Imagine the following scenario: You are hiking the Tour of Mont Blanc, the trip you’ve been dreaming about for months, if not years. The scenery is surpassing your expectations as you encounter idyllic villages and jaw-dropping vistas. The only problem? You can hardly enjoy it because of the aching of your knees, back, and hips, not to mention a blister the size of Switzerland that’s threatening to erupt inside your hiking boots at any moment. You’ve dragged your sorry self up to the top of (yet another) steep pass, but you can’t stop long to enjoy your accomplishment because, due to your slow pace, you’re behind schedule to reach your stopping point for the day. When you finally reach the campground, all of the best spots have been claimed by faster hikers and there’s no hot water left in the showers. Exhausted, you sloppily pitch your tent, scarf some dinner, and fall asleep. The next morning, instead waiting around for the freshly baked bread, you’re up and out before anyone else because you know you’ve got another 10-hour hiking day ahead of you.
Now picture this: It’s early afternoon, and you’ve just crested the first major pass of today’s hike. You’re tired, and the hike has been challenging, but you feel good. You enjoyed a leisurely morning before starting your hike today, sipping some coffee while breaking down your campsite. Now you have time to eat lunch and soak in the views before beginning your descent. You arrive at your next destination in time to claim a great campsite, shower, and enjoy a beer in the sunshine. You’re sore and tired, but you feel excited for another day of hiking tomorrow.
So what’s the difference between these two scenarios? Training!
With just a bit of advance work and preparation, you can make sure you’re physically ready to have your best experience on the Tour of Mont Blanc. Because of its relatively low elevation and minimal technicality, the TMB is a pretty approachable long-distance trek for the casual hiker. That being said, it’s still a serious physical challenge that will push your body to new limits. You will enjoy your trip infinitely more if you train ahead of time. This is even more true if you plan on camping (and carrying the heavier backpack that goes with it). Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Read on to see our simple advice on how to feel your best and enjoy your TMB experience to the fullest.
Six Months Before Your Trip: Build the Base
Obviously, everyone will approach the TMB with varying levels of fitness, past injuries, and overall health needs. You’ll know your individual situation best, but you should generally focus on building your aerobic endurance in the months leading up to your trip. If you’re already a runner/walker/cyclist/etc, just keep doing your thing! If you don’t regularly do any sort of “cardio” exercise, or you mainly focus on yoga and strength training, start trying to incorporate longer bouts of walking or running into your regular routine. This will lay your fitness foundation for more challenging training in the future.
Three Months Before Your Trip: Go Uphill
Ideally, at this point in your training you should increase the frequency and intensity of your hiking. We are lucky enough to live in Boulder, Colorado, so we have plenty of trails in our (figurative) backyard. We started this phase of our training by aiming to incorporate a hike into our workout schedule on a weekly basis. We tried to select hikes that would take us two hours or longer with at least 1,5000 feet of elevation gain. Sometimes life got crazy, however, so during the busy weeks we just tried to sneak in whatever hiking we could. If you don’t live near the mountains, or your climate doesn’t allow for hiking at this point in your training, don’t fret because you’ve got options. Your main goal is to build your aerobic endurance and your leg strength. You can achieve similar results by doing anything that involves incline; bike uphill, set a treadmill to high incline, or spend some time on the step machine at your gym. Heck, you could even walk the stairs at the local high school stadium if you wanted to. As long as you’re moving your body uphill a few times a week, you will be setting yourself up for a happier TMB.
Two Months Before Your Trip: Put on Your Pack
Remember all of that brand new gear sitting in your closet? Now is the time to break it in! In the eight weeks or so before your trip, try get in as many longer hikes (or walks) with your gear as possible. Think of it as a “dress rehearsal” for your trek. The benefits of breaking in your gear at this point are twofold. First, you’ll be able to test your boots, backpack, socks, and so on to ensure that they fit well during longer hikes. Second, you’ll begin training your body to hike while wearing a heavy backpack. If you’re new to backpacking, you’ll be surprised by how much more challenging hiking is with the extra weight. For me, the biggest adjustment was learning to deal with the extra strain on my hips and knees when hiking steeply downhill. Even if you’ve been strength training, chances are you’ll be using new muscles when hiking with a backpack. The best way to condition your body? Hiking as much as possible with a heavy backpack! You might be wondering how to add weight to your pack without completely packing for your trip. Our advice? Look around your home and throw anything-literally anything- heavy into your bag. When we were training, we threw five-pound weights, jars of oats, bottles of water, blankets, and textbooks into our bags. Then we headed over to our local trail. Did some fellow hikers look at us like we were crazy with our giant backpacks? Yes. But did we strike up some awesome conversations AND get our bodies in shape for the TMB in the process? You better believe it.
One Month Before Your Trip: Time for a Test Run
This stage in your training is awesome because it requires you to take a vacation (you’re welcome). If at all possible, try to take a 1-2 night backpacking trip in your local woods. If you aren’t planning on camping along the TMB you don’t need to take an overnight trip, but you should still try to fit in two back-to-back days of long, hard hiking. This important step allows you to try out different ways of packing your backpack for maximum fit and comfort, practice setting up camp, and get your body used to hiking for consecutive days in a row. It will also give you the chance to see what items you packed that you don’t need, what you may have forgotten, and what kinds of foods you want to bring.
The Bottom Line:
Move, preferably uphill and with weight on your back, as much as possible. Do this and you will be able to enjoy every moment of your incredible trip so much more. Plus, the time and effort you spend working towards your goal will make the real thing that much sweeter. I can’t stress enough how glad we were that we’d prepared for the challenge of a thru-hike like the TMB, and I hope our experience can help you have your best possible trip.