Long Distance Walking - The Mental Game. Chapter 1

Long Distance Walking - The Mental Game. Chapter 1

(Three Minute Read)

This aide memoire was originally written for our younger walkers about to embark on a three week adventure on the Annapurna Circuit. It's been incrementally fine tuned since then. You may find it helpful. Feedback and ideas always welcome.


You are match fit. Your kit is squared away. You have been trekking short walks and training over long distances. You are as ready as you can be – at least physically. But what is going on in your head? How is your mental preparation? Chances are you have done no mental preparation at all. This short aide memoire will help you prepare your mental game, essential if a long distance trek is going to be all you want it to be. Get ready. Get set. Now go!

Walking for say, two or three days, or even a week, requires a certain mental toughness and mental agility in order for the experience to be enjoyable. Many people are able to handle one or two days with little difficulty. However walking for ten days or even fourteen days requires another level of mental preparedness again. Not many people are forced to deal with that preparedness simply because they don’t undertake treks of that duration. And, even for those that do attempt a long trek, not everyone handles the mental demands well. That is partly because, unlike the shorter walks, it's harder to visualise the end of the trek in the first or even the second week. And, as noted below, visualising the end of a trek is one of the key tools to help mentally manage yourself.

What do we mean by mental toughness? Well, it’s not about being a hardarse and closing your mind to what is going on around you and just ‘crashing though’. In fact it's the complete opposite. It's about having an objective insight into your own mental and physical strengths and weaknesses, but especially your emotional strengths and weaknesses. It's about understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your colleagues, and understanding what happens in a group as it evolves over a long period of time. Mental toughness is about taking all this information and carefully and rationally using it to manage your responses to, and expectations of the long trek.

Understanding Yourself 

Mental toughness in this arena is about admitting in the first place that you are not superhuman. You have physical, emotional and mental limits. You don’t have to prove how superhuman you are on a trek. Everyone knows you are capable of doing well. Rather, you need to know your limits and what the warning signs look and sound like as you approach your limits. And you need to know and accept the triggers which might take you to the edge. Or even over it. Some examples might help. 

  • You might be a person who feels irascible with the world for the first few hours of the day and are not interested in the banter of the rest of your trekking group. In fact their chit-chat drives you up the wall and you are frustrated by the early morning ‘rooster’ in your group who only seems more and more happy the earlier they rise. What might mental toughness look like in this case? Without being antisocial perhaps you can look to have your early morning routine settled before you retire for the evening. That might help minimise the interaction with others over breakfast and allow you to sleep in that extra ten minutes. Then maybe look to walk by yourself for the first hour.
  • You are a walker that finds the middle of the day tough. You have been walking all day and dread all the walking to come. You drop into bit of a funk around lunch time. What does mental toughness look like here? To combat the funk, perhaps find others to walk with who can lift your spirits. Admit you are flagging and ask others to help you. Or simply hang behind the team telling the most jokes. Or partner with a person who finds this part of the day exhilarating. And visualise what the end of the day will look like. A hot fire. Hot drink. Boots and socks off. Don’t over do the visualising though – that can also get you down. Finally, break the walk into two hour chunks of time and reward yourself with a treat at the end of each period. Suddenly that trough has slipped past without you knowing. Some walkers use lunch as the reward and make it, rather than dinner, their highlight meal.

Knowing and understanding yourself is the first step to having a robust walking mind, capable of handling long distances. It is of course a very personal thing.

I prefer to crack these big walks by myself or with a good mate. It is also maturity and learning to understand how I am wired. I have a good mate who wants to walk 200 km with me on the Heysen Trail. He will drive me nuts only because of expectations. I want to walk from dawn to dusk; planned out and focused on distance and time. I see this type of walking from a fitness perspective. His priority would be to go a little slower and enjoy the sights, vegetation etc. I am not wired that way and would become impatient. So I have learnt what makes me tick.....the hard way.

Frank, British Antarctic Survey Guide and Survival Specialist

Chapter Two

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