Long Distance Walking & Race Walking : Walking a Marathon!

If you are ambitious, walking a marathon is a great way to push your fitness and walking habits further. You will need to train and schedule your walks to gradually improve your fitness and timing until you are able to complete a marathon within the designated time.

Most training plans for marathon walking start by aiming to walk between 15-20 miles in a single week. This prepares your body to walk long distances semi-frequently and ensures that you are less likely to develop injury or become fatigued as your training program intensifies.

It takes time for the body to adapt to regular exercise, even for walking. The longer and more forgiving your marathon training is the better. If you are someone who is sedentary, try aiming to build up your walking practice over the course of several months before you begin training for a marathon. It just takes that long for your muscles to grow and joints and tendons to adapt.

The better walking programs try to walk between 4-6 days a week. You want to walk regularly and ensure you walk a large amount of miles, but still have a few days of the week where your body gets to relax and recuperate.

You can also stagger your walking and experiment with different paces. For your regular walking it is best to maintain a consistent pace throughout the entire walk – fast enough to challenge yourself, easy enough to stay at for long periods of time.

However you can also add interval walking into your practice, where you alternate between a comfortable natural pace and a fast, brisk walk. This helps build up your recovery from intense periods of exercise and it also helps you acclimatize, psychologically, to harder levels of activity. Try five minutes of walking at a natural pace followed by five minutes of walking at a brisk pace.

You can walk on your recovery days, but your focus should not be on fitness or calorie burn but instead comfortable and gentle walking. You should also use the more relaxed pace of the walk to focus more on the form and technique of your walking whilst you walk.

Additionally, you can also add a long-distance day to your walk. The pace of this walk should be above a comfortable pace, but nor should it be strenuous. Long distance is useful to build up stamina. Gradually over the course of several months you should increase the speed of your long distance walk until you have achieved the walking pace you want to replicate during your marathon.

Also consider adding a cross training session to your walking schedule. A cross training session can be incredibly similar in intensity and calorie burn to your walking session, but it uses different muscles and places less pressure on the joints, bones and tendons. Therefore it is good to slip in between your more intense walking periods as a way to keep your level of activity high but give your body some degree of rest.

To summarize for a 4-6 day schedule of marathon walking try to do the following:

1 day of regular walking

1 day of interval day

1 day of fast walking

1 day of long distance

1 cross training session

1 recovery walk

And, of course, it’s also important to have at least one day where you give your body a complete rest. Finally as the date of the actual marathon arrives, you need to taper off and decrease your level of activity. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it is in fact important for optimal performance. When undergoing a marathon you want your muscles and body to be in peak condition. If you have kept up your exercise program religiously, your muscles will be tired and your energy stores depleted when it comes to the actual marathon. Therefore you need to give yourself a grace period of 1-2 weeks before the marathon where you exercise less intensely and limit yourself to slower and shorter walks.

Long-Distance Walking

In the previous sections of this guide, the emphasis has mostly been directed towards short and moderate walking distances. However many runners enjoy the challenge of huge walking distances – distances so long that they must be walked over days and weeks rather than minutes and hours. This section provides advice and guidance on how to complete these ultra-long walks.

For walking over long distances, consider wearing two or more pairs of socks to help reduce friction. However, your feet must still have room to move. In fact your feet actually expand as you walk, due to blood pressure dilation and continued pressure of the weight of your body, so extra room is essential.

It can also be a good idea to keep spare pairs of socks with you in case you need to change along the walk – keeping your feet dry helps prevent a wide array of problems. Although wearing lighter trainers will tire your legs less, boots can be a better choice for longer walks, especially over unstable ground, to reduce the chances of hurting your ankle.

Psychology and motivation starts to become important for long distance walkers. Segment your long distance walk into chunks that feel more achievable – 1 mile, 5 miles, 10 miles and so on. This can be used for smaller distances too – 10 strides, 100 strides, the next lamppost and so on.

If you start to flag and feel like you can’t continue just focus on the immediate moment – take it literally one step at a time. Reward yourself for the milestones you do complete, allowing yourself to feel a sense of accomplishment for every segment of your walk that you do complete. Try not to think of the challenge before you as realizing that you still have 20 miles or 50 miles before you can be overwhelming. Most of us chronically underestimate our own abilities and will feel like we simply cannot achieve our goal once we start to struggle. Yet ruminating, brooding and worrying won’t improve your internal battle – keep your mind clear and on task.

It can also help to have company, as a little humor to lift your spirits can go a long way. Even if your friends and colleagues lack a flair for comedy, conversation can help keep the mind distracted from the small aches and pains that are bound to arise over such long distances.

Keeping your feet in good condition is vital during a challenging long-distance walk. You must learn how to take preventative measures to prevent small blisters and sores from becoming worse. If you think you are starting to develop a blister for example, you should ensure that you cover the area with a plaster or moleskin, a type of fabric popular among walkers to help reduce friction.

You also need to keep your feet dry at all times. An especially problem among long-distances walkers is trench foot, which is where the feet become white, waxy and crinkled. Essentially trench foot is the same process that occurs when you spend too long in the bathtub and your hands become wrinkly, just in this instance to your feet. This is caused by the feet constantly being wet and it can lead to a lot of damage of the skin and be very uncomfortable.

Apart from keeping your shoes and socks dry, you can also help combat trench foot through Vaseline and water-repellent grease to help keep a protective layer between your shoes and socks, and your skin.

Another good piece of advice is to neatly trim and cut your toenails. Long toenails will continually rub against your shoes and socks and become painful. Your toenail may even break away from the toe altogether, which is very painful and a persistent issue for long distance walkers.

During long walks you need to eat an extraordinary amount of food. Walking is often considered a less-calorie intensive form of exercise compared to most activities, but the opposite is true for long distance walks. For an average person an hour of walking burns approximately 300 calories. Therefore if you walk for an entire day you can easily burn 2000-2500 calories just from walking, without counting any extra calories you need for warmth, carrying weight and basic processes to keep you alive.

Therefore during long walks you need to focus on bringing calorie rich food with you such as dried fruit, isotonic drinks and even the occasional treat, such as chocolate. Furthermore you also need to force yourself to eat, even if you don’t feel like it. During exercise our body diverts energy and attention away from the digestive systems and towards the muscles, with often causes the signals for hunger not to be produced, even if you need the energy. Ultimately if you fail to eat enough, it will catch up with you after a few hours or few days. Favor frequent but smaller meals, which are easier to digest and supply you with a more consistent stream of energy.

In extreme cases people may struggle to stomach food without vomiting, nausea or severe discomfort. If you find this happening to you, try to consume energy rich drinks. Some walkers also find success with weird but easily palatable high-energy foods, such as custard.

You should also be aware of the possibility of hypothermia, especially due to the harsh conditions you may be placing yourself in. If your body is primarily using energy for walking, it may have difficulty producing enough heat to keep you warm. Likewise if you walk during the evening the temperature can drop rapidly and become incredibly cool, even during the summer months.

Therefore you need clothing that is suitable. Your clothes should retain heat both from the wind and but also when they are wet, which tends to limit your choices to wool or thermals. Even if you only feel a slightly chill it is a good idea to wrap another layer on.

For long distance walking it is best to walk at a comfortable pace. If the walking pace you are maintaining is uncomfortable that means you are exerting yourself, which also means you will struggle to maintain that pace over a long period of time.

Race Walking

Race walking is a sporting competition where competitors walk anywhere between 3km to 100km. It is an Olympic sport and has existed almost as long the modern Olympics itself, being first added to the competition in 1908.

Race walking has some interesting rules. Although the sport is called race walking, the winner isn’t always necessarily the fastest contestant. Rather performance is judged by race walking judges who evaluate factors such as speed but also technique. During the race contestants are strictly limited to walking and walking only, with jogging or running in any form leading to penalties. Walking is defined as movement where the back toe cannot leave the ground until the heel of the forward foot has touched the ground.

Another important rule is the supporting leg – the leg with the foot currently touching the floor – must remain touching the floor and straighten whilst the body moves over it, giving race walking a distinctive technique.

To help maintain this technique, race walkers typically keep their arms lower to the ground than conventional walkers, around their hips rather than their torso. This lower positioning of the arms ensures that there is no upward swing or motion causing the feet to leave the ground simultaneously, breaking the rules of race walking technique.

Instead of airborne strides, race walkers use fast and frequent smaller steps as well as pelvic movement that ensure they propel forward at speed. This is achieved by pushing sharply upwards from the ball of the foot.

Race walking can achieve rather impressive speeds for walking. Top race walkers can reach around 4 minutes per kilometer and maintain this distance over a few dozen miles. However this speed requires an extreme degree of fitness and technique – don’t expect to reach this level quickly.

Race walking is a great way to challenge your fitness through walking, especially if you lack the time and resources to commit to long-distance walking challenges. It’s important to emphasize here that race walking is a real and demanding sport; don’t expect it to be easy, even if you are an advanced walker or runner. Many athletes in other sports comment on how hard race walking can be both from a physical and a mental perspective. Race walking requires a constant focus on technique, which requires a deep and persistent attention span.

It also requires openness and a blank slate to walking technique. If you try to start race walking with preconceived notions of how fast you can walk or how far you can go, you will often find yourself much more limited and much slower to progress than you may anticipate. When you start race walking your focus should purely be upon correct technique, which often translates to walking slowly and for limited distances. However once you have proficient techniques you can rapidly upscale increase the duration and length of your walks.

About the author

Dr. Arthur

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