Wednesday, August 1

The Butcher's Dog or Fit For Nothing?

Over the last couple of months I've had an few thoughts bouncing around at the back of my brain concerning fitness and its relevance to hill walking and backpacking. There's a lot of tosh, especially in mens magazines, about the 'right' level of physical ability and how to achieve or improve the level each individual may require for their particular lifestyle.

So a timely programme from BBC Radio 4 "Am I Normal" on the very subject, available via the BBC Listen Again service. The second series is picking up from the first, giving a pragmatic view of many myths around medicine and human normality. And bursting a few preconceptions along the way

And hey - guess what? No-one can really agree how to easily measure an individual's fitness level (without a bank of gym/lab based tests) or indeed what exercise regime is necessary to help an individual become 'fit'.

Naturally I've got a few ideas of mine own.

I thought a definition of the term 'Fitness' would be a good starting point but surprisingly a clear definition, or at least one that doesn't include the word 'Fit' is difficult to nail down. This is typical........
Fitness - 'Good health or physical condition, especially as the result of exercise and proper nutrition'

My old fallback Wikipedia has a slightly fuller discussion including this telling phrase "This is often presented in textbooks as a triangle which represent physical, emotional, and mental fitness. Hence, one may be physically fit but may still suffer from a mental illness or have emotional problems. The "ideal triangle" is balanced in all areas"

Hmm - that's a lot more than the usual view that fitness relates to an ability to run a marathon or swim a couple of miles? Only one side of the triangle surely?

Out walking a good level of physical ability is relevant to the route, the geographical terrain and the duration of the exercise. Hence a recovering heart attack victim may find a short walk along a canal side national trail ideal, but not a steep haul to a peak straight up from the valley floor!

So how does that affect what we do?

I'd rate my own level of fitness as "good", but not great. That is I can walk several miles over farmland tracks without needing to stop for more than an occasional rest. More to break a trip up really. I don't pant when walking, and I can carry a reasonable weight as necessary.

I walk regularly throughout the winter months, but when it comes to my first backpacking trip to the hills each year I have one simple rule that I stick with - "Take it easy, and listen to the body"

Its not about how fast I move, or how much ground is covered. Its the fact that I can safely pass over the fellside, at an easy pace, without listening to blood pounding in my ears and with my heart feeling like its trying to come through my chest. If that's the case I'm going too fast or the terrain is not right for my level of physical activity (and that's not a situation I've yet to come across)

The first 1/2 hour or so climbing up the ascent is always a trial, no matter what time of year, and how used to it I am. And I expect to sweat. A lot. But a bit like a runner getting into their stride, once that is over and the body responding to the physical effort I tend to settle down. The first couple of days on a trip the aches and pains can make movement early in the day quite errr .....interesting, but its never so painful that it affects my ability to move and walk safely. And the body naturally detoxs itself over the first few days of concerted physical activity and plenty of food/water for refuelling along the way.

So in my case fitness is the ability of my body to safely perform the physical activity required of it.

As the summer continues my walking speed and my recovery ability picks up (I'm getting 'fitter'), my body naturally responding to the physical stimulation and building additional muscle and sinew to cope with the specific physical challenges I have set it. The key word here - naturally.

So how to get hill fit? Easy. Walk. Out on the hills if possible, or at least start using the stairs. You've got to start somewhere. And do it regularly. That's the key.

Cycling, swimming, running or even a gym all help with cardio vascular fitness but the essential method of getting fitter to walk, is ..... well just to walk. A lot.

I used to run regularly especially using a lot of hill work besides the local seafront, but perversely I found this created an over dependence on those muscles groups required for running. And though my CV was excellent I found increasing problems performing other exercise due to this over specialisation. More prone for instance to ankle and calf muscle injury. Often ending in physio treatment.

So to the other elements of fitness.
I've not seen much in the outdoor mags about this, but without will power, the intent to reach a selected point, that special sense of purpose, you probably won't even manage to get out of the car in the car park.

Many is the time I've felt that I needed to stop, only to look at the map and decide that the rest stop a few miles further on looked attractive, and within minutes of deciding to continue my fitness level and general spirits felt improved. The mind can be a dirty little trickster and it will naturally try for the easy option where possible. Again walking with or without a pack (but regularly) has taught me recognise when I really am finished for the day, or just letting my mind get one over on me (Remember the phrase 'Mind Over Matter'?)

But beware over overriding all the signals from the mind and body. The other side of the coin is knowing when enough is enough for the day.

And finally - enjoy the trip. If you're fretting about the weather, whether sun or rain. If its no longer fun, but a physical and mind numbing trial of stamina. Time to plan a finish.

The hill will always be there another day. It's mostly useful if you can say the same about yourself.

So next time some gym fit hero tells you about their 25 mile multi peak bagging day, that started and finished in the dark, and as they collapse into the chair before you, time to ask the killer question. And why did you enjoy it?

I reckon that's my triangle in place.

And if you want to think more about how to put that route plan together and make the best of your days out, Paul has some excellent observations over on Wilderness Wales

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Spot on John. As Matt Hazley once said, "it's only walking".
Yes, enjoyment, that's the key. On a more practical, physical fitness level, I find that fairly regular short exercise periods at home - a mix of simple light cardiovascular & resistance stuff plus the all-important stretching - pays big dividends. But only go as far as the boredom threshold - life's too short. You could be out walking! I find that if youth has more strength, age has more stamina...
Right on
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