Zero to Hero – Part 1

Starting out in any sport or activity can be a daunting process. You’re eager to learn and want to get proficient as quickly as possible but there’s so much to take in – technique, fitness, rules, equipment. Well fret not! At Sport Walk, we’ve created a beginners’ guide to Sport Walking that will help you get going in the right way and which will have you making progress before you know it.

Our Sport Walk ‘Zero to Hero Plan’ is suitable for anyone and we’ve adapted each stage to reflect different levels of ability and fitness.  It is however a training plan, so you will need to have a ‘can do’ mindset and be prepared to put in the time needed for each session to see progress.  It’s also important to have a minimal level of fitness in order that you can get the most out of the plan.

The first step that we’ll focus on is to assess what your current capability is. Are you a keen walker who’s looking to take on some tougher, longer challenges, someone who likes to walk for pleasure and wants to step up to walking for sport, someone looking to get fit and lose weight or someone who’s taking on a charity challenge event?

Getting started
In some sports, getting started involves a ‘taster session’ or maybe an introductory lesson but with Sport Walking, it’s more about just starting to walk and train in a methodical way, there’s no real technique to learn. Yes, there are small adaptations you’ll want to make to your natural walking style, to improve efficiency and preserve energy and we’ll focus on these in Part 2 but essentially, the way you start Sport Walking is to get out there and walk!

For many people, starting to Sport Walk will be more a process of change than of fresh learning. It will be about changing their outlook on speed, distance, equipment, walking style. It could mean a complete ground up rethink of what they’ve previously just done instinctively.

Sport Walk’s founder Roger Burlinson is a very good example of this type of walker: “I’ve been walking all my life and for about 98% of this time, I’ve followed what you might think of as the ‘classic’ approach to walking – you wear sturdy boots, robust clothes, carry plenty of supplies and just walk by feel. The way I walk now and the kind of kit I use is so far removed from the way I used to walk, it’s a completely different activity. Now, it’s a sport for me but I still get the same joy from walking. In fact, I think I get far more from my walking than I ever did.”

So, for those already walking positively and energetically, some of the techniques and adaptions may initially seem counter to your previous experience and require some adjustment but they will be worth it. The simple act of replacing walking boots with light trail running shoes for instance might take some getting use to (reduced support around the ankle, more flexible sole) but the weight savings will soon translate into physical performance benefits and speed enhancements and that’s when you’ll start to feel the advantages clearly.

If you only ever walk as a means of getting around, during a commute or just casually for relaxation then these adaptions will be easier to embed because you’ve not already formed your own natural way to walk energetically. If you’re not very fit, the need to increase the frequency of your steps for instance might sound like it will be hard but, in fact, this is not about hitting speed or pace targets, it’s about learning the most efficient way to walk fast and the ‘fast’ bit can and will be a gradual process.

To get started then, just walk how you would normally walk but make it brisk.  Don’t think about how you’re walking, we’ll come on to that in the next post, just walk normally and, most importantly, enjoy your walking!

Probably the main reason why people fail to maintain a new year fitness plan, give up a sport or lose interest in a challenge is because they have an unrealistic expectation of the time needed to effect change and make progress. The other factor is failing to break a plan down into small achievable segments that will enable them to feel like they are making progress.

Once you have a certain level of fitness and endurance you can begin to fine tune your challenges and look to improve your times but you do need to allow yourself time to build up to that point. If you want it to come too quickly, it’s likely that you’ll get disillusioned, injured or maybe just fail to achieve your goal. So, it’s worth getting your objectives right from the start and the only objective you should have when you start Sport Walking is to become a good Sport Walker!

Progress will come quickly if you’re not trying to make progress quickly! You need to give time to just building regular walks into your weekly routine, get used to walking longer distances and gradually increasing your speed.  You need to allow yourself time to learn a new way to walk or adapt your walking style. You need to be content just to walk and to use this time to go to new places and experience different trails, as this will make the whole process a pleasure, not a chore.

It is important to work toward a goal though and you certainly should be looking to a particular milestone or event at a realistic point in the future that you can use as motivation to improve but it’s important to set that challenge far enough ahead to give you enough time to progress in a measured way.

This is one of the reasons we’ve published this program at the beginning of November – it gives 7-8 months to the summer, which is the best time to take on some challenges, whether they be organised events or just your own personal ambition. What is critical though is to view your first challenge as just that. It’s a milestone not your ultimate goal. 6-8 months is too short a time to reach your full potential as a Sport Walker, if you’re starting completely from scratch.  If you’re starting from an existing base of energetic walking though or coming across from another endurance sport such as running or cycling, it’s plenty of time to get into good shape to post a time you can be proud of, even if it isn’t your ultimate potential.

What you need
All you need to get started with Sport Walking right this minute is a desire to do it! Don’t worry about all the gear you might see us talk about on here, the only kit that really matters initially, is your shoes and something to track time.

For your shoes, a pair of ‘all round’ long distance trail running shoes will be best, so that you can walk the trails and benefit from the motivational impact being in nature will have on you. There are many different types of trail shoe for different terrain and conditions but you just need shoes with good support and cushioning (suitable for longer distances) and a reasonably aggressive grip. As you begin to turn your walking into something more energetic, it’s important to minimise the chance of a sudden slide or slip, which could strain a muscle and set you back a few weeks.

Trail running shoes really are best for Sport Walking

If you live in a city or don’t have trail shoes, normal trainers will be fine, providing they again offer good support but you’ll be best sticking to gravel paths if you can, rather than venturing along muddy tracks. Try whenever you can to walk ‘off road’, rather than street circuits, as this will be easier on your legs and feet.

If you’d normally go walking in boots or ‘approach shoes’ then this is probably going to be the biggest change you’ll want to make initially, to adapt to Sport Walking. Approach Shoes are great general purpose walking shoes and are still best for longer treks where you need to carry a load but for Sport Walking, a good pair of ‘all round’ trail running shoes are best. So, if you’re serious about starting Sport Walking, make the switch straight off and then you’ll be able to adapt to the different shoes at the same time as adapting to other variables.

Sport Walking is obviously all about performance so you’ll need to be able to measure your training effort somehow. Ideally, you’d have a sports watch with GPS tracking that can measure heart rate, pace, speed and distance. If you don’t have a watch that can do this, any smart phone with GPS will be able to handle the speed, distance and pace part and measuring heart rate, while very useful, is not essential to get started.

For smart phone tracking, download an app like Strava, Endomondo or Sports Tracker. Sport Walk has a Strava club, so if you use this app you’ll be able to interact with us on Strava and, over time, get inspiration and encouragement from other users (we’ve only just set it up at the point of writing this).

Tech is quite an important part of Sport Walking, although it’s not a requirement. We believe that the benefits you get from having total clarity about every activity and session you undertake is invaluable, so if you’re not starting out with this capability, we’d highly recommend placing it on your list of things to get when you can.

If you don’t have either a sports watch or a smart phone when starting out, then the very minimum you need to do is to time your activity over a measured distance. How you calculate distance is up to you and there are various ways to do it but in order to have useful information about how you’re progressing, you need to be sure the measured distance is accurate.

You could try Google Maps (some of the larger National Trails and also some forestry tracks appear on there) although it’s ‘auto plot’ functionality between a start point and an end point makes this quite a tricky option to manually adjust.  The best option is to use either Ordnance Survey’s OS Maps site or one of the other major digital mapping specialists.

Lastly, your clothes. In the summer you can just wear a pair of running shorts (tight lycra leggings or loose shorts – you choose) and a t-shirt, in the winter some light to medium weight activity trousers (synthetic material), a base layer, mid layer and shell to keep the wind out. If the weather looks dodgy or if you’re venturing into more challenging terrain then add in waterproofs and also take a few safety essentials in a light rucksack if you could find yourself in difficult conditions.

We’ll cover clothing and kit more in future stages of the program but in starting out, the key thing is to wear lightweight athletic attire, preferably trail running kit if you can because it’s already been formulated for the kind of activity you’ll be doing and the kind of environments you’ll find yourself in.

Your first training walks
Right, public service announcement coming up: Before you start this or any other program, always be sure of your personal health condition and if you haven’t done any strenuous exercise in the months prior to starting this plan, get checked out by your doctor, to ensure your heart health in particular is good. A key part of starting out with Sport Walking is to test your current ability and this will involve a short high intensity test walk, so you need to be sure that you are fit and healthy enough to take on this process.

Assuming that you have a basic level of fitness, the first step is to start walking 5k sessions at a reasonable pace.  The key thing in the early stages of Sport Walking is just to establish a process and a routine.  This means that you’ll start to get a feel for how your body responds to an increase in distance, speed or both.

The 5k is both a great baseline speed session for Sport Walkers and it’s also a great way to develop your ‘form’ (an effective and efficient walking style). When you’re reasonably fit you’ll be able to complete an off road 5k comfortably within 50 minutes and under 40 minutes when you’re more advanced but when you’re starting out, just focus on completing your 5k walks as near as you can to an hour or under.

The very first thing you need to do is to complete three individual non-stop 5k test walks over the same course for a period of about a week, to establish your baseline ability. You’ll need to track each walk, preferably using a sports tracking app, to give you a pace and speed statistic. If you can’t track the session, then time it and work out your pace from your time over the exact pre-measured 5k distance.

Clip #2
Start with test walks to gauge your fitness and ability

The first test walk should be brisk but comfortable and you should be able to complete it without any trouble, no matter how long it takes. For your second 5k, push the pace and aim to feel more stressed by the activity but still relatively comfortable. You shouldn’t go so fast that you are completely exhausted but equally this walk should be harder than the first.

This session should start to give you a feel for what’s possible – how you can walk faster but still be in control.  This is an important state because you’ll want to progress to the point where you can maintain a fast pace, be working hard but be able to keep that pace for a long duration. So getting a feel for what it’s like to be stressed but OK is good.

For the third and last 5k test, walk as fast as you can and be prepared to have to stop to recover before you’ve completed the loop if you really need to (if you need to stop after 10 minutes you’ve gone out way too hard!). This session is essentially about establishing where your limits are. Your current ability level or what we’ll call your ‘baseline pace’ is going to be somewhere between your pace for the second and third 5k tests, so use the experience to deduce what pace you could actually walk without having to stop.

For this last test walk, start about the same pace as for test walk No.2 but after 1.5-2km, increase your pace until you find it hard going but possible to continue. It’s this second ‘split’ that you should use as your pace guide for your maximum capacity, as in any walk you should always take a kilometre or two to get into your optimum pace, just so that you can warm up properly. If you still feel OK with about 1km to go then push even harder. Try to feel where your current limit is and what you’re able to handle.

Now, it is true that this only tells you what your pace is for 5k but you can then use that 5k baseline pace to estimate the slower pace you’d need to walk at to go longer and then simply adapt to that when you extend your sessions. As an example Sport Walk’s Roger Burlinson’s 5k pace is roughly between 7:45 and 7:55 min/km (minutes per kilometre), whereas his 50k pace is currently around 8:15 – 8:30 min/km.

Ongoing sessions
Once you’ve completed the test walks, you then need to start building your regular walks into your routine.  Ideally, you’ll want to be walking at least three times a week, four if you can.  Perform two – three sessions during the working week, then go for a longer walk on the weekend and always leave a day before your next walk, so if you walk on Sunday, don’t walk again until Tuesday.

You’ll want to walk a minimum of 5k in each weekday session and to start with don’t go longer than 6 or 7k.  At the weekend, walk a couple of kilometres longer than your longest individual session during the week to start with and then, maintaining your weekday distances, gradually add 10% distance at the weekend to increase your overall weekly load.  If three 5ks is all you can manage in the beginning, that’s fine.

If these initial weekly walks come easy then you need to increase your pace so that you feel like you’ve had a good workout but for the moment, stick with the 5k distance during the working week.  It’s important not to over do it if you’re not someone who already exercises regularly, so listen to your body and if you’re feeling tired add another day before your next session. It’s better to stretch sessions out over two weeks than to stick to a one week schedule and become injured.

For your weekend walks, try to go somewhere different each time and focus on beautiful locations. Use this session as both training and recreation, so that means deliberately seeking out terrain that is more challenging than your weekday sessions, a location that’s inspiring or a maybe National Trail.

For this walk, keep to your ‘baseline pace’ but take advantage of the natural landscape to add little tests – like pushing a bit harder on a hill or trying to speed up on descents.  Use this session first and foremost as your reward for your weekday workouts but also seek to work hard so you get both fulfilment from your surroundings and, also, a sense of achievement.

Sport Walk Promo 1
Above all else, just enjoy your walking but keep it brisk

Most of all though, just get out and walk and place greater importance on enjoying your walking, everything will follow in due course.

Next time, we’ll look a walking style and how you can improve walking efficiency


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