“So, you want to walk a marathon?”
Ever hear “anybody could walk a marathon, what’s the big deal”? This statement is usually voiced by an individual who has probably never walked more than a mile or two. Almost anyone can complete a marathon, but it takes some hard work to get there. So, completing the event is a big deal. Those of us who’ve walked or run marathons have a great deal of respect for those who completed a marathon and for the marathon distance.
Walking a marathon is both easier and harder than running a marathon, with completion being the most important goal. The amount of distance training per week is somewhat less than for running and the intensity level is quite a bit less. But, as a marathon walker, you will be on your feet and moving for a much longer time than the typical marathon runner. The bottom line is that walking marathon training is necessary and needs to fulfill the basic and specific needs for the marathon distance.
Who can be a marathoner?
Marathoners come in all shapes and sizes. Some marathoners are stick people, but most are just normal folks and some are decidedly overweight. Some people lose lots of weight while training, some lose a little, some gain weight by gaining muscle mass, some make changes in their shapes; all make major changes in their ability to complete a goal and feel good about themselves. Marathoners come in all ages. No one is too old to start a fitness program and from fitness to marathoning just takes some common sense. Asthmatics and athletes with both type I and type II diabetes have successfully been able to complete a marathon. If you have the will and your physician’s approval, you can do it!
Who should NOT be a marathoner?
Children should be discouraged from participating in marathon events. The training and the distance is too much for the growing body and mind. Participation in a severe calorie restricted diet program is another contraindication to marathoning. The demands of the training and the event could lead to major health and nutritional risks. Pregnant women should check with their doctors before considering the level of training necessary for the marathon.
How do I get there?
The training program for a marathon needs to focus on three major factors: endurance, rest and pace or skill training. If you are going to walk 26 miles, you will be on your feet somewhere between 5 1/2 hours to over eight hours. That’s a long time to be up and moving, Training should emphasize some long walks that approximate the time you plan to be out there on marathon day. You increase endurance by increasing miles. As the distance increases, the pace should decrease. A decrease of 5% in intensity doubles the distance you’re able to cover.
I have found that the most comfortable marathon walkers have completed from one to four 20 mile walks at a pace 1 – 2 minutes per mile slower than their marathon pace. The major adaptation made by this kind of training is utilization of all of the energy systems. During the marathon, the body uses carbohydrates and fats for fuel to cover the distance. The expression “hitting the wall” comes from the body’s inability to utilize its vast reserves of stored fat because of exhaustion of the available carbos. This happens for several reasons such as incorrect training practices and starting out too fast. Long slow distance training helps the body make the physiologic changes necessary to utilize the fat burning system for energy.
Rest or recovery is an important part of training. A part of increasing endurance is to arrange your training schedule to allow you to recover from and adapt to these 20 mile walks. A good training schedule alternates hard days with easy days and hard weeks with easy weeks to allow recovery from and adaptation to the longer walks. Many athletes seem to feel if a little is good, more is better. More may not be better, if the body is tired, sick or injured or the psyche is burned out from too much training. The marathon training schedules here suggest alternate shorter and longer days during the week and alternate 16 and 20 mile long walks.
The third key to a successful marathon is some work at the walking pace you want to maintain for the 26 miles. Walking is a motor skill, especially as the pace increases. Motor skills need practice to develop and maintain. I have walkers do pace walks for the last 6 to 10 weeks before the marathon of two to six miles at their projected marathon pace.
There are other factors involved in training including injury prevention techniques, how to pick the proper footwear, adequate and healthy nutrition, fueling during the event, stretching and strengthening and, the all important, psychological preparation.
When do you need to start?
There’s no time like the present. The average fitness walker who walks 30 – 60 minutes several times per week and does an occasional volksmarch could complete a marathon with 3 – 4 months of training.
So, you are ready to challenge the marathon! Why is the marathon so appealing and yet so scary? All marathons are 26.2 mile or 42 kilometers; that’s a long way to walk and you’ll be on your feet a lot longer than ever before. It’s a great challenge and if you accomplish it, you’ll know why so many marathoners think they are invincible. There is nothing like the feeling of accomplishment one gets from finishing their first marathon.
What are the secrets for successful walking marathon training? Training is about change; the change you want to make is for your body to be able to go 26.2 miles. So first, you need to try to get your body to adapt to long distances. You do that by a gradual system of overload. Overload is the principle of training that is gradually applying greater stresses to the body to allow it to adapt to achieve your goal. In this case, the goal is to get your body to be used to being on your feet for about the same period of time it will take to walk the marathon. If you look at the training programs shown, note that the adaptation is slow. I have found that walkers can add about 10% per week to their mileage and stay healthy. For the adaptation to be successful; it needs to be followed by a rest or recovery period for the body to make the changes. The schedule follows what is called the hard/easy system of training. This system is used by athletes in almost every sport to get the maximum training gain with the least risk.
What are the risks of training for a marathon? For both runners and walkers there is high potential for injury with the event, not the particular sport. The injuries are both physical and psychological. The hard/easy system helps keep the body and the head from overdoing it by allowing adequate rest between hard workouts. Good shoes are another prerequisite for a healthy walker. Most of my marathon walkers are training in running shoes because the technology tends to be better for the biomechanics of longer distance walking. The program needs to include some stretching and other strengthening (weights) as well.
The schedules shown here are for a fairly short period (3 months). They assume most walkers have an adequate mileage base of at least 20 miles a week and have been walking regularly for at least 6 months. There are three sets based on the current fitness level of the participant. The beginner schedule assumes that the walker is doing a couple of days of other exercise as well as the walking. This brings us to the second principle of training, specificity. This means that to walk a long distance you need to train by walking long distances. You cannot swim for hours and hope to walk a marathon; you need to train specific muscle and physiological fitness. You will walk a faster and more comfortable marathon if you can walk at least 5 days per week. Some bodies and heads will not allow that and need to do other forms of exercise such as cycling or aerobics a couple of days per week.
One of the most important changes you need to make is for the body to be able to have enough fuel to cover the distance. Whether you walk or run, it takes about 2600 calories to finish the marathon. Calories come from two major sources carbohydrates and fats. Your body can store about 2400 – 2500 calories of carbohydrates with the liver, blood and muscle storage sites. It can only utilize 40 – 60 % of those, leaving an energy deficit if carbohydrates were the only source of fuel. The good news is that everyone has adequate fat stores to fuel for distances far beyond the marathon. (I’m certain you can locate those stores in your own body). The trick is for the body to be able to access those stores and to be able to continue to use them throughout the marathon. For fat to be burned for fuel, there needs to be carbohydrates available as well. I’m certain you’ve heard the expression “hitting the wall”. The “wall” happens when the body burns off its available carbohydrates and cannot use the fats with the consequence that pace slows dramatically as pain increases. The “wall” can be prevented by training the body to do 2 things: store more carbo’s and utilize more fat. Those are both gained by long slow walking.
What does slow mean in terms of training? Resist the current temptation to do every walk at marathon pace. The body skips the physiologic steps needed to learn the fat burning and the “wall” will spring up during the marathon somewhere after about 18 miles. The long walks should be 1 – 2 minutes per mile slower than the projected marathon pace. How do you find your projected marathon pace? From tests of walkers in the marathon clinics, we have found you can make a prediction from a timed one mile walk test. Warm up, walk an accurately measured mile (ie: on a track), check your heart rate at the end. Most of the clinic walkers completed the marathon 2 minutes per mile slower than the test. Those that trained 1 – 2 minutes per mile slower than that on their long walks felt much better both on their long walks and during the marathon.
How do you go from slow to marathon pace? The T’s listed on the schedule are tempo walks or walks at projected marathon pace. These are important so that you know exactly how marathon pace feels and can start out there. You need to not get carried away at the start and go out too fast. The walks need to be at marathon pace not faster. You can all walk paces faster than the one your marathon will be; so speed is not an issue in training. You need to be efficient and practice the pace that will take you 26 miles. The magic of motor learning is that you only need to do a little to get it.
Notice that last couple of weeks show a period of rest before the marathon. That is called taper and is important so that you are rested and recharged for the marathon. The last part of the taper is carbohydrate loading to make certain the muscles are filled with the highest possible amount of carbohydrate. Some rest is needed to allow that to happen.
Walking Marathon Training Schedules
(distances in miles)
(nT) = Tempo walks where n = equals number of miles walked at marathon pace.
Example 8 (4T) = 2 mile warm up, 4 miles at marathon pace, 2 mile cool down
All others walk from 1-2 minutes per mile slower than marathon pace.