Walking as an Athlete

by Patti Finke, Team Oregon
Do you consider yourself "Just a Walker"? Have you done an organized walking event? Do you have a completion or event goal such as completing a relay or a Marathon? Do you keep a log or have a walking plan? Have you ever timed your walks? Do you know how fast you can walk a mile?

If you answered the first question "Yes" plus can answer any of the other questions "Yes", you are an athlete. Perhaps you don't consider yourself one.

Walking has been around for years as an activity; hiking and backpacking were common in the 60"s and 70's. Then came the "running boom" with a lot of "no pain, no gain" mentality. Walkers went into hiding and didn't emerge again until the late 80"s when the benefits of lower intensity exercise were valued. Race walking has been around as a sport for a long time as well; but race walkers with their strange gait were considered "weird" and no one wanted to be seen on the street walking like that.

When I started doing walking clinics in the middle 80"s, I, like everyone else, thought that walking was only for fun and fitness and the activity of the noncompetitive. As I began to walk more myself, to participate in walking events, to train by walking, and to work with more and more walkers; I made some realizations. Most walkers kept track of how far and how fast they were walking; they wanted to walk faster and more efficiently; they wanted to participate in events and had competitive thoughts in those events; and they wanted to prevent the injuries they were getting. I saw that fast walking or "striding" was a motor skill that was much harder to do than running. Yes, walking can be a sport and walkers can be athletes.

Making walking a timed sport has a number of problems for event organizers. Many of these problems occur in current racewalking events and are hard to police. Race walking skills are very close to jogging and there are definite rules about form and there are course monitors. In running races people can and do cheat, but when their form changes to walking their times become slower. In a walking event, jogging or running usually makes you faster which cheats those who strictly walk. However, this is not an article about the problems of the sport, but one on becoming an athlete.

What is the difference between an athlete and a fitness walker? Their state of mind and their goals. To be fit is a wonderful goal and certainly one worth gaining and maintaining. To be an athlete is to take one step up psychologically ; to have goals that result in needing the body to change and adapt to complete the goals.

Athletes need to TRAIN to achieve their goals. Training is the method or approach to walking that makes the body adapt to do whatever you want it to. The principles of training are the same for every sport, only the applications are different. The first principle of training is overload. You must stress the body to make the body need to adapt. For the adaptation to take place, you need to follow the overload with a period of rest and rebuilding. The second principle of training is specificity. You cannot learn to walk faster or more efficiently by swimming or cycling. You must do the specific exercise needed to make the specific changes desired. Specificity is especially important for certain events; ie. endurance and long walk of up to 20 miles are important for the marathon; hill workouts for hilly courses; trail walking for some volksmarches.

The "Hard/Easy" system of training which is the practical application of overload/rest work as well for walking as it does for every other sport. The most common mistake made by beginners in every sport is to go the same distance, the same route every day. This results in no overload and is followed by no rest. The following table shows some ways to do Hard/Easy when walking:

          EASY                               HARD

     no walking/alternative activity    walking
     walking slower                     walking faster
     walking shorter distance           walking longer
     walking on flat terrain            walking on hills/ trails
Applications of the Hard/Easy Plan can be based on mileage or time. Most athletes think that the hard days are the most important. To allow the body to benefit from the hard days, the easy days when the rebuilding occurs are often the most valuable.

Long Walk : this is done to gain endurance, is always done at an easy pace, is considered the hardest walk of the week and should be 30% of the week's mileage or time.

Hard Days : 2 more hard days can be done during the week, when based on mileage should be about 20% of the week's mileage or time; when faster or on more difficult terrain may be the same distance as the easy days.

Experience both personal and that gained from coaching others has shown that 3 total hard days seems to be the max for most athletes. Those trying to get away with more often are injured or sick.

Easy Days : 2 of these easy days should usually follow the long day, each hard day should be followed by an easy day. Any of the alternatives listed above can be done on easy days. The mileage or time of these walks should be 10% or less of the weekly average. Easy days are always done at an easy pace. The starting fitness level of the walker is usually the determinant of how many days a week walking can and should be done. It takes about 6 weeks to make the beginning changes in the heart and lungs to make walking easier. the more complex muscle and connective tissue take much longer. Overdoing with walking leads to injury as in every other sport.

Some sample training weeks are shown:

Sunday    Long walk      6mi       90 min    6mi @ 15 min pace
Monday    Easy           0         0         0
Tuesday   Easy           2mi       30 min    3 mi @ 15 min pace
Wednesday Hard           4 mi      60 min    3 mi on hills
Thursday  Easy           2 mi      30 min    3 mi @ 15 min pace
Friday    Hard           4 mi      60 min    3 mi @ 13 min pace
Saturday  Easy           0         0         0
The hard/easy system has both physical and psychological benefits. Staying motivated is often the toughest part of any training program. Having some days when you get to work hard and some days when you get to rest make it easier to get out the door. We all need days when we can enjoy the scenery and smelling the flowers.

How can you judge how fast to walk or what are hard and easy paces ? We can work with perceived exertion and heart rates to help get clues. Easy pace walk should be done between 60 - 75% of heart rate maximum. Calculate and estimated heart rate max by subtracting your age from 220 and the multiplying by .6 and .75 for easy pace walks. Multiply the max by .75 to .85 for hard pace walks. Those of you doing shorter distance competitive events will find heart rates from 80-90% during the events. When you are walking in the target pulse ranges, check your breathing and your feelings of how hard you're working to learn the perceived exertion of easy and hard paces.

Each workout should contain a warm up and cool down phase. This counts for time or distance of your exercise. For walking, a 5-10 minute stroll before and after the regular pace walking works for both warm up and cool down. Stretching is not a warm up exercise and should not be done until after the muscle are warmed up. Tight muscles can be stretched after the warm up, the best flexibility exercises are done after the cool down period. All athlete should be stretching and we recommend a 10 -15 minute stretching period everyday either after the walk or in the evening.

PS for fitness walkers : the hard easy system works very well to achieve and maintain fitness goals for the same reasons as listed above.

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