Trekking Decider

article060Trekking is one of adventure racing’s foundation disciplines and it is arguably the one that should be given the highest respect. 

Strengthening of your feet, doing the endurance training for the demands of trekking and strong navigation skills are key to successful trekking whether the stage takes two or 36 hours. Each of these three elements should be trained. As adventure racing legend Ian Adamson says in his book, Runner’s World Guide to Adventure Racing: “Your foot-travel skills may be the most important in your arsenal of talents”.

Why you should build strong feet

Feet adapt to regular ‘punishment’ by spending time on them in training; there’s no need to hobble through any race – regardless of distance – on fatigued and blistered feet. Conditioning strengthens the muscles of your feet. Regularly spend time on your feet by doing low-intensity social hikes; steadily increase your training distances, as you would with running; and include more intense sessions where you vary (and increase) these parameters. And load the weight in your backpack, which has a profound effect on your feet and biomechanics.

Trekking secret #1

“The best preparation for trekking is trekking,” says Mark Collins, South Africa’s most experienced adventure racer. He recently competed with McCain Adventure Addicts at Bimbache Extrem in Spain. “Tatum climbed Platteklip Gorge eight times in one day in the build up to Bimbache. There could hardly have been better preparation than that for a race in the mountains – and it showed.”

In training we tend to focus on running, which is probably the smallest component of this foot discipline. True to the term ‘trekking’, teams actually walk – fast – more than they run. “Train walking,” advises Christo Horn. “Compared to running, different muscles are used and different pressures are exerted on your feet, legs and hips when you walk.” Ilio-tibial band (ITB) and shin inflammation are very common adventure racing injuries.

Tommy Booth, a regular roadrunner, is new to adventure racing and orienteering. “Road running is very different to off-road running,” he says. “I think it is the trickiness of up-down-left-right-dodge that is more tiring. It requires a lot more concentration and your legs work harder.”

Collins recommends that racers train at moving efficiently through thick bush. “In a lot of races many teams are able to keep pace with the world’s best teams over open ground, even when ascending and descending, but as soon as the terrain becomes technical or overgrown the best teams just open devastating gaps.”

Make or break factor: navigation

 On mountain bikes, roads and paths are obvious route choices so is’t more difficult for teams to get badly lost . On foot, you can take a race course almost anywhere. It is no surprise that it is usually on hiking stages, especially at night, that navigators make serious mistakes that cost hours, race positions, morale and, possibly, their race. For teams chasing podium positions, their trekking performances are crucial. “It is possible to lose races on the bike or paddle; but most races are won on foot,” agrees Collins.

Where the physical disciplines can be trained fairly easily, how can navigators hone their navigational skills? “Adventure racing navigation is different from orienteering but it uses exactly the same interpretation and decision-making processes,” explains Collins. “Just as you prepares for a maths exam by doing problems over and over again I would suggest preparing for the navigational exam of an adventure race by doing as many orienteering races as possible.” Orienteering events, which are accessible and inexpensive to enter, are held regularly in Cape Town and Gauteng. 

When night descends, though, everything looks very surreal and it’s easy to miss major topography.

Darron Raw, race director of Swazi Xtreme, highlights the perils of navigating at night:  “Unlike biking, on foot you have more time to spot visual markers… but at night when you can’t see a thing it is a serious challenge to keep track of time and distance.” Good headlamps are as important to trekking as they are to mountain biking. They’re one of several items of kit that can make life a lot easier.

Vital Trekking Stuff

 The shoes on your feet and pack on your back are not your only items of trekking equipment.

  1. TREKKING POLES – Adventure racer Debbie Smith always carries a second pair of socks and she, like Collins, favours trekking poles. Collins explains the benefits of trekking poles: “They can save you more than 15% energy on mountain climbs and they take pressure off the knees on descents. Trekking poles are also invaluable if you’re nursing an injury.”
  2. GAITERS – Anklet or padded orienteering-style gaiters are also highly recommended. They prevent trail debris from getting into your shoes and they protect against the inevitable scratches that result from bundu-bashing through unfriendly vegetation. Long leggings also offer protection from scratches and sunburn.
  3. SMALLS – Trekking kit also includes a blister kit and anti-chafing lube (for feet and chafe prone areas). And you may want to consider using shoes that are half to one size bigger on long trekking stages to accommodate swelling, which is common. “Sunblock and a hat are seriously important too”, adds Horn.

 Trekking is arguably more demanding on your body than any of the other disciplines. It is only right that we focus on foot-travel skills – not just running – in training. During races you’ll feel more comfortable physically; you’ll suffer fewer injuries; and you’ll be able to start long trekking stages with confidence.

Trekking (hiking): Covering large distances on foot while carrying a backpack and equipment. From Ian Adamson’s Runner’s World Guide to Adventure Racing

Author: Lisa de Speville | Published in Go Multi Magazine, July/Aug 2009