The joys of planning a big challenge

When autumn hits, it can be difficult to stay motivated but planning a big challenge for next season can fix that.


By Roger Burlinson, Sport Walk founder

The key to staying motivated during autumn is to view it as an essential component in your Sport Walking cycle.

Possibly the only good thing about the days getting shorter and the nights getting longer is dark afternoons spent scouring maps and planning next year’s challenges. Everything else kind of sucks. It is true that on crisp dry winter mornings the trails can be the most magical places, it’s just that more often than not the mud, wet grass or propensity for fog and dampness tends to linger longer in the memory.

You might think that planning is the least important part of a training program or a commitment to get fitter but in fact it can be the glue that binds all the components together and gives you focus. Knowing where you’re heading, how you intend to get there and what the path or journey looks like gives you real confidence. 

Serpent Trail 1
Early autumn and one last session in shorts and a t-shirt!

Athletes often talk about their ‘process’ – what they do to get the results they seek – and a vital part of this is a their training plan, although it’s not everything. There are so many other elements to being an athlete, particularly a professional one, than just training and often it is the non-physical attributes that can make the greatest difference but there’s no escaping the fact that to succeed, you can’t leave it to chance. 

I’ve experienced first hand the pitfalls of just going freestyle with a training or fitness routine – committing to train, rather than committing to a challenge that you need to train for. It might seem like semantics but there is quite a difference.

When you commit to train or to get fit, that’s kind of the extent of it. There’s no real obligation on your part to progress, to make structured gains, you’re just committing to the process. Sure, you want to get fitter, faster, stronger but if there’s no fixed target in sight to aim for and to measure yourself against, you effectively just plod on. 

When you commit to a challenge or to achieving something tangible at a fixed point in the future though, your training becomes the route by which you achieve that challenge. Because there’s more at stake – you succeed or fail depending on how well you prepare – the training has more focus and you’re more likely to get better results from it.

Having had a bit of an off year these last twelve months, mostly because I couldn’t quite get all my challenge plans to line up at the right time to get anywhere, I’m desperate to make a better hash of it next year. The mistake I made this year was to think I could just train generally without much focus and then take on a number of smaller challenges, relying on my underlying fitness and the gains I’d made previously to power me. I thought I could then just combine all these smaller challenges over the season into one major achievement. 

Avon Path Attempt 2
Failing on the Avon Valley Path was a valuable lesson

While I had a number of challenge walks in mind, in truth I hadn’t committed to them in terms of fixing dates and making arrangements, so I was able to move them to accommodate other things that cropped up. Slippery slope! Before I knew it, I was taking on the longest route at that point in the season on the hottest day of the year and without any targeted preparation. I blew and dropped. This is the problem with ‘just training’. 

I’ve certainly learnt my lesson this year, so for next year I’m targeting one big challenge in June and then after that I’ll play it by ear and hope to take on a couple of other shorter challenges if I feel OK. The positivity I feel now about the emerging plan is strikingly different to my outlook early this year, when I’d decided to give myself an ‘easy year’ by just ticking off some fast walks on way marked trails.  I thought I was happy and content with this approach but looking back I now recognise that I wasn’t. I felt rather lost if I’m honest because my training sessions had no clear purpose.

And that’s why this time of year is so valuable. It allows you to put everything into perspective, to lay out your dreams or ambitions, to consider them and then to work out how to make it all happen. And the contribution this can make to your ‘process’ can’t be over estimated. 

Roger is using this current autumn to plan for a non-stop attempt on the South Downs Way in 2019


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