Physical Preparation for Older Hikers (and Everyone Else!)

Step #1 (of 8)

These tips for physical preparation for older hikers can apply to anyone—especially on a long pilgrimage over varied terrain, such as the Via Francigena.  

Even if you’re in pretty good shape, a walking quest like that can really stress your body. So don’t assume it will be fine to put it off, that you can start off however and gradually get in shape along the way. 

Every little bit of physical preparation will make you more ready, help you enjoy your pilgrimage more, and give you a chance to identify any physical problems or issues with gear fit and function before you’re really depending on it.

You can probably get away with an impromptu approach for shorter hikes. But for longer walks, you really need to give the pilgrimage its due significance by readying yourself inside and out. 

Heart attacks in people who aren’t physically fit are one of the leading causes of death during long, challenging hikes. Injuries caused by falls are also a problem ... which is why physical preparation for older hikers is especially important.

So make sure you’re as ready as you can be, and consider checking with your physician to rule out any big issues and mitigate smaller ones like bad knees or excess weight. 

Tips for Physical Preparation for Older Hikers

So here are some tips for physical preparation for older hikers that should be helpful for anyone:

  1. Stretch. This is often overlooked, but whether it’s yoga, tai chi, or simply taking a few minutes every day to keep your body flexible, this is the basis of feeling good while you’re active (and it feels great!). Yoga is especially good since it also encourages deep breathing and promotes better balance. That's especially important for older adults!
  2. Walk 3-5 times per week—every day, if possible—in the months leading up to your big pilgrimage. Start smaller and increase distance/time as your schedule allows.
  3. Make sure at least 1 or 2 walks a week are long walks—a few hours or more, if possible. Gradually build up to this if you’re not quite there yet. But walking pilgrimages are usually a full day’s work: about 8 hours of daily walking.
  4. Walk in the shoes you plan to wear on pilgrimage. This will give you a chance to break them in and see how they perform in different weather and terrain.
  5. Wear your loaded pack at least once or twice a week during your hikes. This gets you used to the feel and weight of the pack and prepares your body for that extra labor.
  6. Hike a variety of terrain and elevations, preferably not all on paved roads. Your pilgrimage walks will likely include this variation. Also, paved roads create more impact and are more likely to stress your joints and shins. If you don’t have a good path nearby, consider using an elliptical or treadmill, which can simulate some of these changes.
  7. Love your shins. For longer walks, take faster, shorter strides. This makes it more likely you won’t be hitting hard with your heel and slapping down the rest of your foot—especially a big problem going downhill. The best way to address shin splints is to prevent them in the first place.
  8. Incorporate leg-strengthening exercises like squats 2-3 times a week. Your legs will be doing a major part of the physical work on pilgrimage.
  9. Cross train. It’s fine to switch out or supplement your walks and hikes with other types of exercise. Swimming is especially good, since it works the whole body. Biking is also a good choice and gives the legs a nice workout, but do what works for you. 

A few tips more specific to older hikers on pilgrimage: 

  1. Balance exercises: If you’re not quite up to yoga or tai chi for stretching movements, it may be helpful to start with basic balance exercises. Combine these with some gentle standing or resting stretches.
  2. Take breaks from time to time, especially during longer hikes. Especially if you’re not in peak condition, this is a good habit that will help you keep from overdoing it and will make it easier to enjoy the exercise.
  3. Incorporate lifestyle changes that promote movement. If you’re like me, it’s hard to find more time to exercise. Park farther away. Take the stairs. In addition to your planned workouts, take a lot of small walks throughout the day. They’re easy to fit in, relieve stress, and do make a difference for weight loss and health without stressing your body or your routine.
  4. Eye exercises: How our eyes function has a big impact on our athleticism and ability to navigate the world around us. Visual acuity and depth perception can decline with age, especially if there are other vision issues. Eye exercises can help and don’t take long to do.
  5. Listen to your body. Be willing to slow down and take the trail at a pace that honors where you are. As we get older, it takes longer for injuries to heal. Don’t try to push through when you can help it. Being mindful can prevent a lot of unnecessary problems down the road. 

There’s a lot more to say about each of these areas, but hopefully, these tips for physical preparation for older hikers will get us off to a good start. 

Also, while it’s tempting to stay inside when the weather is nasty, I recommend doing at least some of your workouts—particularly a workout with your pack—during wet or otherwise unpleasant weather

You’ll encounter all kinds of weather out on pilgrimage. It’s especially good to find out whether your gear does what you want it to before you hit the trail for your big trip.

Inspiration for the journey ...

Step 3: Inner Preparation

We don’t just carry with us the weight of our backpacks and bodies. What we carry in our minds & hearts travels with us. Inner preparation for pilgrimage...

Picpus Cemetery is the resting place for 1,306 people executed during the Great Terror of 1794. It most famously houses the remains of the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American & French Revolutions.