Getting in Shape for Europe’s Toughest Trail.
A lot of my friends and family will tell you I am already a fitness fanatic; an assertion I would not argue with. When it comes to taking on as tough a challenge as the GR20 however, just being fit isn’t enough. The GR20 runs along the entire spine of Corsica and is often notoriously named Europe’s toughest trail. As the weeks to my start date roll by, I’ve come to adopt the saying; “fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”
As I sit here writing this article I am almost a month into my training regime and still feel immensely unprepared. My training has changed completely from a predominantly weights and speed based programme to one of mainly endurance and cardio. As my fitness improves and my endurance strengthens, I feel my anxiety beginning to build and start questioning myself, doubting if I really will be able to do this? If I will be mentally and physically fit enough when I get there? If I will fall at the first hurdle? The unfortunate truth is I will not know the answer to these questions until I get there, so the best and only option is to practice, practice, practice. I cannot emphasise enough how important preparation is for the trip.
There is a lot of talk out there about how tough the GR20 is, but not a huge amount of detail on exactly how fit you need to be to do this hike. For instance this great GR20 Blog says: “You need to be fit, well-trained but most of all you must be highly motivated”. Essentially, even with the correct training and fitness levels a lot of what it takes to complete the GR20 comes down to sheer grit and determination.
So what’s my approach to getting fit for the GR20?
- Approximately 2 times a week. The first run I do is weighted stair sprints. This consists of filling a haversack with the approximate weight that I will be carrying on my hike and sprinting up stairs at full capacity. The other run I do on a weekly basis is the 5km park run, you can find out more about this in a previous article I wrote. The running is to build up aerobic capacity and leg strength, both of which really drive your ability to push yourself on big hike.
- Going on a long day hike with a weighted pack. In this case, I just want to toughen up my feet a bit to get used to my new boots and also get used to carrying a pack. I load up a mid-sized climbing pack with about 15kg, plus 2.5 litres of water in a camelback and will go into the Pentlands for the day. As well as physically preparing me for consistent daily hiking, this also lets me practice map reading using Ordanace Survey maps, challenging myself to get from point A to point B while working within a time limit using Naismiths rule to guide me.
- I spend roughly 4 days a week in the gym doing strength based exercises. Under the training plan I follow, I focus mainly on exercises that work on the specific muscles that are used when hiking. A lot of people seem to make the mistake of thinking that would only be your legs and core, but a certain amount of your focus should go into training your arms and shoulders too. Push exercises are particularly important to incorporate into your training for the purpose of pole work and scrambling when on the hike itself.
My gym plan includes (but is not limited to):
- Squats (sumo, front)
- Deadlifts (straight arm)
- Farmers walk (using kettle bells)
- Dumbbell Bicep curls
- EZ bar skull crushers (for triceps)
- Wide grip pull ups
- Swimming (lengths, loosen muscles, repair technique)
- Another hugely prevalent factor in successful training is nutrition. You will notice I have called it nutrition and not a ‘diet’. This is because I believe every diet is a fad; a temporary outlook towards food. If you truly want to get fit, lose weight or reach a specific goal, you need to change your mindset towards food and start eating consistently healthy, balanced meals. Of course, the perfect nutritional intake will vary from person to person but we can get an extremely good idea of what it is that constitutes healthy eating and compliments fitness regimes. I consume roughly the same food everyday broken down into five small meals and this is how it looks:
- Gluten free granola
- Whole fat milk
- Cod liver oil
- 2x peanut butter gluten free sandwiches
- Trek granola and protein bar
- 2x boiled egg
- Meat or fish
- 2 x vegetable
- Carbohydrate (potatoes, pasta, rice)
A Final Note on Preparation
Although fitness and nutrition are vital keys to unlocking the ability to complete this challenge they are not the only important factors. How comfortable you are with map and compass in hand is also a huge game changer. Reading contours on a map and having the knowledge of Naismiths rule could be the inevitable difference between living and dying when atop a mountain alone.
Being mentally strong enough for the challenge is another consideration of paramount importance. Not every day will be the same, and it is almost a guarantee that the plan you have made for each day’s trek will have to change for one reason or another. You have to be ready for this and learn to be adaptable. It is how you react in those kind of situations that define who you are. To prepare for this I do what I call an hour a week of mindfulness, this could be reading a book, listening to relaxing music, doing yoga. The goal here is to empty your mind and not worry about anything future or past and even if only for 15 minutes a day just truly live in the moment.
So am I ready? Perhaps not yet, but I’ve got the mindset. Without brushing aside my nerves and my training and keeping in mind to always be prepared, the GR20 is going to happen.
“The will to succeed is important, but what’s more important is the will to prepare.”
– Bobby Knight