Too Old for Long-Distance Walking?

Not with these tips from former gold medalist, retired teacher and author.

Maybe you backpacked in your 20s, ran road races in your 30s and 40s and climbed Kilimanjaro in your 50s. Suddenly you’re 65 and wondering, “What next?” Or maybe you did none of these but wish you had. I’ve met countless pilgrims, hikers and explorers well into their 70s out taking a walk that just might last ten, twenty or forty days. Equipped with these six tips, it’s not too late for long-distance hiking, walking and backpacking.

If I’ve learned anything from trodding more than 1,500 miles, mostly alone, along alpine trails in the Pyrenees and Alps and footpaths crisscrossing the United Kingdom, it’s that it all begins with adequate training. Whether you’re sixteen or seventy-five, you’ll need to practice. Portland, Oregon’s Multnomah Athletic Club coach and triathlete, Lauren Binder, tells me, “I’ve won three world championships in my 60s but I assure you I trained differently than a 30-year-old.” Binder says that senior athletes, walkers included, need thoughtful conditioning to build a fitness base and extra time for recovery. A three-month training plan that worked in middle-age would be better spread over six-months to allow gradual mileage increases, more recovery time and leeway in case of injury or setback. Remember the goal: to walk for hours, day after day, and to enjoy the journey.

1. Build Endurance Intelligently

Start your training with a week of daily walks and keep a log where you record your route, distance, time, what you noticed and how you felt. Sharing your data and observations with practice partners, friends or grandkids will reinforce your efforts. A record’s also valuable for future training. Distance walking can be addictive!

Retired physical therapist, Robbie Johannesen, who ran the first Oregon marathon (in 1972), raced the 42-mile Round Mount Hood five times and topped Hood more than ten times, now in his 70s, advises seniors to slowly build a base for long-distance walking, whether on the Camino de Santiago or other multiday treks. He says, “Older athletes also need extra hydration during and after training walks.” Online, you can find comprehensive workout plans. Most suggest adding miles and time weekly. Binder, also advises that it’s a good idea to alternate easy and hard days, especially considering terrain. “If there are challenging days, a person needs to take more rest breaks,” she says.    

To avoid tedium, every walk does not need to be a training walk. If you’re a retired senior, you can be creative. Try daily-doubles—walk in the morning, do an activity like swimming or yoga, and then walk again in the afternoon. Garage the car and walk to the store or post office. Take a bus to the edge of town and walk back in. Mow the lawn. Find ways to vary distance and terrain. ​Tiffany, an older working woman from Manhattan, told me she trained for a three-week trek by walking to and from her studio, forty minutes each way, in addition to her regular gym workouts. Another​ hiker, Janet, from Arizona, explored new neighborhoods as if she were in a foreign country, keeping track of mileage on her pedometer. If you begin your training able to walk 15 miles a week, by departure day (twenty-four weeks later) you should have experienced at least one week close to your expected weekly total: 70 to 90 miles.​ (I averaged 100 miles per week or 15 miles per day on the Camino.)

Annapurna in the clouds.

Photo Courtesy: Carolyn Wood

2. Strengthen Your Core

To walk for hours, you’ll need more than strong legs. Walker and author of guidebooks to Portland and the Pacific Northwest, Laura O. Foster says that distance walking compresses her spine, causing backaches. To minimize this, she focuses on her core. “I lengthen my spine: shoulders down, abdomen pulled back to spine, head held high, not staring at the ground … when you ski, you look down the slope, not at your feet.” Swimming, water aerobics, Pilates and yoga all help build the core and keep you supple. I’ve been losing muscle mass since I turned 60 (bummer!), but what’s left gets toned with downward dogs and planks, water jogging, crunches and gardening.

3. Try Trekking Poles

A strong core helps with balance but so do walking poles. They lighten your steps, ease your knees, help propel you forward, aid you in detecting a path’s surface and may even prevent you from stumbling. An 80-year-old Italian woman smoked me on an uphill in Spain using her poles like a ski racer. But don’t wait until your trek to use them; start now to develop efficiency and to gain arm strength. Use them on asphalt, dirt, rock and mud. There’s a high chance you’ll encounter them all on your trek.

4. Practice Being Quiet

While walking with groups or a training partner helps time pass, prepare yourself for long stretches without company or conversation. Nobody chats seven hours a day for forty days. Take walks by yourself without entertainment. Seize the chance to notice the path, watch clouds scatter, let your thoughts wander and listen to your heart beat. Pay attention to yourself and the outdoor world. Make notes in your training log or write an entry to your child, grandkid or friend. Share in it what you noticed that afternoon or something that surprised you, and how it feels to be gaining strength and staying healthy at your age. Your efforts and observations carry important messages for the next generation.

Carolyn Wood on the Camino

Photo Courtesy: Carolyn Wood

5. Test Yourself

Check how far you can go in two or three hours on an unfamiliar trail. Walk with your pack light at first, but over time add weight, just as you added time and distance to your walks. Wear the boots and socks you plan to use all day long on various surfaces in all kinds of weather over and over again. Learn when and how to treat your feet. Find the fuel that keeps you going (peanuts and chocolate work for me). Use your poles. Try out your rain gear (in the shower if necessary). Test your Spanish or French or German with simple greetings and questions.

6. Learn Your Pace and Stick to It

“Remember youthful thrills but don’t try to repeat them. Leave your ego behind,” Johannasen reminds me in our yoga class. He means, back off when you feel too tired. Skip a workout now and then. The same applies to your walk. Don’t be bound by expectations, schedules or competition. Stop early. Take a bus. Linger over lunch. Remember your intention and relish the journey.