I am an idiot.  I have gathered too many unnecessary injuries recently due to my own excitement to get out there and walk these untrodden paths. 

Yes I put a lot of planning into the route and access points, transport and kit for the day, but I have been woefully ignorant of how to prepare and look after the most important kit any of us will ever possess – our own bodies.  Here are a few lessons I’ve (hopefully) learned so far this year.

They might be very obvious lessons but they are things I feel I should reiterate in case other people’s excitement and anticipation get the better of their common sense when walking longer routes…

Appropriate walking footwear

I use Berghaus Explorer Trek GTX hiking boots with 1000-mile socks on every walk that is expected to feature a lot of paths that are neither paved nor asphalt.  The reason for this is that I want to get my feet and legs used to the weight of this kind of boot in advance of me walking longer multi-day routes.  They are incredibly comfortable and the 1000-mile socks have done as intended and protected me from coming anywhere near a hot-spot, never mind a blister.

However, when I looked at walking 16 miles of the Thames Path from Charlton to Westminster I thought that I didn’t fancy wearing such heavy boots for such a long way.  Surely trainers would be more than adequate?  I wore a newish pair of Adidas Sambas and some ordinary socks which felt pretty fine on the day, even by the end, but 48 hours later I had severe problems with my right leg.  Foot pains seemingly related to a knee pain because when I strap the knee the foot pain goes away.  Clearly I’m no expert yet but these precious legs are integrated units, all the parts need to be looked after if the whole is to function well.  If I’ve inflamed a ligament that badly I’ve made a serious mistake.

Clearly what happened is that the low level of cushioning in the Adidas trainers was not good enough to protect my knee gubbins from the relentless thousands of footfalls on such a hard surface.  I’m now looking into buying specific hiking shoes like the well-regarded Merrell MOAB Ventilators.  Something with a good tread but a lot of lovely cushioning inside.  I’m pretty much certain that this will go a long way towards averting repeats of this very unpleasant pain because my wincing down the Tube stairs is not pretty.

If you continually get foot or knee injuries it’s a good idea to visit a specialist sports footwear shop as they will be able to provide shoes that can correct a wonky gait or cushion your feet properly.

Maintain your fluid intake

Again, an obvious point but your body really does need a lot of water to keep functioning properly.  H2O underpins almost every process and without it we are never going to work at an optimum level.

Carry enough water to get you through the whole journey, or plan where you will pick up more on the way, but most of all – DRINK IT NO MATTER WHAT!  I have neglected finishing my bottle of water too many times and realised too late that I’m slightly dehydrated.  So far I’ve not walked such huge distances in hot enough conditions that this might become really dangerous but nevertheless it is a habit that needs to be securely rooted deep in my walking psyche.  Try to drink a certain amount of your total stock at a well-spaced intervals.  The amount will vary depending upon weather conditions and the amount of work you do, like gaining altitude, but you have to keep ingesting no matter what.

Stretch, warm up, and cool down after exercise

Preparing your body in advance for the work it has to undertake is something I will have to learn from scratch as I have no history of athletic preparation at all.  Nevertheless it’s not hard, it’s just a habit that needs to be worked on.  Stretching the major muscle groups lets your body absorb the stresses you inflict upon in much better than if you don’t bother.

Warming up sessions just before you start the walk are important to give those tendons and ligaments one last reminder that they will be given a workout.  Treat stretching and warm ups as revision and mock exams before the serious business of the real thing.  You always perform better if you are well prepared.

Cooling down is another Terra Incognita in my world.  Being able to calm your muscles after strenuous activities helps them to return to normal without serious amounts of injury, provided you didn’t utterly overdo it on the route in the first place.  A good cooling down session will also help flush lactic acid from your muscles as that’s what causes a lot of the pain.  If you cool down well then you are leaving your body in a better position to build upon what you already had with new muscle rather than wasting that exercise on repairing wounded areas.

Choose a well-fitting backpack

I haven’t had too many instances where the pack has been a big nuisance because until the Thames walk I hadn’t worn an ill-fitting one for long periods of time.

My chosen pack turned out to be very wrong as the back wasn’t long enough to fit me.  The knock-on effects were waist belts that were far above my hips and a chest strap that rode up to my collarbone.  I spent a significant amount of time fiddling with these to no avail.  I do have a pack that fits amazingly well.  So well that when I walk with it I quickly forget it’s there at all, even when filled with several pounds of gear.  That’s the kind of pack you need to invest in because it will help enormously for my next tip:

Manage your load before and during walking

Nobody would drive a logging truck with all the felled trees piled on just one side, your suspension wouldn’t do its job and going round corners would be ‘eventful’.

Consider then what having an uneven load on your back will do for your body.  I walked that 16.3 miles with only one 1.5 litre bottle of water on one side of my pack, I was doomed to make the leg under it work proportionally harder to carry the weight but also maintain an even gait.  Another huge mistake.  Carry two equal capacity bottles and drink from each in turn.

Walking aftercare

If you do neglect these tips or are unlucky enough to hurt yourself despite them then just remember that you have to nurse your body parts back to health very carefully.  Muscle does not heal back to its original state.  It gains scar tissue which, if accumulated in high enough quantities, can seriously affect their ability to remain healthy and take the exercise you want to put them through.  Read up about the areas you’ve hurt, try to learn how to treat different injuries with the help of ice packs, hot baths, massage and relaxation – A.K.A. RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation).  Buy aids like strapping for mild injuries but make sure you speak to a professional if you remain in serious pain after a week because more serious physiotherapy, or even surgery might be needed.

I know people who have let things go on too long and now they are stuck with these injuries forever.

Listen to your body!

The single most important thing that any walker, backpacker, trekker, or fitness fanatic must do is simply listen to their body.

It knows what its limits are.  It can go beyond its thresholds through sheer mental determination but this is not meant to be abused for sport.  It is supposed to save you in a survival situation, give you that fail-safe boost that crosses the line between life and death.

Your mind will chase the highs it sees in the future but it might be blinded to what’s on the other side of those peaks.  Your body, however, never loses sight of what lies ahead because it lives in the present.  It experiences life in real time and cannot perceive the nebulous reward of finishing a trek in record time or clocking those few extra miles before you collapse.

If you push yourself too much harder than you are conditioned to manage, and you ignore the warning signs your body throws at you, then you will suffer for it after you reach your goal.  If you manage that at all.  And your body will think that you are an idiot too.