With 96 miles of off-road trails and sometimes rugged terrain to hike, the West Highland Way might seem a little daunting. Yet, every year, many thousands of people, including high numbers of first-timers, take on the rewarding long-distance hike from Milngavie, just north of Glasgow, to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. Those that enjoy it most have put in some training beforehand.
How to get started for WHW hiking
Six months of training is a good aim, so if you're planning to walk the WHW in spring next year, now is a good time to focus on your build-up. Start slowly and build up slowly. If you rarely walk and then go out and walk 10 miles on your first training effort you will end up exhausted and probably injured. Build up from short walks of no more than three miles to longer walks of around 15 to 18 miles. Training will depend on how fast you plan to walk the WHW, although you should factor in the final day of 14 miles and a steep climb between Kinlochleven and Fort William. People take on average from five to 10 days (that’s an average of 19 miles or 9.5 miles each day). You need to be able to walk a little further than your longest day before you set out on your WHW multi-day trip. If you are in any doubt about your health, consult your doctor before starting a new fitness challenge.
Tips for finding time to train
To start with, you could set your alarm to get you up 30 minutes earlier than normal and go for a brisk walk. Or walk some of the way to work. If you take the bus get off a few stops earlier. If you drive, park further away from the office. Walk at lunchtime instead of sitting at your desk and eating a sandwich. Organise regular evening meet-ups with your WHW friends and walk and talk. Walk to the shops, or friends houses, instead of always taking the car. Walk further at weekends. Choose a new location each weekend to vary the type of walking. Take the family with you for company.
Build up the walking slowly
Depending on your current fitness levels, start with three sessions of two or three miles each per week and then add no more than a mile to each session building up the overall distances slowly. Keep the walking at a very comfortable walking and talking pace to start with. As the weeks go on you’ll find you can walk faster but without feeling any more out of breath. The WHW walk is not a race so you do not need to be pushing yourself hard. But you will want to be in good enough shape to enjoy the walking at a steady pace for many days in a row. As your fitness builds, incorporate a longer walk each week. Build these longer walks until you have comfortably achieved the distance of your longest planned walking day on the WHW proper. Walk some of the WHW if you can. You could plan a weekend trip to walk some of the route, especially the hillier sections, before your full-distance West Highland Way self-guided holiday. Add another form of training each week, such as strength building in the gym, yoga for flexibility or swimming.
There are hills on the West Highland Way
The WHW way is not flat. This means that once you have a good level of fitness you should aim to include hills in your training. Find routes that are undulating to start with and then work up to hill climbs. You need to train your legs for the ups and the downs. For example, the last section of the WHW is from Kinlochleven to Fort William and this is a challenging 14 miles. In total, there are three steep climbs on the WHW and the best way to tackle these is fresh from a good night’s sleep. This would involve stopping at Drymen, prior to tackling Conic Hill; staying at the Kingshouse Hotel in Glencoe before attempting the Devil's Staircase; and, as stated, overnighting at Kinlochleven before the climb up to the Mamore Ridge. The days of walking in between are a matter for your age and fitness.
Day after day of walking
During your training make sure you do back-to-back walking days. When hiking the WHW you will be on your feet every day for many days in a row so you need to make sure that your legs are prepared for walking day after day.
Other tips for walking the WHW
Keep your enthusiasm for walking by choosing different locations for your longer training walks. Take the time to stop and enjoy the scenery. Far too many people think they have to walk as far as they can as fast as they can. Even if it's raining, there is always something to enjoy. Set small goals. Aim to walk for three miles three times a week. When you can do that aim for one longer, comfortably paced walk at a weekend and start too increase the three times per week walks a little at a time. Walk to a café/pub and back. This gives you motivation to get there and back. Ask a friend or partner to drop you off a set distance from your house and walk home. Take a spare pair of socks to change into midway through your longer walks. It's amazing the difference they make. Walk with the rucksack that you plan to take on your WHW walking holiday. Walk in the boots that you plan to wear on your WHW walking holiday. Make sure you take more water than you think you will need, as well as lunch and snacks.