How To Walk 800 km

John is just walking the 80 metres back to his bike here, but you get the general drift. 
The question I get asked more than any other at the end of the Hikoi is "how are your feet?" It's nice that people care, but my feet have never been an issue on long walks. Good shoes and socks prevent blisters and cushion the effects of long distances on hard surfaces, but I have had other issues. When walking the Camino Santiago knees, Achilles tendons and shin splints have all at one time or another given me trouble. This time round, these have all been fine and I finished feeling as though I could just keep on going indefinitely; to Cape Reinga if needs be. Over the last couple of years I have learned 6 things that have made all the difference. Namely:

1. Footwear. On the Camino I wore walking shoes - Salomon in 2009 and Asics in 2012. A year ago I changed to full walking boots - Salomon Cosmic 2 - and the difference was instant and major. When walking more than 15 minutes in my Asics Gel Arata walking shoes I needed supports on both knees, but after 800 km in the boots I have had not the slightest suggestion of problems. I carried the knee supports in my Hikoi pack but didn't use them once. I use Smartwool socks. Blisters are caused by uneven pressures on skin surfaces, which in turn are caused by bunching or ridging in socks, rough patches in shoes, and/or by accumulated sweat. Smartwool socks deal with perspiration fairly effectively. They also fit snugly on the feet and hold their shape no matter how often they are washed.

2. Preparation. My lovely lime green Salomon boots wore out two weeks into the hikoi which annoyed me intensely until I checked my records and found that in the previous year I had walked 800+ km in them. Most of this had been on asphalt, for which the boots weren't really designed, hence the rather low mileage, but it did reassure me that I had put in enough preparatory kilometres.   In the months before heading off to Stewart Island I was walking or cycling at least an hour a day, and going for a lengthy walk (25 km or so)at least once a week. I found that cycling, by building up thigh muscles, is a very good preparation for walking up hills.

3. Nutrition. I actually put on weight on the Hikoi. This is a testament to the hospitality of the people of Southland and Otago, but also a sign that I had my input and output gauged pretty well. A man of my weight burns around 450 calories an hour walking, or about 2,250 calories for a 25 km walk. Add that to the energy required just to keep my vital systems functioning, and my body needs nearly 5,000 calories of energy to stay upright and move itself at 5 kph for 5 or 6 hours. If it doesn't get this amount it will start to look for energy from within its own reserves. It will try to use fat first, but if the difference between input and output is too great the fat won't be able to be metabolised fast enough so the body will use soft tissue and muscle instead - and my joints will suffer.

4. Pace. My natural walking pace is about 6 kph, and Clemency's a bit faster. This time around I aimed at more leisurely 5 kph and made sure we had a break every couple of hours. 

5. Stretching. A simple routine of stretching: first thing in the morning, before setting out and immediately after finishing is a good preventative discipline.

6. Attitude. This last is perhaps the most significant. When Clemency and I first started walking around Dunedin, we hatched a plan to walk from our house in Highgate to St. Clair and back. This seemed to us to be an insurmountably immense distance.... until we actually did it. We found that it was, in reality, a pleasant stroll of about 90 mins (about 8 km) each way, with an even more pleasant half time interlude of coffee and muffin in one of the several beachside cafes. It became something we did often. We found that the tyranny of distance was contained largely between our ears. Most of the ability to walk long distances is in the continual revision upwards of what we think we are capable of and what we think of as a "normal" walk. I guess this psychological training is at least half of the reason for doing the preparation I mentioned above.


Nick Thompson said…
Sorry about this late comment (I stumbled across this post by way of the ones on General Synod) but I was struck by the way in which your experience of footwear on the Way of Saint James was the opposite of mine.

When I first did the Camino in 1997, I started out in worn-in Merrell walking shoes. By the time I got to the end, like everyone I guess, I was aching all over - my feet and shins especially.

In the years after that I started taking on bits of the various Chemins St-Jacques in France. By accident I started walking in sandals without socks one day - Tevas - as I'd seen some elderly Belgians doing in Spain.

They were a revelation. After that blisters were a thing of the past and, although I still ached at the end of the day, it was never with anything like the intensity I'd experienced the closer I got to Santiago.

I guess each person's physiology is different, but I've recommended good sandals for the Camino ever since!


Nick Thompson
Theology, University of Auckland