What Every Exercise-hater Must Know About Marathon Walking

The word marathon is meant to inspire terror. It’s a 26.2 mile run that takes even super athletes hours to complete. You can’t just sign up and do a marathon. You have to train rigorously to even have a hope of finishing. So why do some people think this is fun?

Yet a growing movement is occurring around the world that allows more and more people the opportunity to participate in marathons and other races by walking and not running. Walking is a much lower stress activity than running or even jogging.

Walking marathons allows for people of all ages, particularly older people, to enjoy the health benefits of marathon training.

And mile for mile, walking burns the same calories as running. So why don’t more people walk marathons?

First, not all marathons are open to walkers and some permit walkers but do not officially encourage them. Marathons that invite walkers are sometimes advertised as “walker friendly.” (Not all of them are!)

The biggest concern for marathon walkers who participate in official races is how long the track is open. A top runner completes a marathon in slightly over two hours. Most reasonably good athletes can do a marathon in four hours. Even slower runners can complete a marathon in five or six hours. (A six-hour marathon time means the runner ran 13 minute miles … not exactly a super-fast time!) However, walkers need six to eight hours to complete a marathon. Walking consistent 15-minute miles, it would take a little over six-and-a-half hours to walk a marathon. Factor in some bathroom breaks, inconsistent performance, or slower walking times and you end up with marathon walkers who turn in times of seven or eight hours.

Most marathons keep the track open six hours. After that, they begin to “sweep” or start at the beginning of the track and pick up stragglers, the injured, and the clean up the mess at water stations.

While walkers can dodge the sweepers for a while, eventually the walkers will be compelled to leave the track and the marathon unfinished.

The Los Angeles Marathon is known for being super-friendly to walkers because the track is open long enough for even slow walkers to complete the race before getting “swept up.”

In some ways, walkers face the same training challenges as runners. It takes consistent training over a period of many months to build up the stamina and technique required to go 26.2 miles at once.

Training programs for walkers tend to be sporadic and are not always offered in groups training to enter a marathon. When walking programs are available, there may be only a few participants and no real experts at walking technique.

Marathon walkers also face their own unique challenges. Although a very fast elite walker can actually out-pace a slow runner, most walkers are on the track and exercising longer than the runners. That means they need to allow extra time, extra hydration and even some food. It is not unusual for marathon walkers to bring along packets of bars, gels, or liquids to take in along the way. Bathroom breaks are also more necessary during a six or seven hour period of exercise than for those who can do the course in much shorter times.

The best training program for walkers involves consistent training over a period of about six months or more before the race.

Every week, the walker should go out four times in “maintenance walks” that start out at 30 minutes and gradually extend to full hours. Once a week, there should be a “long walk.” This can start out at 15 or 30 minutes; the walker should add 15 minutes more each week until the walk is about 1 hour and 45 minutes long.

During these initial weeks, walkers should learn good form and technique and only concentrate on time, not speed or distance. Obviously, it’s a good idea to gradually try to improve speed, but the main focus is doing the time.

After 1 hour and 45 minutes, it’s time to switch over to distance. At this point, long walks are measured in miles, starting with 6 miles and adding a mile a week until the walks get up to 10 or 11 miles.

At this point, marathon walkers should defer to training manuals for marathon runners. A very crucial skill that marathoners must learn is how to add six more miles to the distance. This means one week the long walk is 10 miles, the next week it’s 16. The following week it’s back to 10, then the next week to 11, and then it’s 17 miles.

This pattern is important, because it drills into the marathoner a very important confidence and ability: the ability to go six more miles, no matter what.

Once the long walk hits 20 miles, that’s an important marker in training. No long walk during training should ever exceed 20 miles. However, before taking on a race, a marathon walker should have done at least three long walks of 20 miles.

A few weeks before the actual race, training ramps down. Walks get shorter. While the walker maintains a consistent schedule of four hour-long, fairly fast maintenance walks a week, the “long walks” dwindle down to a mere 10 or 12 miles.

On race day, the newbie marathon walker faces his or her first 26.2 mile walk. But he or she has learned two vital skills: the ability to go 20 miles with confidence and the ability to be able to go six more miles no matter what. The last 0.2 miles that makes up the marathon is run on adrenalin and crowd noise. To be able to participate in a marathon, a training schedule should be set up to map onto race day. Once a marathon walker is fully in training, he or she can easily modify the schedule to accommodate other races during the year. In fact, many people get so addicted to marathon walking that they do four, five or more races a year.

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