I had just finished my first timed practice pack test on the track at Boulder High School in Boulder, Colorado when, exhausted and out of breath, I had a realization: I walk slow. Not just slow, but really slow. My natural gait is more of a strut – a casual, “I give zero shits” sort of a cadence. And for 21 years, that approach to walking had done me well. But with just two months left until my first day as a wildland firefighter in California…I realized I needed to pick up the pace. Here’s how I did it:
Walking is just something that we do subconsciously. We don’t think about it. We pick a destination, tell our body to advance towards it, and our minds shift to other things. This is fine, but the problem that I had was that when my mind turned on auto-pilot, cruising speed was much slower than it needed to be. So I had to change that setting. Which was hard at first. It was easy to walk faster when I was focused on it, but if my mind shifted to something else, *bam*, I took my foot off the gas, and the engine revved lower. It was incredibly annoying. The only way that I could figure out how to fix it was to just walk faster. Everywhere. I turned it into a game. If I was walking to class, or walking to work, or just climbing up the stairs, I did it fast. Always. With a little bit of time, it just became a habit. I learned to move faster. Suddenly, every time I was walking, I was aware that I was walking with purpose. I wasn’t just walking to the bar to meet up with friends – that walk was a training walk. It had purpose. It was moving me, literally, one step closer to my goal of being a firefighter. And it helped.
Fitbits and stepcounting weren’t all the rage when I was getting into fire, but they’re great tools. As a wildland firefighter, you’re essentially a professional hiker. On any given shift, you can easily expect to walk 10+ miles. That’s about 20,000 steps. Most civilians will celebrate and bombard Facebook with posts about how awesome they are if they hit the 10k threshold for steps. If you want to suffer less during the fire season, you need to harden your body in the off-season. You need to get yourself used to walking. There’s no substitute for this – you just simply need to walk more. So go buy a Fitbit or a Jawbone Up and start challenging yourself. Your goal, leading up to Day 1 of fire season, should be to regularly walk 15,000 steps, minimum, each day. That number doesn’t include the running or hiking you’re doing. 15,000 steps. It’s not easy. But wearing that little piece of rubber around your wrist should serve as a reminder to get up and move.
Play around with different ways to wear your pack. The way your pack is sitting might be prematurely fatiguing you. For me, I liked it tight. And if I was wearing a pack with a waistband, I always made sure that it was cinched snugly around my waist. Snug enough that the majority of the weight was supported by my hips, and not my shoulders. This is the way most wildland fire packs are designed, so it’s good training to get used to carrying weight like this. But experiment. If you fatigue your shoulders early in a hike, your posture is going to slouch, your shoulders will slump – all of which leads to suboptimal breathing conditions. And if you’re not breathing right – you’re not getting enough oxygen, which causes even more exhaustion. Hike tall, breathe better, finish sooner. Simple as that.
It seems a bit counterintuitive, but it works. On training hikes, I would watch people flame out by talking huge steps, usually when trying to close a gap between them and the hiker ahead. This was especially problematic when they would skip an intermediate step on particularly steep sections. Humans can walk vast distances because bipedal motion effectively leverages both our skeletal structure and our muscles. If you start talking longer than normal steps, you’re shifting the balance. You’re relying less on your skeletal system to support the weight, and more on your muscles. Think about it – what’s an easier position to hold – standing upright with your feet together, shoulder width apart, or a lunge position, with one foot forward, one foot back? Add additional weight to the equation, and the forces are increased.
One of the mental tricks I like it employ to speed up my steps is that with every step, I’m actively trying to get my leg out front faster. Usually, most people are casual about bringing the lead foot forward, and focus more on driving the weighted foot backwards to propel them. That’s great – but simultaneously think about advancing your lead foot forward as quickly as you can. I picture myself kicking through a few inches of fresh powdery snow. Honestly, just focusing on the act of walking, being aware of your pace, will allow you to start making dramatic improvements.