PCT Training: Preparing Mentally and Physically for the Longest Hike of My Life

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I have talked a lot about my fears on this site, but never about my biggest fear: quitting the PCT before I have finished it. Full disclosure: I have already stopped two hikes earlier.

The first hike I stopped early was the Pennine Way in England. This was my first long hike and I didn’t train at all. The first day on the Pennine Way is quite difficult, with a lot of different terrains and technical challenges. The first day I did 30 km (18 miles). I wore trail shoes for 50 euros in which I had walked only once. Achilles tendonitis hit the second day and I quit on the third.

The second hike I stopped early was the King’s Trail in northern Sweden. This hike was definitely a mental challenge – it was cold and rainy, there were mosquito clouds and I had no duty so I felt very lonely. I was very hard on myself: I wanted to be light so I only packed the bare essentials. And I have planned many long days of hiking in a row, without zero. I quit after five days.

Still, something about this hike really stood out to me. The freedom and autonomy that I felt, the beauty of the landscape. I tried the hike one more time, to learn from my previous mistakes and to decide once and for all if the hike was for me or not. This time I absolutely loved it and finished the hike. I decided: I’m going to hike the PCT! In this blog, I share how I learned from my mistakes and how it helps me prepare for the biggest challenge yet: the 2,650 PCT Miles.

The mental game

I learned four really big lessons about mental play on this first hike in Sweden, which have helped me tremendously on my back-to-back hikes:

  • Focus on small goals. Like I said in the introduction the first few days of this hike were incredibly tough – cold, rain, loneliness, mosquitoes. Long days of hiking. I kept thinking, “I can’t do this for a month.” Of course, what I didn’t realize was that the stops along the way would give me a little break to recharge my batteries. I could have thought of it as four hikes with breaks in between. Unfortunately I didn’t take that break but bailed out. And I always regretted it.
  • Negative thoughts are often caused by unmet basic needs. I tend to be very hard on myself when I walk solo: I walk, walk, walk. I don’t take (long) breaks. No stopping to take this fleece out of my bag when I’m cold. No time to eat my snacks. And at some point in the hike, I’ll be thinking, “I hate this. I have now figured out that this moment doesn’t mean I hate hiking. This means I have to take a break, eat a snack, or put on warmer clothes.
  • This too should pass. We have to accept that some days are going to be extremely shitty: “kiss the suck”. It’s a lot easier to see the fun and the challenge in tough times when you know it isn’t going to last forever. After that cold night, the morning sun might warm you up. After that exhausting ascent, there is this incredible point of view. Difficult times make great stories and build character. I have entertained many of my family and friends with my “mountain top number two” story. It was really bad at the time, but now I can laugh about it.
  • Take it easy on yourself. To use the old adage of the hiker: hiking is about “smiling and not going for miles”. Take a one hour lunch break in the sun, appreciate this point of view for a few more moments, eat, chat with other hikers. All of this makes the hike so much better. Take it easy at first, take as many zeros as you need. We don’t have to be that hard. You know yourself and you know what you absolutely need and what you can ignore. I like to feel clean, so I’m going to put on that extra weight in clothes and soap. But I sleep very easily, so I won’t take a pillow.

More lessons

When I stopped this first hike in Sweden I felt extremely depressed and disappointed in myself. Something I had dreamed of for months has gone up in smoke. Such a waste of time and money. I never want to feel that way again. This was the biggest lesson of all: no day on the track will be as bad as stopping. Another lesson was not to romanticize the trail: I expected sunshine, swimming in the lakes every day, and having campfires with new friends every night. Now I expect the worst because it can only go up from there.

Much of the mental game takes place on the track itself. But I’m going to prepare beforehand: spending a lot of time thinking about why I’m doing this hike, what I hope to gain, and what I’ll miss if I don’t complete it. I think about the hard times, the fatigue, the heat, the dirt, the hunger, the bugs, the cold, the danger, instead of just waiting for the pleasure. I also wrote myself a letter for the really tough times on the track, reminding myself of why I do it.

The physical challenge

This one is actually a lot easier. I am not at all an athlete. I have a desk job so I’m on my ass at least eight hours a day. But I’m doing what I can to be in good shape for the track. I don’t need to run on these hills. But I also don’t want to have an injury that forces me to go off the trail. Achilles tendonitis was a terrible feeling, which I never want to feel again.

How i train

So to train, I go on a long hike (+20 km / 12 miles) with my full bag at least once a week. I go for a walk in my sneakers after work. And I do the barre: exercises that combine ballet and pilates. I once read an article on Backpacker on how ballet practice is really good for hikers. Ballet strengthens your legs, core, and glutes, which is supposed to help you on the hike. It made me very happy because I love ballet.

So my advice is: do what you love. This is the only way to stick to your workout regimen. Now I bar twice a week, following Youtube videos. This was the training regimen I went through before embarking on my hike in Sweden (the successful period) and it worked really well.

Mountain climbing

The only thing that bothered me was the descents, which hurt my knee. The Netherlands is very flat, so climbing and descending mountains is difficult. I am now training on the stairs and looking for elevation where I can. On the trail, I will be walking for the first time with trekking poles and I will wear a knee brace for more support. I will also go there very easily for the first few weeks, so that I can train on the track and get used to the weather and the terrain. Finally, I plan to lose weight in the last three months, so I will have to carry less weight in these mountains.

Do you have any tips to prepare yourself mentally or physically for PCT? Please let me know in the comments!

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