Walking a Marathon

by Patti Finke, Team Oregon
"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.

Having both walked and run marathons and trained thousands of runners and hundreds of walkers, I know that completion is the most important goal and that walking a marathon is both easier and harder than running a marathon. 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 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 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. I've trained marathoners from their late teens through late 60's. No one is too old to start a fitness program and from fitness to marathoning just takes some common sense. I've trained asthmatics and athletes with both type I and type II diabetes to successfully complete the marathon. If you have the will and your physician's approval, you can do it!

Who should NOT be a marathoner?

I actively discourage children 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 empasize 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. The marathon training schules I 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 footware, adequate and healthy nutrition, fueling during the event, stretching and strengthening and, the all important, psychological preparation. This article is too short to cover all these, but these will be covered in the meeting sessions.

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.
Copyright 1995 by wY'east Consulting and Team Oregon which reserve all rights to republication.