Training to walk for ultra, trail and mountain running

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You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?

On occasion when talking to a runner or coaching client, I have asked the question, ‘what would you consider is a successful outcome from your next race?’

I have been and always am still gobsmacked when I hear the reply, ‘I want to run all of it… I don’t want to walk!’

Does that mean that they would be happy not finishing providing that they ran all the way to the DNF?

Walking is often perceived as a weakness, yes, even a failure. However, if you are going to run longer, on challenging terrain and/or on multi-days, walking is an absolute essential part of a successful plan.

For many though, walking is not practiced or anticipated. Therefore, when walking starts in a race, it becomes a negative. The head drops, the shoulders hunch and instead of striding out and making a good pace, the runner (now walker) becomes a shuffler; not good!

Lets face it, even the elite runners know when it’s time to transition from running to walking. Watch them! Admittedly, this may well come on technical or hilly terrain but the purpose and speed that they cover ground does not come by accident, this is something that they have worked on in training. Hands move to the knees (when applicable) and they hunch over and power up a climb. In many scenarios, they move considerably quicker than those who try to remain in a jog.

“Everyone has an opinion on this, and there is no ‘right’ answer. However, believing that walking in a marathon is not a ‘real’ marathon means when Bill Rodgers won the 1975 Boston marathon in 2:09:55, it was not a ‘real’ marathon as he stopped five times. That does not make sense to me. The goal of the race is to complete the distance as fast as possible. If it is faster to walk/run than to run, that is the optimum strategy. If the race has a long enough cut off to allow walking the whole race, then the walkers are fulfilling the rules of the race and are just as valid.”

– ©fellrnr

If you are experienced in ultra or long distance running, I am sure you are already aware of the benefits of a good walking plan/ strategy. However, we can all learn something new, so please read on.

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Why walk?

The longer you go, the more chance of walking increases. Equally, the higher you go or the more technical the terrain, the chances of walking increases. So, practice. There is a difference between walking on the flat and walking uphill, so first and foremost be specific. If you are heading to UTMB for example, work on climbing up hill and maximising pace and effort. By contrast, if you are doing a relatively flat 100-mile race, think about the terrain and walk in a way that replicates this. Mix walking and running.

I made the mistake in my first ultra, I had done no walking in training, of course in the race I eventually had no option but to walk. I was hopeless. I shuffled along feeling dejected and hopeless. In addition, my muscles, legs and feet didn’t like the change; they argued with me! Walking uses different muscles and therefore you need to train them.

“This might be a difficult concept to grasp, but yes – learning to walk during long runs is not only okay in ultra-marathon training, but also recommended (at least for those new to ultra-marathons). A lot of ultra-marathons take place over mountainous and technical terrain, at times forcing runners to slow to a walk in order to safely move forward. Alternatively, ultra-runners tend to take frequent walk breaks anyway, due to sheer exhaustion. It’s necessary therefore to train your body to recover quickly from walk breaks by comfortably transitioning back to running. The best way to do this is to practice on your long runs.” – ©breakingmuscle.com

Climbing

 

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When the terrain steepens, the effort required to run increases along with heart rate and fatigue. You will burn energy, become exhausted and eventually grind to a halt if you try to push on. Walking or stopping is then the only option. However, if you go into a race knowing full well that you have trained your body and mind for the task ahead, the process will become a positive one. Think about technique:

  1. Hands-on-knees: This may not be the prettiest to look at but it is effective and it is a technique you will see in many mountain races such as Skyrunning. The technique is simple; you lower your centre of gravity by crouching over, you put your hands on your knees which helps in the push phase and then you take small controlled steps with a higher cadence.
  2. Folded hands behind the back: You may well see this technique on long gradual climbs where it is possible to get into a rhythmn. Basically your left hand (or right) sits in the other hand at the base of your back. This feels particularly comfortable if wearing a pack.
  3. Poles: Poles were considered by many to be ‘cheating stick’ but slowly but surely they have become more and more popular. To use them is a little like 4-wheel drive. You need to practice with them and find the technique, once you have, you will love the process. Be careful though, in some races they are not allowed.

Pacing is critical and this will depend on the individual, fitness levels, ability to tolerate discomfort, length of the climb and importantly the length of the race. Consistency is key and you should be looking for an equal effort for the duration with as few peaks and troughs as possible. Of course, if the gradient changes, your pace and stride should adjust accordingly; steeper equals slower, flatter equals faster.

In training you may very well be restricted with the length of climbs available to train on, so, you will need to do repeats. This is standard in a good training plan. However, if you are heading to a pure mountain race with long climbs that may well last a hour or more, try to be specific and plan some specific weekends away training on like-for-like terrain.

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“I was about 2.5 miles in to my first 50k when we hit the first major hill. Before the runners ahead of me took more than 3 steps up the hill, they all started walking. I couldn’t believe it. Walking? Just over two miles into a race? I zoomed right past them and ran up the hill. Take that, slow pokes. It didn’t take more than 10 miles to realise that walking, or hiking, during an ultramarathon is a big part of any proper pacing strategy. And my strategy was terrible. Walking is often more efficient than running up steep inclines, so runners power hike up those hills to save energy for the rest of the race. When all those runners I passed at mile 2.5 flew past me further into the race, I know I had made a mistake.” – ©nomeatathlete

Focus

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The mind is a really important weapon when running. Arguably, many say it is the most important weapon when running long. Train it and get it prepared for the challenge. Walking can be perceived as a negative; no, make it a positive.

For example, find a hill that say is 1-mile long and then walk up it relaxed and casual making sure you time yourself.

Now repeat that 1-mile rep but focus on cadence, effort and being consistent over the distance. Compare the times.

It will be self explanatory. Focused walking is considerably quicker. You want to repeat this when racing and therefore you must train for this.

Strategy

Many incorporate a fixed walking strategy when racing and others allow for a more organic approach. For me a couple of key factors are important:

  1. The terrain.
  2. Are you racing or are you completing?

The terrain will dictate your walking strategy, so, for example if you are taking part in a flat 100-mile race you could (from the start) run 20-minutes and walk 10-minutes. This may well be something that you can sustain for the whole event. If your are running an undulating race you may well incorporate a 20/10 strategy but  then walk all the climbs and run all the downhills.

What is key is understanding who you are as a runner/ walker and then coming up with a strategy that works for you.

If you are racing, you obviously want to walk as little as possible. So understand your strengths and weaknesses and make walking fast and powerful and consider a strategy that will allow you to loose as little time as possible.

Technical walking

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Sometimes you are forced to walk not through fatigue but because the terrain is so technical that you cannot run. Again, this all comes down to practice, practice and practice. Be specific, find challenging terrain and then learn how to get across it is fast and as efficiently as possible. Importantly learn how to incorporate jogging or running with the walking to maintain a faster pace.

Indoor training

A gym or indoor training provides some great opportunities to work on many aspects that will make you a stronger and faster walker:

  1. Treadmill: This is a no brainer, use a treadmill at specific speeds to teach you to cover ground faster and more efficiently.
  2. Vertical Treadmill: Some gyms have treadmills that will go to a 30% incline. These are brilliant for practicing technique and gaining prolonged sessions at a steep gradient.
  3. Stepper: Stepper or stair machines can be used for strength and technique.
  4. Core Stability: An important element, don’t neglect it.
  5. Weights: A well structured strength training plan will make you more efficient and more endurant.

Conclusion

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Walking is a key element of ultra and mountain running. Train yourself to become efficient.

Ultimately be specific and understand what type of walking you need to work on. If you are unsure, work on all the elements; after all at some point you are going to encounter flat, hilly or technical terrain.

Enjoy the process.

“My take away from the countless hours of reading scientific studies is that power hiking or walking are ways to effectively conserve energy and delay muscle fatigue during ultra marathons and, in some cases, can net a faster ultra marathon. If running the first 50 miles of a 100 miler in 11 hours reduces to you walking 20 minute miles for the last 50 you’ll finish in 27.5 hours. But if you power hike at 3.75 mph (16 minute pace) you would finish in 26.5 hours.” – ©MKREUZER

Read the follow on articles HERE and HERE

Fancy using poles? Here are my two favourites. In particular, the new Black Diamond poles are adjustable in height in addition to folding.

Black Diamond (HERE)

112176_CARB_DistanceCarbonFLZ_Open_web

Leki (HERE)

Leki

References

18 thoughts on “Training to walk for ultra, trail and mountain running

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  2. TY for bringing this up, walking is a critical piece to Ultra running especially for those of us trying to finish. My first Ultra: the American River 50 I paid the consequences for the not incorporating walking into my training. The irony is my coach included one day a week (Monday) to train on walking. I blew off Mondays or walked as fast as I could on flat terrain when I actually bothered. So the first hill I hit I was all over the place, sloppy technique and highly inefficient. I learned my lesson and now do a walk workout at least once a week. Additionally all my longs runs include sustained climbs which I hike. Ive tried to run up some of the hills but frankly the minimal time saved isnt worth the effort. Hiking allows me to slow down, take stock and relax during an Ultra. I see as an opportunity to focus mentally, eat, drink and prep for the next stage of the race.

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  6. As a middle of the packer – walking is huge in my races. I am just trying to finish most of the time and usually have 25 MPW with a ton of cross training. When I walk I try to keep it at 15 minutes per mile which gets me 4 miles per hour.

    I walk all hills and later on try to adopt a 5 on one off even on the flats.

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  13. Great article. In my first ultra which was a 40 miler; I did a 12 min run, 3 minute walk strategy. At the first check point which was 10 miles in, I was pretty much last. At the end I ended up nearly finishing in the top half. I didn’t increase my pace. I just stuck with the strategy and I was over taking regularly from the first checkpoint onwards.

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