Going it alone – how to build your own challenges!

Challenges are not just for big events, they’re for everyone, any time, so start planning yours!

It’s not surprising that big events are so alluring – all those people gathered together with a shared aim, the atmosphere, the support, the medal, the t-shirt but when you boil it all down, that stuff’s just window dressing. The real value of a challenge is what it teaches you about yourself and the sense of achievement you get at the end.

As great as challenge events are, we should remember that they’re just a vehicle for us to achieve our goals. The challenge is not the event, the challenge is you walking that trail in the best time you can. The challenge is your body staying strong under stress, your mind staying strong when things get hard. The things you get from achieving your goal within an event, as nice as they are, are not really what stays with you long term.

Of course, as we write this, there’s another factor rather skewing the argument – Covid-19 – so regardless of whether you’re dependent on the feel good buzz of taking part in an organised challenge walk for your entire motivation to go Sport Walking or you simply see these events as tests to tick off, it’s all rather academic at the moment. And it’s likely to remain that way for quite some time to come!

If the science proves itself to be right over time, as many believe it will, then mass participation events are the most risky of all activities and until there’s some kind of way to protect people, it’s hard to see how the challenge events we all love will be able to make a come back in the same format as before. They could, in theory, adapt more of a time trial structure but then the sheer logistics of setting thousands of people off at three minute intervals could scupper that as a cunning plan. Also, once on the trail, managing physical distancing and providing some sort of feasible support stops that ensures everyone – staff and competitors – can be safe means that this is a big ask.

Leaving aside the very troubling question of where this all leaves challenge organisers (this isn’t meant as an assessment of the viability of challenge events post Covid), the absence of these big fixtures in the calendar doesn’t have to mean your life is devoid of challenges. In fact, if you take a bit of a sideways look at the whole thing, simply focussing on challenge events as your outlet means you’re missing out on a huge opportunity. It’s like only going to the cinema (remember that? Ed) to watch the latest Marvel release and nothing else.

Personal challenges are a big part of the Sport Walking picture. Why? Because you can take them on at any time, you’re in complete control of what you do and they can take you to other, more inspiring places, than the big events go to. You can create distance challenges, time challenges, speed ascents of mountains or hills or even just a ‘Super Sprint’ Park Run. When you look at Sport Walking objectively, the ‘sport’ is the challenge element of the walk and that challenge can be anything you want. As long as it pushes you out of your comfort zone and tests you in some way, it’s a challenge.

It’s easier than you think!
Creating your own challenges is a faff right? Nope! It’s much easier than you think and when you start to get into the nitty gritty of the planning, it can really get you going because you shape it to be what you want it to be and that’s exciting.

There are some things you need to do and some research you need to make but essentially, you just decide how far or how long you want your challenge to be, find a suitable route and work out what you need to make it happen. That’s it. So let’s look in detail at these processes and take you step by step through planning and arranging your own challenge.

Step One – The Route

The first thing to do is to decide on your route and this will be governed by a few factors – desirability of the trail, available time, physical ability, availability of support. All these things are important but it’s probably going to be the desirability of the trail that’ll be top of your list to start with and that’s because, in the first instance, it’s the desire to walk a particular route that’s the strongest draw.

Pretty quickly though, you need also to consider how much time you have, both for the challenge and to prepare for it. It’s no good deciding to do your ultimate dream walk along the West Highland Way in three weeks time if you’re not prepared physically for that route and you don’t have much time to train in the ensuing weeks. No, you need to achieve a happy medium here, between your desire to do a route, your current fitness and your scope to prepare adequately before the attempt.

Once you’ve done that though, you’re good to proceed with your plan to make that route your challenge. Don’t think about the viability of doing it at this stage, you just need to know that you’re personally capable of the physical challenge. Logistics can all be taken care of (and will be as we progress through the plan).

You now need to set out the distance that you’ll be covering and to get a handle on the topography of the trail. Look at the overall distance – is it a distance you’ve walked before? If not, how much further is it? Work out the scale of the work you’ll need to do to be ready, so you can plan your training.

Look closely at the terrain and the topography so you can understand the sort of physical test you’ll be facing. Going 50-100k in Norfolk is going to be a different ball game to going the same distance in Scotland for instance. It might not translate into an easier walk though, so be careful! Undulating terrain gives more variety than flat terrain, which can help with leg fatigue because you’re not simply repeating the exact same action all the time. Descents can give respite, while climbs allow you to take more of the strain on your glutes (unless you’d refined your leg drive to perfection!). Walking on the flat is an unrelenting constant action.

When you’re studying the topography, you want to get a gauge of the severity of the inclines and try to relate the worst ones to hills near you, so you can train on something resembling what you’ll face in your challenge. It’s all about having strong knowledge of what you’ll face, so you can prepare yourself for it in training.

Step Two – Start Training

The next step is to get your training under way. Now, we’ve written and produced videos before about creating a training plan, so we won’t go into great specifics here about what precisely you need to do. Suffice to say, you need to give yourself at least a month to prepare (shorter if you’re already in top shape and the distance is within reach) and you need to try and replicate the sort of terrain you’ll be travelling through on your actual challenge.

You want to look at overall volume for the week, more than distance each day. It’s good to split your daily sessions if you can because this will minimise the risk of injury, while also giving you a bit of a benefit of completing the second session on slightly tired legs. You could try something like 2 x 5k sessions three times a week, with a long distance session of 20k minimum at the weekend, when you have more time.

For the short sessions, this is a good time to do some targeted work like hill reps or hill climbing but if you do two short sessions in one day, make sure the second one is easier or if there are still climbs, just go easier on them. Pace wise, you want to be pushing it a bit in all your sessions but not going flat out. You need to try and train at the pace you think is viable for the challenge itself because it’s really important that this pace comes naturally to you on the challenge. If you train fast but then need to hold a slower pace on your challenge, your body may automatically go at your normal faster pace, which could cause you problems later on.

If you stick to this sort of training routine, you’ll be getting enough mileage and enough rest to prepare you well and ensure you don’t risk getting injured before your big day.

Step Three – Build Your Team

Now, unless you’ve picked a challenge that’s a loop out from your home, chances are, you’ll need some help and support. Tackle this early on in the process because it’s really important that anyone helping you understands what you’re doing, understands what it means to you and therefore understands the importance of their role.

If you just need a lift either to a start point so you can walk home or from an end point back to your car, then the level of prep is going to be minimal but your help will still need clear instructions and you’ll also need them to be fully up to speed on potential factors on the day that could affect their role. If someone’s picking you up at the finish to take you back to your car for instance, you need to have a plan with them for what happens if you’re running late or have to bail.

What’s vital, whenever you bring anyone else into your challenge – rather than just walking out from home in a loop, fully self sufficient with food and fluids – is that you think of all the possible scenarios that might affect them or their ability to help you and set out instructions ridiculously clearly. It’s better for them to have an encyclopaedic brief, so they have all the information they could possibly need than for them to be uncertain about something or unsure what to do because that will then impact on you.

This becomes even more important if they are to be integral to your challenge itself and when we’re talking about personal Sport Walking challenges, that’s highly likely because you won’t be able to carry all the food and drink you need and there won’t be any pit stops! So what sort of support are you going to need for the average challenge walk? Well, in most cases, you can manage well with just one person assisting you, although this is governed by whether you’re going through the night, in which case a team of two who can share the driving is preferable.

Of course you can assemble a crack team of volunteers in several cars who can leapfrog each other so that you’re never short of help or encouragement but beware going too far down this route because you can have too much support. You need to keep the balance right and if you have more than one car on your crew, use your supporters tactically and efficiently. Remember, they might need support from each other as the challenge progresses so thinking about the logistics of support in a lot of detail early on is a good idea, as that way you can discuss it with everyone and they will be invested in your plan.

Choosing the right people for the task is also a bit of an art form. It’s essential that their personalities match with what you’ll be like in the depths of your challenge. That mate from the pub may be great company but he may not be the best person to have with you in your darkest hour. You need to pick people who are, first and foremost, calm in a testing situation, conscientious, happy to follow someone else’s plan, have initiative by the bucket loads, are supportive and, most importantly, are proactive. You need to be able to rely on them to solve their own problems and solve yours by themselves. In fact, you actually need them to solve all your problems before you even know you have them, that’s the perfect characteristic of the best support crew.

It’s also important to remember that, in this situation, you may become hard to handle yourself or you may become difficult, short tempered or demanding. The people in your crew, need to be able to see beyond your reactions in the moment and understand why you’re behaving like that and then, they need to find solutions regardless of whether you deserve them in that moment! Lastly, it’s vital that they’re capable of ordering you to stop if it’s needed. Yes, they need to stay mellow and soak up your tantrums but when it comes to it, they have to be able to be that Sargeant Major and tell you you’re done.

Crewed personal challenges succeed or fail on team effort. Sure, you are the one doing the walking and completing the challenge but it’s important for you to remember that it’s not just about you. OK, it is all about you but you don’t need to let them think that! Your crew will face a challenge too and what gets you across the finish line, to be able to achieve your goal is the combination of each of you doing the things you need to do.

One thing is for sure, don’t ask a friend or family member to crew for you unless they’ve already seen you at your worst and love you regardless or have themselves already gone down this path and know every dark place you can go to on a challenge. Friendships are more important than challenges, so unless you know your friends have what it takes to function at a high level for this sort of thing and you also know that you can control yourself when things get really tough, find someone detached from your circle who you can trust to do what you need. That doesn’t mean should shouldn’t still have respect for them and what they’re doing for you but if you’re not already close, then they will probably be able to see your reactions to things more objectively.

Now we don’t want this to sound like it’s inevitable that you’ll turn into a snivelling wreck by the half way point and then be like Golum to your crew for the rest of the way, most likely you won’t. It’s quite probable that you’ll be having such a great time that you’ll remember the experience for decades. It’s just that this can only happen if you’ve laid the ground works in advance and made the right ‘personnel’ choices. Anyone who even twangs your strings slightly in everyday life will send you into a rage after 40k, so just don’t go there!

When you’re preparing the information your support crew will need to help you, plan your encounters with them to minute detail. First work out where the checkpoints will need to be, in terms of how frequently you’ll need fresh supplies of food and drink (see below). This will be based on your fuel and hydration range on the trail. Once you’ve identified the basic distances, locate the best place for them to stop. It may be less than your range but it’s better to stop a little early than to have to plug on needing drink.

Look for car parks on the trail first of all, so you don’t need to divert but if there aren’t any that are suitable, locate suitable places on the map where they can park and walk in to meet you. Just remember though to try and keep any checkpoints like this for minor meet ups, so they don’t have to carry tons of boxes a couple of miles up the road to the trail!

Once you’ve successfully plotted out all the stops, work out the most direct route and write out directions or better still drop pins on Google Maps and provide them with a list of links. It’s also a really good idea to meet up a week or so before your challenge and to go through the route and checkpoint procedure with them, so they are happy with everything and you’re all on the same page.

So what does your support crew do and what do they need to know? Well, assuming that they’re crewing you on a point to point challenge – along the Ridgeway for instance or maybe on a mountain challenge – they first of all need to take you to the start.

We’d always recommend getting lifts from home to the start and back from the finish, for the majority of longer challenges over 50k. This is because you’ll be seriously fatigued afterwards and if you’re not, then you’ve not been Sport Walking!

The main thing your crew will do is be your personal travelling restaurant, that’s really the key support role. You should know the route, have mapping and be able to navigate your way along (even if you just rely on way markers). You should also be able to make decisions about things that affect you on the trail, keep yourself safe and have essential items to be self sufficient, at least until help comes if you need it.

Basically, you should be able to do the whole walk without anyone telling you where to go or what to do – that’s your responsibility as a Sport Walker. Your crew are essentially there to provide you with some moral support later on but mainly, to carry all the things you can’t and to bring replacement food and drink to the trail, so you don’t have to lose time looking for a shop to restock. That’s primarily about it.

In practice, your crew will meet you at predetermined check point stops that you’ve planned in advance on the route. They will greet you like an old friend (probably because you are), check how you’re feeling, replenish your supplies of energy bars, refill your drink flasks or have new flasks ready if you have two pairs.

They will also check you’re getting on OK with your nutrition and hydration, check if there’s anything bothering you (so they can nip it in the bud now, rather than it suddenly flaring up later) and ask if you want to change either your food or drink specification at the next checkpoint. Then, assuming they’re the polite sort, they’ll offer you some canapés! Browsing and grazing on your checkpoint stash is one of the pleasures of a supported personal challenge. It’s a bit like a normal pit stop on a challenge event, except these munchies are all yours and yours only! Whether it’s sausage rolls or Vegan falafels, your checkpoint food is your little reward for that last section, to munch away and enjoy a little chat with your crew

IMPORTANT: Take a little time to make sure they know how much you appreciate what they’re doing for you. It’s respectful but also, if you’re convincing, you may just get a donut or something at the next checkpoint, as they take pity on you and stop off to buy you a little treat on the way! Seriously though, never forget, without them you achieve nothing!

The other thing your support crew will want to do at each checkpoint is make sure that all your other supplies are readily available, so if you’ve prepared a box with things like an iPod, maybe some walking poles, spare shoes or socks and clothes etc, you’ll want to be able to quickly find what you need. Basically, for them, it’s about racking up at the meeting point, getting everything ready in advance of you arriving, so when you get there, everything happens without anything really happening. It’s a bit like Formula 1 pit stops – they want to avoid those embarrassing ones where the car pulls up and the guy’s got the wrong wheel!

The last thing for your crew to do at each checkpoint is to make sure they get there early, get prepped and then take a walk out along the trail towards you. That lets them stretch their legs and enjoy the trail, it also means you can all walk a little together which is vital personal contact. The only thing you’ll need to brief them on is that they’ll need to keep pace with you, so you don’t slow down or lose time.

Step Six – Plan your fuel

Sport Walking challenges succeed or fail on what you put inside you during the walk. Even if you have a bucket of porridge before you start, you’ll be needing to take on board fresh calories after about 15k, to make sure you keep stocked up with fuel. What you don’t want to do is wait until you’re hungry – it’s too late then. What this means overall is that you need to plan your food and liquid intake for the whole challenge in detail.

Not to go into massive detail about what you should eat here (we have other posts about that on the way), you will want to be consuming high energy calories frequently during your walk, with the principle being to make this a continual process, not something you only do when you stop at checkpoints. So, you’ll have some calculations to make about how frequently you need to eat and drink and this data needs to be tested in training. You need to train in the way you’ll do your challenge, so do a test walk that doesn’t really matter, to see how far you can go before you start to feel the first signs of needing to take on calories .

This testing process is valuable because if you know how long you can go before you need fresh fuel, you can then calculate what you’ll need to consume and when. To give you an example, we generally find that drinking a liquid fuel/electrolyte mix frequently gives us a nice steady base of calories, so we don’t really get depleted. Then, we take some hard calories in the shape of an energy bar every 15k or so, partly for the extra energy boost but mostly for the enjoyment of eating something, rather than just drinking all the time. This approach should give you sufficient fuel for your whole baseline need. What you eat at the checkpoints themselves should be munchies for pleasure, not for your core calorie intake. This way you can eat things that make you feel good, like pizza slices, crisps or cakes.

In terms of planning, you don’t really need to fret so much about the pit stop food, just buy or make enough for you and, also your crew, so they can just dip in and out of that and not feel that they have to find their own food along the way, although they probably will prefer to pick up a sandwich or some fish & chips along the way.

Your main planning needs to go into your trail supplies – how many bars you’ll consume and how much fluid you’ll need for the whole route. Why eat bars? Well, because they’re compact, fit easily into your vest or pack pockets and, if you pick the right type, give you a really good injection of calories. Here at Sport Walk Towers, we’re just nuts about Chia Charge bars (no we’re not being paid in chia seeds to say that!). The bar size is quite large but when you’re working hard out on the trail, you won’t complain. The flavours are all nice and not too sickly and the composition of the bars is all natural and very easy on the stomach. We’ve previously found bars like Cliff or Trek to be really nice to eat but too heavy on the stomach for us but you might disagree.

Whatever you choose to eat while you’re on the trail walking, really try to keep it very simple and keep it to bars, mostly for the pack size. You’re not looking to have a nice feast, you’re looking simply to top up your fuel levels. Nuts and crisps are great trail snacks but these are possibly better to have at the checkpoint, rather than trying to carry bags of nuts and crisps with you. We often leave a checkpoint with a bag of crisps to eat straight away and then we can just pack away the bag easily enough until the next checkpoint.

Hydration is a vital part of your supply plan but it’s also quite a technical area, so again, the science of hydration is something for another post. What you need to ensure is that you have a drink with you at all times that has decent electrolyte levels, particularly good levels of sodium and that you’re drinking frequently. Even if you’re walking in the winter, you need to be drinking electrolytes regularly because you’ll still be losing sodium through sweat.

What you mustn’t do is just take water because if your hard food isn’t giving you enough sodium to replenish what you’re losing in your sweat, you risk going into hyponatremia (where the water washes away minerals and results in low sodium in the blood), as this can be more dangerous than dehydration. More on that in another article but for the sake of your hydration plan, always use electrolyte drinks or a fuel and electrolyte mix. You should take with you a minimum of 1 litre of fluid – split between two 500ml soft flasks and this should last you between 10 – 20km. If you can’t schedule checkpoints to work for this sort of distance, then you could take a 1.5L bladder with two 500ml soft flasks and this, together with two energy bars, should give you a range of about 40k.

When you reach your checkpoints, also take on board some flat coke, purely for the feel good factor or swig from a water bottle containing a very high concentrate electrolyte drink like Precision Hydration 1500. All you need to do once you’ve worked out how much fuel and drink you personally need on the trail is to calculate your total supply for the whole challenge. You’ll obviously also need to take enough water with you in your crew car, to mix new drinks with and both for water and for drink mix, take more than you think you’ll need.

If all this sounds way more than you already use, it could be that there’s significant performance improvements that can be gained just by tweaking your nutrition and hydration strategy. There have been widely reported cases of elite athletes seeing massive performance gains, just from changing their outlook on hydration and nutrition.

Now if you’re thinking that ‘performance’ is an odd word to use in relation to walking, then just think of it in terms of either feeling good and enjoying the walk or feeling rough and getting muscle cramps! Don’t forget, a challenge is something where you have an objective. Performing is not about being super fast or super strong, it’s just about completing your challenge to your best ability.

Step Seven – Plan your gear

We’ve written and filmed quite a bit about Sport Walking gear, so we won’t go over what you need in great detail – it’s mostly what you’d take on any Sport Walk but there are a few things you’ll need to have with you for your personal challenge, just as there’s a compulsory kit list for challenge events. Because this is about doing a supported challenge, we’ll make some assumptions around what you’ll actually carry and what can be in the car.

For a summer time challenge, in addition to your shoes, your walking attire and your vest or pack, you’ll obviously need to have waterproofs with you at all times, together with a first aid kit (with tick tweezers), a compact foil survival bag (go for a bag not a blanket) and a fully charged mobile phone (take a charging block if you’re going long too). It’s a good idea to also have a whistle just in case for any reason your phone packs up as this is an understood distress call.

You’ll then want or need to have some supplies in the car that you can pick up later on or to fit your changing situation. It’s a good idea to have a more comprehensive first aid kid, especially a large supply of blister patches, as any treatment you give yourself out on the trail will only really be to tide you over until you reach your crew. Any major repair work will need to be done with the crew at a checkpoint.

It’s not essential to have a change of clothes, even if you’re going really long but you’ll never know until the moment when that’s what would make all the difference, so it’s a good idea to take at least one complete change of clothes with you, together with some options for different scenarios. If you have it there, you can choose not to use it. If you don’t, you can be sure that you’ll want it and then it’ll eat away at you that you didn’t take it! That’s how these things work!

Above all else, have fun!

Now if all this information is making you feel like setting up your own challenge is a massive task, that should only be attempted by anyone with a background in polar exploration or a service record in the Paras, stop it!

It’s actually not that difficult at all. You just need to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve and to put a little effort in to thinking about all the things you might need. If you’re doing it with a friend or family member, then the two of you can create your plan together and if you do as we suggest and recruit your support early, then they can have input too. The key here is the word ‘early’. The sooner in the process you start your serious research and planning, the easier the whole thing will be.

Just remember that old lump of cheese – ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’!


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