the 100-mile run was going to be 3-4 mph (yes, I said it was a slow, long grind), I still did some high-intensity interval work. This is also important and helpful if you are traveling to a higher elevation. Getting that cardiovascular system as fit as possible is helpful when going to higher altitudes, even if it does require getting out of breath and your heart rate elevated.
Even if your event involves a lot of walking and will be flat, it is still a good idea to do some hills. Non-specific workouts like yoga and strength training can also be helpful, both for injury prevention and to create a more well-rounded level of fitness. The good news is that high-intensity interval training doesn’t have to take a lot of time.
I recommend doing these types of efforts no more than 1-2x a week along with your other slower, longer types of efforts. For specific workouts you can download these from my website. These are designed for 3x per week and have progressive overloads built into them. I recommend doing these 1-2x/week. It will take longer than 12 weeks to get through them but will give you an idea of how to do them.
You can also lengthen the prescribed intervals as needed. I generally think that for very intense intervals you don’t want to go for more than 3-4 minutes. You can also do these running, walking on a treadmill and varying the grade or on the bike. It will again, depend on what you are training for.
A Sample Week:
If you are getting ready for a walking tour (substitute in hiking or cycling as needed), here is a sample week:
Saturday and/or Sunday: GO LONG
One to four hours depending on what you are preparing for. If you know you will be walking all day, gradually work up to 4 hours of steady walking/hiking at a time. Rule of thumb, you can generally go twice the distance you do in training!
Monday: day off or yoga.
Tuesday: 30-40 min of high-intensity intervals (can do on a treadmill by increasing the grade or outside on hills).
Wednesday: 45-60 min of moderate to brisk walking.
Thursday: 30-40 min of high intensity intervals.
Friday: go easy 30-40 min easy (this is a recovery type of effort, so yes, quite easy).
Preparation for Multi-Day Events
If you are doing a multi-day event, then you will want to do some back-to-back longer walks on the weekend. For example, on Saturday do a 3-hour walk, then Sunday a 2-hour walk. If you do this, then only do one high-intensity workout per week (on Wed or Thursday). You want to be fairly recovered for those intervals, so you need to be more rested going into them. The back-to-back workouts train you to walk on tired legs, so it is ok to be a bit tired going into them.
These longer efforts should be done at a comfortable, conversational intensity. For an easy or off week, take 2 days off, shorten the longer day and skip one of the interval days.
If you want to add some kind of strength training, then do that 2x per week on your interval days. Even one day of strength training can be beneficial.
Hire a Coach
My final piece of advice is that if you find this all a bit overwhelming, or if this is something you are really new too, then hire a coach, someone who has experience in getting people ready for distance events. My dirty little secret is that when I trained for the 100-mile run, I hired a coach. It took away the mental energy of trying to figure out what to do and made me accountable to someone.
Even though I had a pretty good idea of what to do, it was still something that I felt overwhelmed by.
It gave me the added benefit of staying consistent by getting me out the door when it was the last thing I wanted to do and pushed me more than I would have pushed myself. Finally, the plan was personalized to my level of fitness. I am happy to report that it paid off and I did make it to the finish line! All this to say,
You can do more than you think you can!
So, get out there and sign up for that trip, hike, trek or bike ride that you have always dreamed of doing!
Check out more of Sharon’s great travel tips and advice here: Minimize Jet Lag, Maximize Fun!