Training and Planning for Long Distance Walks

Prepare for Your Trek, Multi-Day Walk or Ultrawalk

A Camino Peregrino Crosses Bridge to Hospital de Orbigo
A Camino Peregrino Crosses Bridge to Hospital de Orbigo. Wendy Bumgardner

Training is critical to comfort and success in a long distance walk. Your training should concentrate on building a base of walking, then increasing your mileage in a systematic fashion. You should also train wearing the gear you will be wearing during your long distance walk.

Avoid injury by not increasing your total mileage per week or the distance of your longest walk per week by more than 10%

How Long is Long Enough to Train for a Long Distance Walk?

For multi-day walks and treks such as the Camino de Santiago, follow a marathon training plan for mileage building and for getting the proper hydration, nutrition and gear.

But you will also build some back-to-back long days into you training so you can assess any problems that crop up from walking long distance on successive days. I have training schedules for the Avon 39 Walk for Breast Cancer that follow this format.

When training for 50 kilometer to 100 mile distances, the longest distance to train at should not need to exceed 20 - 25 miles, which you should perform at least twice in the two months prior to the event. Then taper during the month before the event down to a 20 kilometer long distance.

Ultrarunners have much in common with ultrawalkers and indeed they usually mix stretches of walking into the longer distance events.

Training schedules derived from ultrarunning are good for walkers as well.

You Don't Need Speed

Forget going training for any speed faster than a 15-minute mile. You will not need endurance, not speed, and you want to build mental stamina for walking for hours and hours at a steady pace.

Gear Up for a Long Walk

All clothing, shoes, sunscreen, packs, etc.

need to be road tested on your longer training days well in advance of the event. Now is the time to experiment, you want nothing that is new or untried at the event itself. Plan for the layers you will need given the climate and terrain. Choose wicking fabrics that will allow your skin to breathe and cool itself.

Choose your shoes or boots and wear them on your long training days to ensure they will work over distance. Packs should be tested on your longer training days to ensure you can carry it comfortably over long distance and it has the capacity needed.

Walkers who are going to walk a long-distance route carrying a pack and using trekking poles need to walk with their gear in the three months before the walk. From head to toe, wear your gear. Shoes/boots, socks, underwear, bra, shirt, pants, hat, jacket, rain gear. You want to know how it will perform on the long walk and still have time to replace it if it doesn't.

Then you need to walk with the replacement gear.

Training Nutrition for a Long Walk

Proper sports nutrition will prepare you for endurance events. As an endurance athlete, you should stick with a diet that is the traditional mix of 70% carbohydrates, 20% protein, and 10% fat. Avoid high protein diets - they cause problems with dehydration and will strain your kidneys under endurance walking conditions.

Planning Your Long Distance Walk

Planning begins by setting an event as a goal. Considerations include time of year, distance, transportation to the event, event pace requirements, altitude and hill profile, climate. If you are going to "do it yourself" in walking across country, you need to prepare by researching routes and trails and contacting those who have done similar feats.

Routes: Study the course maps to know what services are provided along the way and what you must bring with you. Know the terrain and at what point there are hills, pavement, natural trail, shade, full sun. When possible, drive the course ahead of time to familiarize yourself with it.

Planning for Food and Fluids on Long Distance Walks

Train with the water, sports drink, food and snacks you will be using at the event and do not deviate from it during the event. Water is all that is needed for events 20 kilometers and under, but for longer events an electrolyte replacement sports drink may be good. Diluting it or leaving out some of the sugar can make it easier on the stomach, but you need to take care to get enough salt as well as water when walking long distances.

Have your snacks pre-packaged and perhaps labeled by time to be eaten. On ultramarathon distances you need to eat fat and protein in addition to the carbohydrates provided by sports gels or energy bars. You may want to avoid fancy products which are formulated for shorter distances and power sports and can cause digestive problems over longer distances. You can get those from candy bars with nuts, trail mix, and peanut butter sandwiches. Train with the same food and snacks you will use during the event.

Rest Breaks

The conventional wisdom is that any breaks you take should be short - to use the bathroom, eat a snack and drink without choking, tie your shoes or doctor blisters. The body stiffens up pretty fast during breaks and it can take several minutes to get back into the swing of walking after a long break. Take walking breaks instead - keep walking but at a very slow pace.

Take Care of Your Feet

Your feet are your most important equipment. On your long training days you should have been experimenting with preparations, socks, etc. to prevent blisters. Strategies include lubricants, wicking and/or double layered socks, moleskin, sports tape or blister block pads over areas prone to blister. Along the walk, stop at the first sign of hot spots and doctor your foot with tape, blister block bandages, etc. More: Seven Strategies to Prevent Blisters

More Training Resources for Long Distance Walks

  • Hal Higdon Ultra Marathon Training Plan: The 24-week schedule builds from a good base. After week 14, it builds in back-to-back longer days on the weekend and gauges them by time duration rather than by distance.
  • Ultra Running Resource: A great variety of advice from the an email discussion group dedicated to ultrarunning. Most of the advice is transferable to walking the same distance. Many runners give their training schedules for a variety of distance events from 50K to over 100 miles.
  • Advice for the Beginning Ultrarunner: Gary Cantrell has good advice for tackling the challenge of an ultradistance event.

Next: Long Distance Walking Hazards and Recovery

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