If you are like most pilgrims, much time and energy will be put into planning and packing for the Camino. This builds anticipation and hopefully allows you to begin your journey with realistic expectations.
I want to encourage you to add to your planning, the regimen of preparing your body. No matter what your current physical condition is, you will benefit from taking time in the months leading up to the Camino to train your body for long days of walking.
In the process, you will also train your mind, which is important because walking for 20 to 30 km per day, day after day, is as much mental as it is physical. The discipline of a regular training routine is helpful in cultivating the capacity to choose to rise each morning and set out for another long day of walking.
I am not a physical trainer, and there are many resources you can search out on the internet to give you creative ways to prepare yourself physically, but I do want to share four questions which may be helpful in framing how you think about preparing your body and mind for the physical task of walking to Santiago.
What is your current health and level of physical fitness?
Before you begin, it is wise to see your doctor and have a comprehensive checkup to be sure you have the capacity to undertake such a physically demanding journey. If you have any current medical conditions, talk to your physician about how you might be able to manage them as you walk the Camino.
While there may be health issues which may prevent someone from walking, the reality is people of all levels of physical condition and with all manner of health issues have completed the Camino. Do not be discouraged if your doctor points out some areas which need attention. See the opportunity to be attentive to these issues as the beginning of your Camino.
How will you begin to prepare your body to walk such a long distance?
While biking, swimming, running, and lifting weights can all help get your body into shape, I do not think there is any better way to prepare for the Camino than to walk. Walking allows you to work the muscle groups you will be using, get to know how your body feels after walking 4, 8, or 12 miles, and know how your shoes, clothing, and pack will actually feel on your journey.
In preparation for your journey, I would suggest you begin walking as soon as you possible. At the very least, begin 3 to 4 months before your departure date. If you have not had a regular routine of exercise, begin with shorter times and smaller distances, say 1 1/2 to 2 miles, and increase the time and distance every two weeks. When you walk, wear the shoes and clothes you will take with you. If you find them uncomfortable or ill fitting, find an alternative. You will know when you have landed on the right choices for you.
By the last month before I left for my Camino, I was walking 4.5 mile (7.25 km) every other day and I would walk 11 miles on Saturday (17.7 km). The longer days were particularly important in helping me pick the right shoes and in understanding how my body would react to the increased distance.
When possible, I added some hills to the routine. I also walked on varying terrains. This helped me understand how my body reacted to each. On the Camino, you will walk on dirt roads, sidewalks, asphalt, and hiking trails. Each impacts your body differently; understanding how helps you to adjust.
A week before I left, I stopped walking in order to allow my body to rest and repair before I began.
How will you embrace the reality that you physical training is as important to your mind as it is to your body?
I did not fully recognize, until I was actually walking in Spain, how the discipline of training created the mental capacity I would need, particularly early in the Camino, to get up and start walking on days when my body was sore and tired. The practice of choosing to train at home, especially when I did not feel like it, prepared me to get up and walk day after day.
Embrace your physical training as a place where you are also developing the mental fortitude to press forward. Once you have developed your own plan for training, be as faithful to it as possible. Making these decisions now, will prepare you for the choices you will make on the Camino.
What will you do to prepare your body for the strain it will endure and to help it avoid injury?
So many of the injuries people sustain, especially early on, have to do with overuse and lack of flexibility. Walking regularly will help to prepare you for long days of walking, but it may not be enough to avoid injury.
I encourage you to develop a stretching routine to help avoid injuries like Shin Splints and Plantar Fasciitis. If you Goggle stretches for these issues you will find websites filled with exercises which are helpful in preventing these injuries.
The long days of walking and steep descents make ankles and knees susceptible to injury. These kinds of injuries have caused many to end their Camino early. To help prevent this from happing to you, consider adding some strengthen exercises for these areas. Again, googling exercises for strengthening these areas will provide you with the information needed to help craft your routine.
Preparing your body (and mind) for what you will endure on your journey will go a long way to insuring that as you meet the physical challenge of the Camino, you will also be able to enjoy the journey.
I encourage you to take these questions and use them as prompts to help develop your training regimen. I began mine three months before I left, and had walked half the distance to Santiago before I got on the plane. While this did not erase all doubt, it did give me a sense of confidence that I was prepared to put in the days and miles necessary to complete the Camino. May your training impart to you the same self-assurance.