Many of us that struggle to find enough time to dedicate to training wonder how best to develop our VO2 max, given busy lives and tight schedules ('VO2 max' is shorthand for maximal oxygen uptake, a standard measure of aerobic fitness). In actual fact about 50% of our VO2 maximum is innate i.e. it's based on our own genetics… so you're to some extent blessed with being born relatively fit, or rather less so. That however does mean that the remaining 50% is in essence entirely up to you!
Recently the New York Times published an interesting piece on the 'single best exercise' - if you could do just one exercise to achieve the best level of personal fitness.. what should it be? Well, if only it were quite that easy! One sports science expert noted: "Ask a dozen physiologists which exercise is best, and you’ll get a dozen wildly divergent replies. “Trying to choose” a single best exercise is “like trying to condense the entire field” of exercise science, said Dr. Martin Gibala, of the kinesiology department at McMaster University in Canada.
Recently, in the debate as to the most time-effective way to improve VO2 max (given a limited amount of time to devote to training, what's the smartest, quickest way to get a boost to your fitness level) attention has turned to efficiency in training.
So, what is the best return on your investment time-wise? Traditionally the thinking was that you needed to go on lengthy runs to make the most improvement, but now the approach of certain experts is more toward high intensity bursts of more demanding exercise (interval training of a high intensity). High-intensity interval training (HIIT - sometimes also referred to as 'HIT') describes physical exercise that is characterized by brief, intermittent bursts of vigorous activity, interspersed by periods of rest or low-intensity exercise. The latest research appears to back up the idea that this exercise can prove especially effective.
Runner's World also published a good article on the concept - 'Train less for better results'. Too good to be true? Well, research does seem to indicate that HIIT has specific benefits. The Guardian also wrote on the discovery by Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh that after just two weeks of HIIT previously sedentary men experienced considerable health gains. Bare in mind, though, that you should be careful when exercising at a high intensity level not to push yourself too far and, as always, be mindful of avoiding injury. Another key finding in sports medicine has been the need to stick with your fitness programme. You should focus then on regular workouts, even if you don’t spend a lot of time exercising. The good news is that the health benefits of participating in an activity, even when short, follow a breathtakingly steep curve, and you'll certainly notice the benefits from a regular commitment to exercise!
Shock horror the 'guide' is wearing walking shoes! That was certainly the reaction a few years ago when I turned up to meet my group of Tour du Mont Blanc hikers with low cut walking shoes. The walking shoes in question were North Face Hedgehogs and five years later I am still guiding wearing 'Hedgehogs'. Certainly, since then it has become more and more common for 'walkers' to be wearing low cut 'shoes' rather than heavy duty walking boots and from my own experience the benefits are clear.
Perhaps the biggest difference you will notice is that the traditional 'ankle support' is absent. My ankles have never been twisted, and they seem to be much stronger since I shunned my walking boots! Don't get me wrong, boots are essential mountain wear, and there is always a pair of boots in my luggage just in case there is snow overnight or the terrain is super rough.
So why wear walking shoes? Well, they are lighter, more comfortable, not so hot in the summer sun, allow me to move faster and let me keep going all day without discomfort. Perhaps the biggest difference is that I can do major ascents and descents day after day during the guiding season without any knee problems. Think about it - our ankles are designed to move from side to side, but with high ankle support they are trapped in position which means our knees have to absorb more of the movement and shock.
A few things to consider -
Hiking shoes usually have thinner soles than walking boots, but with a shoe like the 'Hedgehog' the sole is stiff enough to absorb any rough or sharp rocky terrain. On very hot days my feet do not overheat and on very wet days the Goretex liner keeps them dry. However, I would normally wear a very short gaiter to stop the water running into them. Again I go for 'light' and in fact use trail running gaiters, which are also handy when walking on scree as they stop any small pieces of grit getting into your shoe. For maximum comfort I have indeed guided in Trail Running Shoes such as the Scott eRide Grip. These are great, but the sole is thinner than the Hedgehog and they are best for good paths and trail where the terrain is not mega rocky. Last autumn I wore the eRide while guiding in the Sikkim area of Indian Himalayas.
No one likes to feel like every step is an effort and with hiking shoes you will find you are indeed much lighter on your feet. Shoes are usually about half the weight of leather walking boots and when every day involves thousands of steps then the difference does mount up. Almost all the major walking boot manufacturers now make a 'shoe' for walking. A good page to check which shows a range of shoes available is the one from Merrell.
We've already touched on the heat factor, but what about water. Walking boots definitely win out when it comes to crossing streams! You can usually rock hop across and keep your feet dry. Walking shoes usually mean damp feet if you actually have to put your feet in the water. However, the plus side is that shoes, because they are made of thin synthetic materials do dry quickly, whereas if you do actually get your walking boots saturated then they are going to take a long time to dry out. I have crossed streams ankle deep with my shoes full of water, only to have them dry out in about an hour on a sunny day. In cold snowy weather, then yes, it's once again the boots that win out, though I have crossed snow fields very comfortably in shoes. Some shoes have soles which are tortionally rigid and can cut reasonable steps! Though as stated at the start - I always keep a pair of boots in my overnight bag in case 'winter' arrives overnight. There is a list of top ten hiking boots to be found in The Independent newspaper.
There is no doubt that boots protect your ankles from scrapes and bangs on rough and rocky ground, and I am first to admit that I have on more than one occassion had a bloody ankle! However, I would argue that wearing shoes generally means I am lighter on my feet and take more care about where I step. The side support on boots does protect your ankle from sprains and twists, and offers more protection when crossing wet terrain or streams. The stiffer sole on a boot also protects the sole of your foot, but if you choose your walking shoe carefully you can get a decent enough sole which will work well on a large variety of terrain.
As walking shoes offer less support it's a good idea to get used to them gradually and give your ankles a chance to become stronger before fully committing to a long trip. I did once have a female client, however, who at the end of the first day of the Tour du Mont Blanc decided her knees where too sore from the first big descent to Les Contamines and who popped into a mountain shop and bought a pair of walking shoes and proceeded to wear them for the rest of the trip with zero problems.
Walking shoes may not be for everyone, and if you have weak ankles then boots will definitely give more support. It's a subject which generates plenty of debate, and there are strong supporters of both. All I can say from personal experience is that walking shoes have saved my knees, and hopefully I will be working as a hiking guide for many years to come. NB: my 'boots' are always in my overnight bag - just in case! If you join us on a Tracks and Trails trip you will be asked to bring boots with you in case the weather turns wintry, but we will not object if you wear hiking shoes on the trail.