Best foot forward

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am


In three weeks, I will be flying from Hong Kong to Mongolia with a friend, and when we land, we will set off to walk back to Hong Kong - 5,000 kilometres through a rather wintry China.

Of course I'm daunted by the adventures (and blisters) which we will no doubt encounter, but I'm also really excited to get back into living in the wild. Furthermore, the past four months have been mentally exhausting.

There's actually quite a lot of preparation involved - the logistics, acquiring of gear, learning of languages, negotiating with sponsors. But the most important, basic, and obvious task, has been to prepare my body for the challenges it will face.

We were given the advice early on in our training that 'mountain goats don't play tennis', meaning the best way to prepare for many months of hiking with a heavy pack is not to go running or swimming or to the gym, but rather just to go hiking a lot with a heavy pack.

It seems obvious, but I had not thought of it like that beforehand. And so, since then, several times a week I have been heading out into the Lantau hills and getting some serious kilometres under my belt to develop my fitness and wear in my boots (to avoid blisters during the actual journey).

Our concern is not only gaining fitness, but also not injuring ourselves. About a year and a half ago, a friend and I went on a big hike in Britain - walking a lap of the M25 motorway in the snow. We walked about 250 kilometres in seven days, and along the way, we slept in forests, tramped through fields, climbed over hedges, and were even invited to stay with 'the locals' (an Irish salesman let us stay in his spare room; a London banker would not allow us into his house, but did invite us to camp in his garden).

Although this walk was a beautiful experience, it was also a very painful one. My feet, back and especially knees were all in agony - and that was after just a week.

To try to avoid such agony occurring (or even worsening) on my much longer expedition this year, there are two main strategies for prevention.

The first is to force ourselves not to walk too hard for the first half of the expedition. Although we might feel fit and raring to go for our first few days, we will deliberately not walk more than 32 kilometres a day for the first month, and we will take at least one day off a week, so that our bodies can get used to this new way of life.

Also, for the first month, we will be crossing the relatively flat plains of the Gobi desert, and actually pulling our gear in a specially designed human-wagon, so this will relieve the strain on our backs, too. After these relatively slow early weeks, all being well, we will build up to longer distances each day.

The second strategy is that I have been going to a physio centre in Central, which has been giving me excellent advice on injury prevention. Aaron, the physiotherapist from Sports Performance, has taught me stretches and strength exercises to ensure that my body has the right mixture of flexibility, balance and strength to not get aggravated by long days of tramping.

Doug, the podiatrist, has taught me about foot care (blister prevention, ingrown toenail elimination, and so on), and also analysed my walk on a treadmill, and seen that my knees bend slightly inward. Apparently, most of us walk slightly out of line, although it does not cause huge problems when we are young, unless we go on massive 5,000 kilometre walks. To fix my slight non-alignment, he has given me special insoles, which correct my gait and so should dramatically reduce knee or back problems.

So with these strategies, hopefully the walking part of the expedition will take care of itself. But of course, there are other challenges: we will be crossing a huge country in the depths of winter - a journey which even in a car would be tough and interesting. But we will be on our own, on foot, sleeping rough. I can't wait.

Next week, I will share with you the other pre-departure preparations that I have been going through.

Rob Lilwall lives in Hong Kong with his wife. His previous expedition, Cycling Home From Siberia, became the subject of a television series, a book and many motivational talks. Every week in Health Post, he will report the progress of his new expedition, Walking Home From Mongolia, which will support the children's charity Viva. For more updates, see