Training Our Bodies

Pilgrims continue the steep descent toward Roncesvalles after scaling the heights of the Pyrenees.

Pilgrims continue the steep descent toward Roncesvalles after scaling the heights of the Pyrenees.

On this blog I’ve tended to focus on the spiritual, historical, and mental aspects of the Camino, but this time I want to zero in on what may seem like the more obvious: the physical side. Most people who know anything about the Camino are familiar with the distance of the French Way – 500 miles – and once they learn that distance they usually start doing arithmetic in their heads to figure out how many miles they’d have to walk to do it in X amount of days, or how many days it would take if they walked X amount of miles. The gut reaction I hear from most people is, “Wow, I can’t imagine doing that!”

The beauty of setting out to walk the Camino, though, is that – unless you have a serious health condition or cannot walk well due to injury or paralysis – it is perfectly possible for you to walk a minimum of up to ten miles a day. It doesn’t matter your age, gender, or fitness level. Human beings are built of sturdy stuff, and our bodies are made for walking.

Indeed, one of the exciting aspects of life on the Camino is the transformation your body goes through as you progress toward Santiago. On the first day, crossing the Pyrenees is a Herculean task that often leads to injury or at least some pretty serious pain the next day, whereas the similar climbs and longer distances that come up later on the Way seem relatively easy. Pilgrims in the early stages of their walk often use free time to nap or rest their tired legs, and only get up when they have to retrieve laundry or seek out a meal, but those same pilgrims will often have energy for a walk about town or even the occasional yoga session later down the road.

You’re probably thinking that the reason for this is obvious. As they walk, pilgrims are getting in better shape! But let’s not miss the wonder of that fact. Isn’t it amazing how our bodies adjust to our activity? If I spend my days on the couch and don’t move very much, my body adjusts to that activity by slowing down my metabolism. But if I stand regularly and walk around, my body will burn more calories – hence the recent popularity of the Fit Bit and other step tracking systems to help keep people active in otherwise sedentary office jobs.

(Please don’t hear me saying that the Camino is a great opportunity to lose weight – there are much better ways to do that, and because the pilgrim diet doesn’t lend itself to weight loss it’s best to lower your expectations in that area. I lost twenty pounds the first time I walked and came home rather emaciated, but it was largely due to poor planning for meals and occasionally running up against seasonal closures of certain restaurants. The second and third times, I weighed the same coming home as I did when I left.)

When most people start the Camino, the idea of walking up to six hours a day for even one day might seem daunting, but by the middle and end of your journey it’s just part of the routine. It won’t be effortless, mind you, but your legs will be toughened by the regular work, your back will be stronger from holding your pack upright, your feet will be less tender and able to withstand the impact of thousands of steps!

In the midst of all you experience on the Camino, don’t miss the wonder and beauty of the way your body adapts to its circumstances. Be sure to notice the way your energy levels increase each day, and take a moment to marvel each morning at the way your muscles restore themselves. You might be surprised by what your body can do.

Hunter Van Wagenen’s Camino experiences began in 2007, and he enjoys sharing the humorous and the miraculous stories, in addition to practical advice he has lived and collected. His dream is to live in Spain helping pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. He currently lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife Stephie, who will walk her first Camino this summer with Hunter.