Virus, what virus?

In this second post of our special series, Roger Burlinson explains how you can come out of lockdown in better shape than if it’d never happened.

By Roger Burlinson

If you’re feeling like the constraints placed on us all right now are going to strip you of your fitness and will suck the motivation right out of you then you’re probably not alone but it doesn’t have to feel like this and it certainly doesn’t have to end up like that.

It’s all a question of how you frame your situation, how you look at it. If you focus on what you’re being deprived of, then it’s hard to see a positive anywhere in all this. But if you look at things more in terms of outcomes, then you can start to build a way through it all. So what outcomes can you latch onto when there’s so much uncertainty and you have so little control over anything?

“The one thing that is most detrimental to a well executed training regime is lack of time”

Well, if nothing else, you have the potential to ensure you come out the other side of this fitter, stronger and more resilient than you are now. In fact, it’s well within your power to actually come out of this stronger than if it had never happened in the first place.

Also, despite what it may look like, you do have a significant amount of control over your ability to make that happen. You might not have any control over your work life, your social life or your travel plans but these are not what shape an outcome in relation to a challenge goal or your fitness. Indeed, you could argue that these very things are often what gets in the way of making progress in sport or with a training plan.

No, purely in terms of being able to make a difference to your fitness, your strength and your mental toughness, these times we’re living through are actually offering you a unique opportunity. An opportunity to really focus in, without distraction, on your challenge goals and to be able to make gains in your fitness and conditioning that you might not otherwise have made had things been ‘normal’ (I remember normal…. I think).

So, before we get into the detail of what you can do and how that can build into a really effective training regime, let’s just dwell on that last point a second. If things were currently normal, you would probably have a training plan of sorts for your key challenge event. You’d certainly be looking to up your game and put in some quality miles and probably also do some additional work like Yoga or some other kind of strength and conditioning. But (and there’s quite a big but here that anyone who’s honest with themselves will acknowledge) – ‘normal’ life gets in the way.

You need to meet up with friends, so that’s a few long walks at the weekend gone. You’re busy at work, so you miss some sessions or are hampered by available time to fit them in. You’re running around taking kids to a million different clubs, groups or friends houses, so you find yourself gradually skipping or shortening training.

In short ‘normal’ life is a difficult fit with any kind of training, let alone ultra challenge training, unless that is you’re a master of scheduling and that’s exactly what this opportunity offers us – to improve and perfect a system for doing all this stuff we want to do.

Now, I realise that there are now new pressures gifted to us by the lockdown and that it probably is just as hard to juggle all the things you need to do but the one thing that we can say for certain is that all those external temptations have been removed and if you look at things in terms of schedule pressure, for the majority of folk, life at the moment is far less frenetic (leaving aside the obvious increase in stress and workload for healthcare professionals and other key workers).

The one thing that is most detrimental to a well executed training regime is lack of time. Other pressures need to be accounted for and solutions found to reduce their impact but the simple fact is that if you remove external non-training related activities from your schedule, as lockdown has done, there is an increased opportunity to achieve better training outcomes or, even, to achieve success in holding down a training regime at all.

Just look at the difference in outcomes at Olympic level that professionalising sport has had. UK Sport started the World Class Performance Programme in 1997, the year after the Atlanta Games. In Atlanta, Britain won 15 medals, a low point since Montreal, which saw us languishing in 36th position overall. Come Sydney – the first games after funding started (and too early really to see significant gains), we won 28 medals placing 10th overall. Athens was a little better but, again, often these things can require three cycles to fully deliver results, which is exactly what happened in Beijing – 51 medals and a top 4 position! Then came London with 65 and 3rd place overall, followed by Rio with 67 and 2nd overall.

The correlation between athletes training full time and performance outcomes is striking but it’s not rocket science. You can simplify and scale down the scenario and still reach the same conclusion – more time and fewer distractions (in our case, fewer external things luring you astray) make for more productive training, which equates to more effective outcomes. 

“The reality of the situation is that we have a unique opportunity to change, to focus on development and to grow”

Now, the elephant in the room is certainly the ‘once a day’ conundrum. You’re probably thinking “how on earth can I get in shape or train for an ultra challenge when I’m only allowed out once a day and I have to stay close to home”?  Aha!  If you (or in this case I) do a little calculation, you’ll see that one session a day regardless of where you train is actually really very realistic for ultra challenge training. 

If we assume that an hour and a half is a reasonable time to be out for (of course there have been no official statements on how long we can be out…. which is very helpful) then this defines the scope of what this session can include. In an hour and a half you can walk 10k or if your pace isn’t yet at that level you can walk as far as you can in that time and have that as a little sub-goal – to raise your pace to be able to walk 10k in an hour and a half.

If you’re slightly at a loss as to where exactly you’re going to walk around your home, take the opportunity to explore different roads or paths. The other day, I performed an exercise I called ‘plot every trail’ – I plotted a route on OS maps using all the little footpaths I knew in my locality, with sections of road in between and it gave me a loop of 15km! So, without ever being more than a few miles from my house, I could cover 15k in a single training session!

Now, there is bit of a myth around ultra challenges and certainly around Sport Walking, that to be able to walk 80-100k or further, you need to be walking big distances in training. You don’t.  You need to build consistency and frequency and you do need to have target weekly mileage because it is the total distance you’re covering each week and the level of damage and repair your body goes through that counts, not how long you walk each session.

So, let’s work on the basis of you being able to do a 10k loop or route in a single session and that this is a viable distance. If you follow good practice and don’t simply bury yourself on every session, seeking instead to have ‘on’ and ‘off’ days, then your working week might look something like this: 3 x 10k (on days) interspersed with 2 x 5k (off days). The 10k sessions would be where you’re gunning for it and working hard, the 5k sessions would be recovery walks at an easier pace but still just as valuable mileage. You’d alternate 10k and 5k days and this would give you 40k before you’ve even got to the weekend. 

At the weekend, again assuming there isn’t some dictat about the duration of our daily exercise slots, you could take on a 2-3 hour walk on the Saturday say and in this time, you could cover 15-20km, again depending on your fitness. Sunday would be a rest day – very important.

So, overall, there’s scope to build 60-70km of mileage each week over 6 days and that my friends, is plenty for your normal everyday training for an ultra challenge. In fact, my baseline for day to day training a few months out from a challenge would probably be around 50-60k a week, so your scope to achieve strong gains in terms of building muscular endurance and fitness is huge.

In ‘normal’ times, I’d be adding in about three longer ‘test’ walks into the mix and this is one aspect it’s going to be harder for you to replicate at the moment. These test walks would be a minimum of 40k, so that’s about 6 hours for me and they’re designed to emulate challenge pace, so it’s a chance to see how I’m getting on. They’re really useful but I must stress they would not and should not make up the main bulk of training. I’d only do about 2-3 of these test walks maximum for a 100k ultra, no more. For anything less, I might only do one or none at all. 

Not being able to do these tests at the moment isn’t a catastrophe though. They should be timed to be performed no closer than a month and no further than two months out from a challenge. It’s highly likely that we’ll see some relaxing of personal movements before we see events reappearing in the calendar, meaning that you’ll probably have the opportunity to do at least one test walk, a month or so before any rescheduled running of your challenge event. If you’re simply focussing on walking a challenge you’ve set yourself as an alternative whenever that’s possible, then you have more flexibility.

If you’ve been training well and using this time to build strength and endurance, then knocking out a 40k test walk and then waiting three or four weeks before taking on your challenge will work fine. Even if the lockdown lasts longer than expected and you can’t schedule your own challenge until September, you’ll be OK in terms of daylight for something in the realm of 80k at that point. Either that or just embrace a little night walking to finish off!

Cross train like a pro for big gains.

When you’re looking at total weekly mileage it should be ‘foot miles’ or distance on foot but it really doesn’t matter whether you walk or run it. Running, if you’re able, will allow you to cover more distance in the same time you have available or cover shorter distances faster, so you either gain total distance sooner (giving you an extra day off for instance) or you finish your session sooner giving you more free time.

But that’s not all. You could substitute one longer walk for a bike ride every couple of weeks and, even though you’re not logging ‘foot miles’ (you can choose whether you still try to maintain your target foot miles for the week in this instance), you’re still making a training gain because the cycling will work different muscles, enhancing your overall leg strength. It will also give you aerobic gains because you’ll be working harder than when you walk (or at least you should be).

In essence, if you seek to build a routine around mostly walking, some running and one bike ride of a decent distance – 30-40k every couple of weeks – you’ll actually have the foundation of a really strong training routine that is fine for ultra challenges. Again, it’s all about hitting those minimum total distances each week, not simply walking long hours every day.

The other thing we need to do of course is clarify that ‘one session a day’ only means one outdoor session a day. You can have unlimited training sessions during each day, it’s just that they’ll need to be within the footprint of your home.

You can use the opportunity of having fewer external lures to truly embed strength and conditioning and other activities into your day to day life as well. OK, so you’re still busy, you’re just busy at home but, as a starting point at least, committing to building conditioning work into your daily routine is all that counts. You can start with ten minutes and then just increase it as you can but the most important thing is to do something at least three times a week.

I often do some strength work while I’m cooking dinner if I’ve not been able to stick to a scheduled weights session and more often than not, I’ll start the day with a plank or two immediately after getting out of bed. Ideally, you’ll be able to set aside an hour to go through a good routine but taking the opportunity to do bits and pieces in pockets of time you have is better than nothing.

I think weight training is probably not high on a walker’s list of things to do but it should be. You might not think that increasing leg strength by using weights will have much impact on your walking but trust me, it will. You can only walk as far and as fast as your legs will carry you, so the stronger they are, the longer and faster they will be able to go. Of course, you’re not looking to build quads like Chris Hoy’s but the kind of strength training that will benefit you as a Sport Walker wouldn’t give that result anyway.

In adding strength training to your schedule, you’re seeking purely to build strength, not grow size like a body builder. You’ll want to focus particularly on simple free weight or body weight exercises and you’ll also be looking to include your upper body as well. Why? Because your upper body strength is what will preserve your posture during walking and this has a real impact on your walking form, which in tern impacts on your leg resilience. Of course the added benefit of better core strength is that you’ll finish your challenge standing tall, not bent double because your core has given way!

When you’re looking at strength and conditioning, you want to be looking at working the whole body then but you’ll place the greatest emphasis on strengthening your legs with a few simple techniques: Squats, predominantly to work the glutes;  Bulgarian split squats or single leg squats, again targeting the glutes and Calf raises. This will be enough for your legs, so then add in some Dead Lifts for your whole body and core, Shoulder Presses for your shoulders (shoulders can get quite sore on ultras) and Bent Over Rowing for your back.  The last thing to do regularly is some body weight core work – either Plank variations, a roller wheel or some form of Yoga or Pilates.

If you think of this work as being the foundation structure for your body to perform better while you’re walking you’ll see the value in it. By ‘perform better’ you can of course frame that however you like – it could mean to go faster, it could mean to be stronger or, it could be for your walking just to be easier and less of a strain. Frame it how you like but if you take care of and seek to strengthen your whole body with conditioning work, you’ll find that you feel better, stronger and more capable when you walk in training or on a challenge.

Of course strength and conditioning is not the only thing you can do in the confines of your home. If you have a treadmill or some kind of track machine for your bike you can knock out really useful gym type sessions, either running, walking or cycling. Just put your ear buds in with your favourite soundtrack and plug away. It might not be fun but hey, you’re an athlete in training, so you’ll just bank the gains you’re making and love the fact that you’re adding to your overall weekly ‘external’ mileage.

You might be a practitioner of Thai Chi, Karate, Judo or Kung Fu and practicing all these will add valuable benefits to the core activities in your training. You may be into boxing or kick boxing and have a punch bag rigged up somewhere – this will enhance your upper body workouts and add to your core strengthening work.

A skipping rope or just a piece of rope you can skip with will also go into the aerobic mix alongside your walking, running or cycling and last but not least, consider carrying weights or weighted bags around the house, especially up and down stairs. Basically, anything you do within the home that stresses your muscles or raises your heart rate will have a benefit to your overall gains.

Try this: While you’re cooking (but not while using knives) or washing up, stand on one leg for a core strength boost.

The Why

Knowing what you can do and having the time to do it is one thing but it’s understanding and accepting why you’re doing it and why it’s of benefit that really counts. Why we should focus on training now is not about making good use of our time or as a distraction from all the disturbing news that floods us every day. It’s about taking the opportunity that’s presented itself to us and making the most of it. That’s why we need to immerse ourselves in training.

The reality of the situation is that we have a unique opportunity to change, to focus on development and to grow because there’s nothing much else we can do right now. The one protected thing in this lockdown other than buying food is the ability to go out for exercise, so we need to grab that as a starting point and use this opportunity to reshape and embed processes in our routines that might, just might, stay with us when life gets back to ‘normal’.

Think of it like being on a training camp. Yes, there are other things still going on and other challenges facing you but you can now prioritise putting real structure into your outdoors training and allocating time to strength and conditioning. If something has to give, make it TV. Prioritise things that bring real value to your life and use your available time for them.

As we discussed in the last post, if you look at what you can control – you have a lot of options, a lot of scope. Invest in this time and after a few months you’ll be in a whole different position physically and mentally and it could just be that you’ll be fitter, stronger and more resilient than if this virus had never shown up in the first place.

It’s up to you. You can survive or you can thrive (which is the subject of the next blog). I know which I’d prefer.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Christy Nielsen says:

    Hi again from the US! My goal is still to tackle the 100 mile US Centurion walk in June of 2021. I took a lot of notes on your latest posts, in particular this post – so thank you again for all this information. 1) I know you mentioned this briefly, but what are your thoughts if you had to consistently split your miles up per day? For example if I only could do 2 x 5k a day as opposed to one solid 10k. 2) Is there a certain tracker you recommend for miles and pace but more specifically miles. I use a Fitbit and it’s not strong at all capturing correct mileage. 3) I absolutely love climbing stairs as a cross trainer but I just don’t enjoy an actual “weights” routine. I’ve started up and quit so many times and just don’t like it. Would calf raises, jumping rope, and stairs be ok enough as cross training if I’m getting the weekly walking mileage in consistently? Thank you again! Christy Nielsen


    1. Sport Walk says:

      Hi Christy. Really sorry for the late reply! It’s obviously been pretty crazy these last few months & I simply missed the comment notifications whenever I’ve been on here posting blogs! Will pay more attention from now on! I’ll have another quick read through your questions and reply asap. All the best. Roger


    2. Sport Walk says:

      Me again! Right, for split sessions: As you probably figured, I’m a big fan of this approach! You get benefits from giving your legs a little rest during the day and then hitting them again later – it builds up good muscular endurance. So I’d view this as more of a favoured approach, rather than an alternative to one longer session. What I’ve often found though is when I do this, I actually complete more mileage overall because I rarely walk the precise distance I plan, I always go a bit longer because the path or route isn’t a fixed distance. So, if I plan 5k in one session, I often end up doing 7, so the mileage always grows overall, which is great! Often, if I were doing longer single sessions and not feeling great, I’d be more likely to cut it short and finish giving me a shortfall, so the split approach can be really beneficial in hitting your weekly targets. I’d recommend trying to map out in advance in a diary or phone calendar what time blocks you’ll be able to set aside and then that’ll basically determine what you can achieve. For me, planning the sessions and actually setting them down in my schedule, so I can see that I have time and they fit, is invaluable. Still important to go long at the weekends though if you can, as the big distance blocks are essential for overall endurance, especially for Centurions.

      For trackers, I collect data on my Suunto watch but do most of my analysis on Strava. If you have the free app on your phone you can do without a watch and from what I’ve found the distance and pace stats are pretty good and accurate. It’s very good too for seeing your mile/km splits on the desktop site. Watches are a bit of a personal preference and we have debates in our house over whether my Suunto or my wife’s Garmin is more accurate (I know mine wins because I also have online mapping software from the government mapping agency & their distances match my Suunto!!). Regardless of the watch brand though, we both use Strava…. a lot! We have a Sport Walk club on Strava too, so everyone can support each other. I’d definitely recommend using Strava as your training analysis tool, even if you collect the raw data on a watch.

      For cross training, I share your dislike of formal weight routines, although I would recommend trying to stick with a simple weighted squat routine if you can. I just embrace (that’s probably the most accurate way to put it!) a 20kg plate and then squat as if I’m just using my body weight and that’s a great leg & glute strengthener. My son uses a 10kg bag of Thai fragrant rice to do the same, so it doesn’t have to be an actual weight plate! Of course stair climbing will give you a similar outcome, it’s just that you don’t get that last low dip that you can get by doing squats, so I’d say definitely that your stair climbing is a great base point but maybe once a week or so, try to add in some squats, weighted down by whatever you can hold.

      All the other things you mentioned – jump rope, calf raises etc are all great, I’d probably just look to add some weight to the calf raises too if you can. The only things I’d add would be the Bulgarian Split Squat – it really targets the glutes like nothing else and will build strength to make the stair climbs (and your leg drive) even more effective. You can easily do them just by holding anything really, again it doesn’t need to be actual weights. And then I’d also add some simple core work – planks, un-restrained sit ups (where your legs are bent and you curl your back up – it’s a Pilates move I think), leg raises or a roller. If you can get a regular routine going with the cross training elements, you’ll probably find that after a while you’ll start adding weight or adapting what you do naturally, as you feel the benefits and want more. Hope that all helps & good luck with everything! Roger


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