Sixty-four years old and facing a 1600-mile, four and a half month walk has been challenging in terms of our physical preparation. At another time, I will write about some of the larger health concerns, those that relate to my personal health history, but for this posting I want to talk about two items that have become very important in the final month of training.
First, we needed to identify which areas to address in our exercise. Since we are walking, it seems simple. Just keep on using the legs, and push for strength and flexibility in our calves, thighs, ankles, hips, and knees.
However, we know it is not that simple.
There is something called core strength that we have to consider. Though our legs have to do a lot of the work, we still have to rely on the entire body for maintaining our upright posture and balance. Kate and I will have to carry day packs of 20 pounds every day, unless we are backpacking, and then we will be carrying 35 pounds. If you think of the torque and tension that is created when a weight is hung to one side of the body, and how that weight can pull us off center as we climb, walk, ford rivers, and even stop to relax, you will understand why we need core muscular fitness.
Just putting on the packs and walking will not work unless we are prepared; otherwise those first few days will be miserable. We’ve had to build strength through crunches and abdominal exercises while concentrating on the lower back and the large muscles that support the spinal cord. In addition, we’ve have to increase our shoulder strength and toughen the platysma, trapezius and pectoral muscles so that they will absorb the tug and pressure of the pack straps.
The strength needed to pick up, put on, and take off the packs without putting a torque on the spine is also an important consideration. Should this movement pull muscles or put us in a position where stress is shifted to the spine, we could be shut down for long periods, and we do not have that kind of time available to us on an expedition of this size and length. We have to work on the large skeletal muscles that form our back, as well as strengthening abdominal muscles. The stress of backpacking is intensified by load weight, load balance, and the terrain that we are covering. Even the best packs cannot maintain a completely balanced load, and this adds stress to the lower back in particular. Eventually, all back pain sufferers learn that the big muscles of the back are balanced by the abdominal muscles in the front, and that we have to exercise the abdominal group as much as the back. And then we have to address leg strength, which must be sustained to carry both the torso and the pack over uneven and long distances.
Our fitness is focused on the whole body. A balanced approach is important for maintaining interest in our workouts, and to prevent repetitive use injuries. If we see our bodies as a combination of natural systems with opposing and supporting forces, we can see how exercise must address both sides of the equation, and not just one muscle group.
Hiking is a very healthy activity and contributes to our overall conditioning, but cross training is still important. As I entered the last month of training and had my knees examined, my doctor emphasized the idea of shifting to something that was not load-bearing on my joints. I switched to biking. Cross training still gives me the cardiovascular conditioning, but in this case, it removes the impact of weight on my joints and allows the muscles to elongate, thereby reducing stress.
We continue to experiment and learn, but it is important to consider the ecology of the body and the interconnected aspects of all our joints, muscles, and bones.
4/22/2010 at 6:23 PM