While the GR20 gets a lot of hype for its spectacular beauty (and it doesn’t disappoint), it’s perhaps even better known for earning the title of being the “toughest trek in Europe.” There is no doubt that hiking the GR20 is an exceptionally challenging endeavor, but it’s not one that is reserved only for the superhuman elites. Nearly any healthy hiker with a decent fitness base can successfully complete the GR20, given they are willing to put in the work to get physically prepared.
Let’s be really clear about this: the GR20 is not a trek that you should attempt without proper training and preparation.
Trying to “wing it” on the GR20 will set you up for a miserable and potentially unsafe experience. On the other hand, put in the work ahead of time and you’ll have an exponentially more enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Here’s a few reasons why that’s true:
- You’ll be able to focus on the beauty of your surroundings instead of the pain and fatigue in your body.
- You’ll eliminate the unnecessary stress of falling behind schedule due to spending longer-than-anticipated days on the trail.
- By taking the time to prepare in advance, you’ll enjoy the anticipation of your upcoming trip and completing your trek will be immensely more rewarding.
- You’ll improve your fitness and health by working towards a goal that is exciting and meaningful.
So keep reading to learn how to train for the GR20, and then get started! Your future self will thank you.
What’s in this post?
How difficult is the GR20?
There’s no doubt about it- the GR20 is a challenging trek. Some of the major factors that contribute to its difficulty are the large amount of scrambling, steep ascents and descents, overall distance, heat and weather, and exposed nature of the trail. We believe that most reasonably fit people can complete the GR20, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should. You’re much, much more likely to actually enjoy it if you are in good hiking shape and have backpacking experience. Most of the scrambling is pretty manageable; it is just tricky and awkward at times and can become tiring after you’ve been at it for awhile. If you are judicious about avoiding storms and careful on exposed sections, it really isn’t much more dangerous than other hikes.
For an in-depth look at the various challenges of the GR20, be sure to check out this post.
I don’t live near mountains…Will I be able to get fit enough?
Okay, so hopefully the first section of this post convinced you that yes you CAN complete the GR20, but also that you really, really should take our advice and train ahead of time. However, if you’re like many people who aspire to trek the GR20, you don’t have trails in your backyard on which to complete said training. If that’s your situation, don’t despair. We’ve known plenty of people who’ve become incredibly strong hikers without the benefit of mountain training. Here are some ideas for flatlanders:
- Use the stairclimber machine at your local gym. Go slow, as this
torture devicemachine definitely induces greater perceived exertion than most sections of the GR20.
- Walk or run up and down the stairs at a nearby high school stadium or similar venue.
- Get on a treadmill and walk at a brisk pace. Play around with setting the incline to a variety of levels, ranging from 5-12%.
- Many bridges make excellent artificial hills. Make sure the one you choose has a safe pedestrian area and then walk back and forth across that sucker a bunch of times. Sure, it’s not the most exciting option, but consider it an opportunity to build both physical strength and mental fortitude.
As much as possible, complete the above activities while wearing a weighted pack similar to the one you plan on hiking with. Commit to one or more of these moves and you might be shocked at the high level of hiking fitness you can build without ever leaving sea level.
Adapting the GR20 for Varying Ability Levels
Unfortunately, the GR20 is not the friendliest trek in terms of accessibility and adaptations. Most sections that don’t allow for shortcuts or detours and the ones that do exist can be less than perfect. That being said, it is still possible to complete significant portions of the hike, even if you’re not able to do the whole thing. If your training doesn’t go as planned due to injury, illness, or the realities of life that inevitably creep in from time to time, there are ways to reduce the level of challenge on the trek. Here are a few suggestions:
- If possible, consider adding an extra day or cutting out a segment to reduce the average distance you’ll need to cover each day.
- Use a luggage transfer service to eliminate the extra demands of carrying your heavy pack (note that these do not service all stops along the GR20 and require you to take a different route at times)
- Plan for a rest day midway through your hike. Vizzavona is the best option. See our logistics article for more information about luggage transfers, rest days, and detour options.
- Enlist a few friends or family members to come with you and rent a car. You can alternate between hiking and driving the support vehicle to customize the amount of time spent on your feet. Plus, you’ll still be able to enjoy much of the same spectacular Corsican scenery from the road.
- Plan to only complete the GR20 Sud. While still plenty challenging, the southern half of the GR20 is generally less strenuous and closer to civilization than the GR20 Nord
Basic GR20 Training Plan
Six Months Before Your GR20 Trek: Build Your Endurance Base
You should be prepared to spend many long days on the trail while hiking the GR20. Most walkers complete their trek in 13-16 days, meaning they’ll need to average around 11 kilometres (7 miles) per day. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, remember that it is slow and tiring to move across much of the terrain encountered on this trek. To prepare for extended periods of hiking, you should try to build a solid foundation of aerobic endurance. So what does that actually mean? Simply put, your body needs to be accustomed to sustaining low(ish)-intensity exercise for longer than an hour.
Like a lot of training, the best way to get your body used to moving for a long time is -you guessed it- to regularly move for extended periods of time. You can achieve this in a lot of different ways, but the important factor is that you’re frequently and consistently doing cardio exercise. Aerobic activity (AKA “cardio”) includes things like jogging, cycling, walking, swimming, using the elliptical machine, or anything else that requires moderate, sustained exertion (your heart rate should be elevated, but you should be able to maintain a conversation and keep up the activity for at least 30 minutes).
Starting six months prior to your GR20 trek, aim to complete 30-60 minutes of aerobic activity 3-5 times per week. If your fitness regimen already includes this kind of thing, just keep on keeping on!
Three Months Before Your GR20 Trek: Build Your Strength
In order to feel great throughout your trip and avoid injury and burnout, you’ll need the endurance base you started building in the previous training phase, plus ample leg strength. Ideally, at this point in your training you should begin to increase the frequency and intensity of your hiking. Your main goal is to continue to build your aerobic endurance while also training your leg muscles for long-distance hiking. If you can’t hit the trails, you can achieve similar results by doing anything that involves incline; bike uphill, set a treadmill to high incline (4-12% grade), or spend some time on the step machine at your gym. Heck, you could even walk the stairs at the local high school stadium if you wanted to.
Additionally, now is the time to start incorporating a leg strengthening routine into your weekly training. Many hikers neglect strength training for any number of reasons; they don’t think they need it, they don’t know how, they don’t have time, or they just find it boring (this last one is the favorite excuse of yours truly!) However, strength training plays a huge role in giving you the power needed to tackle hard climbs, build stability, stay light on your feet, and prevent injury. You don’t need to spend a ton of time in the gym to get results, either. Even just a few minutes a week in the comfort of your home can make a world of difference.
Everyone’s fitness goals are different, but we generally recommend completing the following short workout 2-3 times per week to build GR20-ready legs:
- 10 goblet squats (with medium weight)
- 10 lunges on each leg (add weight or jumps to increase the challenge)
- 10 step-ups on each leg (weights optional)
Complete three sets of each exercise. For extra credit, try to incorporate some core strengthening exercises (such as planks) into your routine.
Two Months Before Your GR20 Trek: Put on Your Pack
Remember all of that brand new gear sitting in your closet? Now is the time to break it in! In the eight weeks or so before your trip, try to get in as many longer hikes (or walks) with your gear as possible. Think of it as a “dress rehearsal” for your trek. The benefits of breaking in your gear at this point are twofold. First, you’ll be able to test your boots, backpack, socks, and so on to ensure that they fit well during longer hikes. Second, you’ll begin training your body to hike while wearing a heavy backpack. If you’re new to backpacking, you’ll be surprised by how much more challenging it is to hike with the extra weight. This is especially true when it comes to navigating the awkward scrambles that are plentiful on the GR20.
Even if you’ve been strength training, chances are you’ll be using new muscles when hiking with a backpack. The best way to condition your body? Hiking as much as possible with that heavy backpack! In the two months before your GR20 trek, try to complete at least one challenging hike every week while wearing your pack. Your backpack should mirror the weight you intend to carry on your GR20 hike, including food and water. Ideally, you should work up to hikes that are 15-18 kilometres (5-10 miles) long with 500 meters (1,500 feet) of elevation gain. If that’s not possible, try to complete a weekly long walk (5-10 miles) while wearing your pack and with as many hills as possible (see the previous section for more ideas on this). As an added bonus, these hikes/walks are a great opportunity to start breaking in new hiking boots and other gear.
Important Reminder: During this training phase, you should keep up your aerobic and strength training from the previous sections, simply replacing one of your weekly aerobic workouts with a long hike.
One Month Before Your GR20 Trek: Time for a Test Run (Hike)
This stage in your training is awesome because it requires you to take a vacation (you’re welcome). If at all possible, try to take a 1-2 night backpacking trip in your local woods. If you aren’t planning on camping along the GR20, you don’t need to take an overnight trip, but you should still try to fit in two back-to-back days of long, hard hiking.
This important step allows you to try out different ways of packing your backpack for maximum fit and comfort, practice setting up camp, and get your body used to hiking consecutive days in a row. It will also give you the chance to see what items you packed that you don’t need, and what you may have forgotten.
Keep up your established aerobic and strength training until 10 days to one week before the hike. In the last week before your trip, continue doing some light cardio and strength, but take extra rest days and don’t do any big, challenging hikes so your body is fresh for your upcoming adventure. Upon arriving in Corsica, try to give yourself a day or two to rest and acclimate before starting your trek. Finally, pat yourself on the back and take pride in showing up to your GR20 trek fit, prepared, and the best version of yourself!
Disclaimer: This training plan is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor is it a replacement for seeking medical treatment or professional nutrition advice. Do not start any nutrition or physical activity program without first consulting your physician.
Ready to keep planning your GR20 adventure?
- The Ultimate Guide to the GR20: The quintessential resource!
- GR20 Packing List: Make sure you’ve got everything you need!
- How Much it Cost Us to Hike the GR20: A helpful and detailed budgeting resource.
- GR20 Maps: Custom maps and elevation profiles to ensure you’re prepared for your trek.
- The GR20: How Difficult Is It?
- Trip Report: The GR20 Nord-An honest account of our experiences on the notorious northern half of the GR20.
- Trip Report: The GR20 Sud-Know what to expect on the southern section of your trek.
- The GR20: How Difficult Is It? Find out if it’s right for you.
- 10 Essentials for the GR20: The very best advice!