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Preparing for higher grade walking holidays

Wed, 02 Mar 2022

The third instalment of our ‘Get walk ready!’ blog series is focused on helping you train for our most challenging trips – the ones where you'll be conquering major peaks and ridges at the high grades of 7, 8 and 9.

When thinking about walking holidays at the more demanding end of the spectrum, the saying ‘If you fail to prepare then prepare to fail’  has some resonance. 

However, one walker’s idea of a challenge is another’s idea of a walk in the park. So the first thing to decide is what constitutes a challenge for you. If you are used to walking in mountainous terrain for several consecutive days – where each day means covering distances of 10 to 12 miles with a minimum of 1,000m of ascent – you are in for a stimulating time. If you’re not used to walking under these conditions, then you are setting yourself a challenge whether you mean to or not... and you need to prepare.



Our expert leader Tom Hanna, who has guided numerous high grade walking holidays like our popular Great Lakeland Ridge Walks in the Lake District as well as G8 walks in the Austrian Alps and the Balkans, not only shares his top tips but also outlines a 12-week training programme to prep yourself for these more challenging trips.

Preparing the mindset

Without the correct mindset any physical preparations that may be undertaken are likely to be unfocused at best and counterproductive at worst.

Top Tip 1: Do your research

No matter how attractive the country, the region or an individual resort for a walking holiday may appear in the brochure, research the walking itinerary in detail. Find out what defines a particular grade especially those at Grade 6 and above. Are you used to doing that grade of walk? Are you used to doing them in a sustained manner, day in day out, over a period of 7 to 14 days? If not and you still want to go then you are challenging yourself. Good for you! However, some physical preparation will be needed. 

Top Tip 2: Set yourself a goal

From your research work out which is the single most arduous walk, in terms of distance covered plus ascent and descent. This is what you should be trying to achieve before the holiday starts. It gives you the confidence to know that the most demanding individual day’s walking is within your capability. The fact that you are likely to be walking something approaching this goal on most days cannot be ignored but your preparation will be geared to develop endurance. 

An alternative approach is to build towards what is expected of you in the first 2 to 3 days of the tour and use this period of the holiday as the culmination of your training. This may suit walkers who are concerned that they might ‘peak’ too early or those who are short of time.

Generally speaking, you will rarely walk more than 6 or 7 hours daily, sometimes less. You will be well fed and can expect a good night’s sleep. Therefore, correctly prepared, your body should cope. Plus, sound physical preparation is likely to mitigate the possibility of picking up an injury.



Top Tip 3: Rome wasn’t built in a day

It takes time to develop endurance. You are preparing for a marathon not a sprint. Again, research is key; book your holiday far enough in advance so that you have time to prepare. You must be patient and try not to do too much too soon. A suggestion for a training programme is given below in the Physical Preparation section of this blog, but if you don’t have a lot of spare time in the working week you must allow more time to prepare and start your preparation that much earlier. 

Top Tip 4: Record your progress

A good way to keep motivated is to record the progress you are making and try to turn in a better time/distance performance than you did the previous week. There are any number of Strava-style apps available to allow you to make quite accurate readings of an individual walk and compare it with something you completed a week or two earlier. 

Top Tip 5: Understand and apply ‘Guide Pace’

The key metric is the pace (speed) you are able to maintain on the trail with your load. When I first started leading I asked for some advice about how fast a pace I should set. I was told that I should aspire to maintain Guide Pace, which is an average of 2mph over any distance and any combination of ascent/descent. It sounds easy enough to apply but it takes practice and is not always possible especially when applied to walking as a group. 

The implication, of course, is that the group will have to go faster on a Grade 7 tour than it might have to on a Grade 5 tour to maintain this average speed because of the additional ascent/descent element of such walks. It’s more straightforward for an individual and it is what you should be aiming for. It doesn’t mean you should try to maintain this speed throughout the duration of the march. We are talking about an average speed for the day. 

Whatever speed you can comfortably manage on flat or gently undulating terrain you will go slower during an ascent and probably more slowly than that when descending. You should record your average speed at the end of your first, longish walk with some form of load. Repeat this walk the following week and compare the results. Reflect on your experience and see if you need to go a bit faster uphill or on flat/undulating ground.

Maybe you could afford to slow down a bit going up or down. It’s a very individual thing but will become more achievable the further you get into your physical preparations. On the plus side if you are maintaining Guide Pace you will have little or no trouble keeping up with the group. 

Most apps will calculate your speed/pace automatically. To do this by hand you first need to express time as a decimal not in hours and minutes. Do this by dividing the number of minutes by 60 and adding the number of hours (eg, 1h42mins is 1 + 42/60 =1.7 or 2h22mins is 2 + 22/60 = 2.37). Then divide the distance you have walked by time (eg, 3 miles in 1h42mins is 3/1.7 = 1.8mph). You need to work out how you can pick up your speed a bit (eg, 5 miles in 2h22mins is 5/2.37 = 2.1mph). That is about right. You do not really need to go any faster.

Physical preparations

There are two factors involved here.

•    How fit are you already?

•    What kind of walk are you going to do?

Here’s a third question:

•    How much have you been looking forward to this holiday?

Keep that in mind, and think about the advice given below. There are two areas you need to focus on, cardiovascular fitness and strength. Recording your progress will help you to appreciate how you’re doing in each.

Top Tip 6: If you need new boots buy them now

Give yourself a chance to wear them in, rather than wear you down. For some advice on buying the right boots go to a reputable outdoor equipment shop such as Ellis Brigham or Cotswold Outdoor, as both can advise you on boots appropriate for the challenge and will fit them for you.



Top Tip 7: Allow plenty of time to prepare

A minimum of three months progressive training is likely to be required if you aren’t used to regular exercise. It may sound like a lot but you need the time to develop your endurance. In addition, going full throttle makes you more prone to injury. Taking your time allows the development of the strength and cardiovascular fitness which allows the mitigation of stress injuries along with pulled and strained muscles and soft tissue.

Top Tip 8: Improve your cardiovascular fitness levels

Increasing your cardiovascular fitness makes your body use oxygen more efficiently. You’ll be able to go further before getting tired, you’ll be less out of breath at the top of an ascent, and you’ll recover more quickly between bouts of exertion. This is how to improve it:

•    Walking

The best way to prepare for a walk is to go for a walk. You’ll work all the right muscles, and as you’re the kind of person who wants to go on a walking holiday, you’ll actually enjoy it!



•    Frequency

Aim for at least three times a week, and build it up by doing longer walks if you have time, or simply walking faster if you don’t. Either way your fitness will increase. Details are below.

•    Conditions

Also, try to replicate the expected conditions in your training. Is it going to be hilly, sandy, rocky where you’re going? It’s best to train, at least some of the time, on similar surfaces and inclines. Walking on rocky terrain also helps strengthen your ankles, so you’re less likely to sprain something if you stumble. This isn’t always easy to achieve if you don’t have a national park at your back door but you cannot ignore the need to incorporate this type of activity in your preparations. Stick to your programme whatever the weather. It gives you’re the opportunity to experiment with your clothing and practice layering correctly.

•    Distance

Take distance into consideration too. Your research will have indicated the sort of distance you can expect to walk on holiday. If it’s about about 16km a day, for example, ideally you should be doing that at least a couple of weeks before you head off. It may not be possible but you need to be close to it. This should be the sort of goal you intend to progress to. See a suggested programme below.

•    Rucksack

Don’t forget to walk with a pack, if that’s what you’ll be doing on your trip. A different set of muscles come into action when you carry a rucksack and you need to toughen them up. However, don’t start with your full load. Build up to that in the last 2 to 3 weeks of preparation.

•    Stretching

Stretch muscles and soft tissue connectors in your legs before, during and after your walk. When you stop for a cup of tea, stretch it out. Incorporate this into your regime and you’ll prevent injuries, it’s as simple as that. It’s particularly important as you get older.

•    Not walking

If you can’t get out in the open air as much as you’d like (maybe that’s why you’re looking forward to the holiday so much) then focus on exercise that works your legs, and your core. Running, cycling and step machines at the gym are good for this. On the treadmill, make sure you programme a few hills into the workout. The stepping machine is great for fitness and strength, as you have to fight against gravity to lift your entire body. If you find your joints are sore, or take a bit more warming up than they used to, then swimming is a good way of building up cardio and strength too. 

In general with cardiovascular workouts, whatever you do, you’re looking for long periods of low-intensity activity.

Top Tip 9: Increase your strength

Increasing your strength will help you walk more quickly, carry a rucksack and reduce the risk of injury. You should work on your legs of course, but don’t forget the upper body and your core. You’re not looking to build bulk, just increase power and conditioning.

•    In the gym

If you’re a member of a gym speak to a trainer and tell them what you’re preparing for. They’ll tailor a programme specifically for you. You should work on your legs, back, shoulders and core. Including low and high repetition activities, to develop strength and endurance at the same time.



•    Not in the gym

There’s a wide variety of strength building exercises you can do at home, or anywhere else for that matter. Squats, lunges, bridging and calf raises are good for your legs. Press-ups, wall sits, dead bugs and side planks are good for your core. If you don’t know how to do them properly, and you don’t have anyone to consult, YouTube can be pretty useful in picking up the right technique (below are three good ones).

1.    Step Ups: How to Do the Step Up: Technique and Common Mistakes

2.    Squats: How To Do Squats for Beginners | Correct Form & Mechanics 

3.    Lunges: The Only Way You Should Be Doing Lunges!   

preparing-for-higher-grade-walking-holidaysFrequency

Again, two or three times a week is good here, but don’t sacrifice the cardio – you’ll get a lot more out of going for a decent walk three times a week than hitting the gym.

Top Tip 10: A 12-week programme

Try to maintain the Monday to Friday regime throughout your period of preparation. At the weekend walk on both days with a pack (from Week 3 onwards) but at least one day should be devoted to walking in the hills, if you can manage the occasional complete weekend so much the better. 

Let’s say you have set yourself the challenge of completing the Mont Blanc Hotel Trek. Distances will average 19km (12 miles) daily and ascents and descents will normally be between 1,000m and 1,500m.



You walk on the occasional weekend in the Cotswolds, Yorkshire Dales or Peak District. Maybe you have done the odd week’s holiday in areas such as these. You keep yourself fit by running 3 to 4 miles twice weekly and visiting the gym once or twice a week. 

•    Monday – Friday every week: At least three sessions walking 4 to 5 miles (7 to 8km) ideally on flat or undulating terrain, alternating between striding out briskly and a moderate pace. If you wish to replace one of these walks with a strengthening session that is fine. Additionally, it is also fine to occasionally vary your exercise regime to include cycling or swimming. Start to carry a pack, not a full load, on one of your midweek walks from Week 3. Build gradually towards the load you might expect to carry on your holiday to a full load by the end of Week 10. This may not require a heavy pack but pack sensibly and remember water is likely to be the heaviest item you will carry for its volume. On some walks, where topping up water might be difficult, the recommendation is likely to be a minimum of 2 litres. That is nearly 4.5lbs before you even pack a bar of chocolate!

•    Week 1: 

At the weekend do 3 to 4 miles (5 to 6.5km) on flat or undulating terrain at a moderate pace.

•    Weeks 2 – 5: 

On weekends set a goal of 6 to 7 miles (10km) with about 300m of ascent by the end of Week 5.

•    Weeks 6 – 8: 

On weekends build towards a goal of 8 to 9 miles (14km) with about 600m of ascent by the end of Week 8.

•    Weeks 9 – 12: 

On weekends build towards a goal of 12 to 13 miles (20km) with about 1,000m of ascent by the end of Week 12.

If you reach this point and you still have the luxury of time in hand before you depart on your holiday maintain this level until the final two weeks before you leave. From this point, just 3 to 4 load carrying walks of about 12km is plenty to keep yourself ‘topped up’.

Finally…

You're more likely to succeed with your training if you enjoy it, so vary where you are walking to make things more interesting and, if you can, train with a friend. Not only will this make your exercise more fun, but it will add an extra dose of motivation to stick to your regime.


As mentioned above in this blog, stretching your muscles before, during and after your walk is always a good idea, so next time we’ll suggest a few basic mobility exercises to help you ensure peak performance as well as avoid injury. 

In the meantime, if you’re looking for more of a general overview about preparing yourself for our leisurely to moderate grade holidays, check out ‘Training for a walking holiday – the first steps’ and ‘How to hit refresh: Creating a positive mindset for your walking holiday’, along with some of our other past fitness articles including ‘10 easy steps you can take right now’ and ‘How fit do I need to be for a walking holiday?’.

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