How to Train for an Ultramarathon Walk

Advice from Long Distance Walkers

Ultra Marathoners Death Valley
Ultramarathon Walkers in Death Valley. David McNew/Getty Images Sports

Walkers often put a marathon walk or ultramarathon walk on their list of goals. What training does it take to be able to finish a long distance walk? When it comes to distances such as the marathon 42K (26.2 miles) and ultramarathons of 50 kilometers or more, training and preparation are the key to being able to complete the distance and recover from the experience.

Marathon Walk Training Step by Step: This step-by-step training plan will prepare you for walking a marathon, half marathon or ultra walk.

It includes training schedules, shoe and gear advice, what to eat and drink, and race day tactics.

In addition to the marathon training tutorial, I asked my long distance walking experts how they trained for these ultramarathon walks, what they wore and what they ate and drank along the way.

Ultramarathon Walk Training Advice from Christina Elsenga

  • So you've decided to do a 40 or a 50 km walk?
  • So you want to be alive the night and day after that event?
  • So you'd better get prepared.

Four Months in Advance of Your Ultramarathon Walk

If you know the date of the big event, start about four months in advance. If you have never done any exercise that took longer than two hours, you may need more time. Walking is a different game: it goes on and on and on. Allow your body some time to get used to that.

Ideally one should walk about 8 to 10 kilometers in one go three times a week within one and a half hours.

Try this for four weeks. If one day you or your feet feel uncomfortable, try bicycling for an hour, just for a change. Maybe you can walk to your job or park your car only halfway and walk the rest, or walk when going for groceries etc.

Be inventive in choosing economical walking moments. Do some stretching and proper warming up and cooling down.

Try to do some moving about during your work, if you can. Drink plenty, and eliminate junk food. It's better to have some fruit or yogurt or an extra spoonful of pasta or an extra potato with your meal than a candy bar.

Build Your Mileage in Ultramarathon Training

Then turn one of the 10 kilometer (6 mile) walks into a 15 kilometer (9 mile) walk, for two to four weeks. Be your own judge. Walking is for fun, not for punishment. Try to join organized walks. Go out on walks, don't stay inside. Try to enjoy every kind of weather. Smell the spring in the air, hear birds sing, look at the flowers, the trees and the silly people in their cars making unnecessary fuss. Step out of everyday life, step into walking life.

Write a diary: Write down what you did, when you did it, how you felt during and after the walk. If you feel you overdo it, walk a shorter distance for a change, don't slow down too much. Keep going for another few weeks.

After four weeks of 15 kilometer walks, you should be ready to do a 25 kilometer walk (15.5 miles).

It is best done as an organized event. If there is nothing like that nearby, organize your own event. Make it special. Prepare a route like a figure of 8, with your house or your car in the center point, so you can have a rest (maximum half an hour) half way. This will take four and a half to five hours. Try to keep up the speed. No need to rush the first bit, just to collapse in the end.

Don't forget to reward yourself if this is a self-made event. For the next day do some stretches, move (gently) about. The day after that you might do just 5 kilometers, but then it is time for the 10 kilometers (and 15) again.

Still enjoying yourself?

  • No?: Be happy with 10 and 15 kilometer walks, don't worry. Long distances are not everybody's favorite.
  • Yes?: Don't stop now, but don't overdo it either.

Share your experiences with others. Sometimes you feel you are either the only silly walker around or the only person who has seen the light.

Easy Weeks, then Longer Weeks in Ultra Training

Have two easy weeks (10 km, maybe a 15 if you feel like it). Then try another 25 kilometer walk. Distances of 20 to 25 kilometers get your body ready for the next step. This will take more than three hours. To me that seems to be a critical breaking point. Now it starts getting serious. It is not just a stroll in the park anymore. You will feel tired. Part of you wants to stop, but if there is nothing hurting you and you still know your name, know where you live etc., there is no reason at all to stop. So keep going.

Take it easy for one week after you did that 25 km. Maybe you need an extra two/ three week session of 10, 15 and 25 km. Now you can choose between two 20 km. in two days in succession or you can do a 30 to 35 km. in one go.

Personally I feel there is more gain in walking a slightly shorter distance for two or three days in succession then in one longer distance. Always have two relatively quiet days after you "broke your personal record."

  • Drink, drink, drink, eat a sandwich and some fruit during walks longer than 15 or 20 km (be your own judge again!) More: Fueling for a Marathon or Ultra
  • Have a break of at least 10 minutes and no longer than half an hour (you tend to stiffen up if you sit for a long time). If the weather is foul, take only very short rests, eat and drink while you walk (slowly).
  • Try to walk faster on one of those 10 km. walks you do in between (like one hour an twenty minutes, one hour and a quarter).

Don't worry when you feel tired one day, don't worry when one day you walked slower. It's no problem if you can't do one of those 10 km. walks because there are other things you have to do. Don't try to make it up by doing double the next day. Don't create stress by walking: get rid of it.

Ultramarathon Trail Walking Training Tips from Mary

I am getting (with my husband Rick) ready for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Dogwood Half Hundred Hike. It's a 50 kilometer hike/run, set on rather rugged trails through U.S. Forest Service land with over 8000 feet of elevation gain/loss. Our approach might not be appropriate for those who are going to do long walks/runs on paved conditions.

We have consulted with other friends who have done it and take their advice by spending each weekend hiking the trail where the event will take place. We feel that knowing the terrain will help us feel confident when we do the actual event. Another couple has decided to hike with us, so we hope to coordinate some of our weekend sessions so we can shuttle cars to trail heads and do longer sections of the route without having to turn around midway and hike back.

We hope to get up to 20 miles within three weeks, then stabilize our training at that point (bear in mind, we've been heading out for a 10-15 mile hikes on an irregular basis all winter). Wednesday evening we are also doing shorter hikes after work, hitting about 5 miles.

I've been timing my distance hiking pace and right now it's at close to 3.5 mph, but Rick hits his moving pace at over 4 mph, so I'd like to catch up! Still, my pace is well above the rate I must hit to make cut-off times at the checkpoints.

I can't say we're going to use many short distances and urban routes to train. They just don't make them very appropriate practice, since you really use a different set of muscles. A good part of this seems to be getting ankles and knees strong and happy to handle the stress of tilted terrain, rocks, and steep downhill sections (I'm doing lots of weighted knee lift exercises every night). Still, I know another couple in our area are using the bike riding to get in shape for the event.

Klaus: Speed also counts

It is important to increase one's walking distance slowly, so that one get used to those long distance walks. My experience is that one must be able to walk a 25-30 km walk without problems before increasing the distance. If not the 40-50 km walk will be very uncomfortable.

Also a certain speed is necessary: If one's speed is less than 5-5½ kilometers per hour, the walk will take a too long time which also tires the body. Personally I find a speed of approx. 6 kilometers per hour appropriate (3.2 miles per hour). Walking Pace Calculator

Next: Advice on What to Wear for Marathons and Ultras

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