If you’re not a serious walker but are one of the thousands, maybe even millions of people who’ve taken to the streets to go walking during the various Covid lockdowns, chances are you’ve not just been doing it because you’ve been granted the right to exercise once a day and you’re damned if you’re going to let it go to waste. No, more likely you’ve seen this unprecedented situation as the time, finally, to get on top of your fitness.
Often what distracts people away from sustaining a more active lifestyle, is the fact that many of the risks associated with inactivity feel really rather distant or remote. You know that inactivity is a heart health risk but you feel fine at the moment. You know that inactivity is a diabetes risk but hey, you’re not overweight (apart maybe from those first tell tale signs of a little bulge above your belt line), so no major panic. All the knowledge you have around activity and health doesn’t necessarily lead to action because it doesn’t feel that urgent. Just like most of us don’t book the car in for a service as soon as it flashes its first notification, we wait until the warning light won’t go off!
But then 2020 happened and suddenly, everyone’s state of health became a very real and present thing – the worse your general state of health, the higher the apparent risk from Covid if you caught it. Of course it wasn’t guaranteed that this would be the case and there are always exceptions but most people very quickly took on board the notion that being fitter meant being safer.
In our local area, during the first lockdown, it was quite astonishing how many new faces we’d see on our normal run or walk routes. It felt like the numbers doubled almost overnight and then continued to grow. Everyone, of course, had their own personal reasons for committing to regular daily walks and everyone had their own objectives and goals but such a universal change in behaviour is almost impossible to engineer in ‘normal’ times, so it’s really important that we all see what’s been happening since March 2020 as a remarkable and very positive thing (especially as the other side of this is so traumatic and tragic). This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to change behaviours and long term outcomes for a huge number of people.
The opportunity though isn’t just for society as a whole – to benefit from people becoming fitter and more healthy, therefore easing pressure on the health service over the long term. No, the greatest opportunity lies with the individual and this is where Sport Walking can offer so much.
‘Where Sport Walking can make a huge and transformational difference is in the role challenge plays in motivating you to go walking’
The key issue with all the messaging around just going walking to get fit or to stay healthy is that the novelty can quite easily wear off and then you’re in the exact same situation as someone taking up jogging or any other fitness activity. After a few weeks of just ‘going for a walk’, possibly along generally the same routes, you can start to question where all this walking is taking you. You maybe don’t feel that different because, let’s face it, you need several months of any activity to really start to see significant change. So your health motivators can start to fade – this is now just another thing that takes up your time and which doesn’t (at present) feel like it’s doing much for you.
Where Sport Walking can make a huge and transformational difference is in the role challenge plays in motivating you to go walking. It provides purpose and structure for your everyday walks, so that all your walking is, in some way, connected to something bigger. It’s leading up to a challenge that you’re working towards, even if it’s months away. The reason you’re walking is to be able to do this thing that’s really personal to you and which you hope will bring you a great sense of achievement.
Over time, becoming a Sport Walker puts you on a kind of hamster wheel – working towards a target challenge, doing the challenge (and feeling incredibly proud of your achievement) and then working towards the next challenge. Suddenly, after you’ve ticked off your longest challenge walk yet, you have the realisation that you’ve been doing this for six months or more and are loving every minute of it. BOOM – fitness motivation!
Because the walking you do on a day to day basis now has real purpose – it’s preparing you physically and mentally for something special in the near future – you no longer question where all this is taking you, you know exactly where it’s taking you! Also, because you’re now approaching your everyday walking as training (even if you don’t call it that), you simply go out and do what you’ve planned, no doubts, no questions. You can rationalise any negative feelings about any particular walk more easily: it doesn’t matter whether you’re enjoying that moment, you’re just filling up your tank for the treat that’s to come.
But perhaps the most valuable part of going from simply being a daily Covid walker to being a Sport Walker is that you don’t really think about the health and fitness benefits, you go walking for the challenge, for the adventure and for the way you feel when you’ve completed a challenge – pride, exhilaration, fulfilment, satisfaction. This buzz of achievement is a powerful stimulant and will have you lusting after your next test before you’ve even got home from the last one! Of course when you eventually get to walk your first ultra, you swear you’ll never do another one again but don’t worry, just as with childbirth, this foolish nonsense soon wears off!
‘Just walking ‘normally’ fast, is as much an athletic or sporting activity as running or cycling‘
But if you’re new to all this and really weren’t planning on getting sporty or anything – you just wanted to lose a bit of that flab and feel a bit better – you may be wondering what exactly Sport Walking means in the context of what you do now? Well, it’s quite simple really, nothing very much changes from what you presently do, you just start to walk faster and set yourself achievable challenges in the near future that you work towards. Then, when you take on these challenges, you try to complete them in a time that you’ve set as a target and that’s basically it!
So, to be specific, if you’re going out every day for a short walk of maybe a couple of kilometres, maybe less, making this shift means still doing that, just putting a bit more effort in to walk faster and then thinking of something that would be a really great challenge for you. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to walk a trail that you previously felt was too far but secretly thought would be a wonderful adventure? Maybe you just want to get around your local Park Run? Whatever you think of that feels out of reach IS viable as a challenge for you.
The best thing is you don’t need to learn a new walking technique, you don’t need to have much in the way of gear (apart from some trainers) and all the other stuff you might read about on this blog – tackling ultra marathons, taking on mountain routes, getting into technique adaptations, refining kit can come later, once you’ve become hooked!
Just walking ‘normally’ fast, is as much an athletic or sporting activity as running or cycling and if you chug along at a fast but relatively comfortable pace, you can cover a surprising distance and achieve amazing things that you probably never thought were possible. In 2019, Sport Walk’s founder – Roger Burlinson – walked the South Downs Way non-stop. It took him just under 28 hours and he was simply walking at a pace most people would think of as brisk. The sport for him in this challenge was to complete the route in his target time of 26-28 hours (which he did) and to walk the 100 miles in one go non-stop – without overnight stops – (which he did).
Of course this kind of test isn’t for everyone and Sport Walking is not all about doing ultras but it shows how personal your challenges can be and, also, that nothing is impossible! All the challenges you set yourself are your own, even if you participate in an organised event (which is often where people get their first taste of Sport Walking). The course may be set for you, as is the distance and, possibly, there could be some cut off times to meet but the challenge itself is yours and yours alone.
So let’s look at how exactly you can go from being a daily Covid Walker to a Sport Walker in five easy steps:
‘The purpose and the ‘sport’ is to achieve your own goal, to beat your own limitations and to be the best you can‘
Step 1 – just keep going out walking
The first step in this new journey you’ve now embarked on (what do you mean you haven’t agreed to it yet?) is to simply keep doing what you’re already doing. Just keep going out walking as you have been but start to view it differently. Know that you’re now doing it for a purpose – to become something, to take on something and to achieve something. Turn your walks and walking into something more than just moving along – turn it into a sporting endeavour.
Now, let’s talk about the ‘sport’ bit just quickly. The challenges are the sport and in any sport there’s a test – to win, to beat the other team in a game or to be the fastest in a race. But Sport Walking is not Race Walking. It’s not about attaining maximum speed or being the first or winning. If you enter an organised event, you can come first and you can beat others (you’ll actually find you get quite competitive out there) but that’s not the purpose of it and it’s not why you enter. The purpose and the ‘sport’ is to achieve your own goal, to beat your own limitations and to be the best you can.
Your challenges can be many and varied but they’re all YOUR challenges – the things YOU want to achieve. That could be to walk 10k in an hour or less, it might be to walk a 50km trail route non-stop or to get to the top of Snowdon in a particular time. Whatever the challenge is, there will be a test that you set yourself – your goal, your objective and that’s what you’re looking to beat and where your walking becomes sport.
So, by now thinking of what you’re doing as Sport Walking, your day to day walks have far greater significance and are part of something bigger. They have a purpose – to prepare you for your challenges, to make you stronger, to make you fitter and more resilient so you can do well on your challenge and achieve your goal.
Step 2 – walk faster
A key factor in Sport Walking is to walk your challenge in the quickest time you can – that’s essentially your aim, so walking faster is a fundamental part of it. Now that doesn’t mean that to be a Sport Walker and to go Sport Walking you need to be race walking. It means that you set out to complete your challenge in the quickest time you can using the style of walking that YOU want.
So the first step in increasing your walking speed so you can complete your challenges in the best time you can is……… to just walk faster!
At this stage, you don’t need to worry about how you’re walking, just up your pace (make like you’re late for the bus) and keep this higher pace up for your whole walk. Keep going out normally as in step one but just walk faster.
To start with, you might need to shorten your walk because you’ll be working a bit harder but as you settle into your new faster pace, you’ll return to just feeling comfortable and this will be your new normal. By the way, when you reach this point (and it won’t take that long) you will have made a fitness gain – as to return to walking your normal distance and feeling comfortable while travelling faster means, you’ll be a bit fitter. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be comfortable!
Step 3 – build structure & adventure
The next thing to do, once you’re walking regularly at a faster pace is to start to think a bit about some structure, so that you’re walking a little more to a defined plan. Also, try to take your weekend walks on trails, if it’s not possible for all your walks to be off-road during the week. Try to develop and build that sense of adventure in what you do and getting out onto the trails is how you do that.
For the structure, it doesn’t have to be anything overly prescriptive at this stage but making all your day to day walks have a clear training purpose and where you’re covering pre-determined distances is really valuable, as it gets you into a process that you’ll simply adapt as you get closer to your challenge.
Again, just as with the other steps, this doesn’t have to be overbearing. All you need to do is to set out the minimum distance you’ll walk each session and then to structure your week to give you easy days and days when you’ll work a bit harder. You can still walk every day if you want to, especially if it’s valuable for your wellbeing or if you walk commute but you’ll simply make certain days your core training days and those in between ‘rest days’ where if you walk, you keep your pace easy.
If your normal weekday walking routes don’t offer much in the way of off road trails, don’t worry too much about building adventure in the week but do try to go somewhere at the weekend where you can test yourself on trails. Being in nature will bring added rewards, lifting your spirits and giving you extra motivation and these walks will become like a reward for your weekday walks, which might be quite straightforward on the roads around your home.
A simple weekly structure might be to ‘train’ on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, completing a minimum of 3 kilometres at a comfortably fast pace if you’re just starting out, moving up to 5k minimum when you’re a bit stronger. Then, you’d either do nothing or just have an easy slower walk on the Tuesday and Thursday. You could choose to do something different on these days or to do some Yoga or other strength building exercise, it’s up to you. At the weekend, you’d could take a good long walk of a couple of hours on the Saturday and do nothing or very little on the Sunday (so you’re fresh to start again on the Monday). You could also make one of your three weekday training walks a hill session, making sure your route includes a couple of steepish climbs to get some additional leg strength benefits as well.
Step 4 – track and learn
Tracking your walks and seeing how your pace is improving, while setting yourself minimum distances for each walk is where you can really start to make progress. There’s a reason everyone has started talking about how many steps they’ve done that day – as a motivational tool, it works! It’s the same with other more in depth methods of tracking what you do. Seeing your stats – how far you’ve walked, what your pace was – brings everything to life and you have clarity on exactly how you’re doing.
If you’re walking faster and going further but don’t have a record of your efforts in statistical form, it’s all a bit conceptual. You feel like you’re getting faster, fitter, stronger but you can’t know for sure. When you track your efforts during training walks you have a clear record that you can both refer back to and use as a real time assessment of how you’re actually doing.
Strava is an excellent app for this, as it tracks your walk, so you can see your route on the map and it gives you distance, speed, pace and other stats to see whether that walk really was as fast as it felt. The best thing though is that, because it’s an accumulative record, Strava will tell you if you walked a particular route faster than before. There are numerous other apps that will do the same thing but if you get Strava, either on your phone or to pair with a watch or other device (it’s completely free to get a basic account), you can join our Strava Club and see how others are getting on, as well as getting support from them on your journey too.
Step 5 – set your first challenge
This is where stuff gets real! As we said at the top of this article, the whole point of Sport Walking is to take on challenges – that’s where the sport lies – and all the other walking you do gains a purpose because it prepares you for your challenge. So, whenever you like on your journey from being a daily Covid Walker to becoming a Sport Walker – on the first day if you want – set yourself your first challenge.
You can choose any challenge you like but we’d suggest something a bit more than just 5 or 10k because for the majority of people, walking this distance is something that they can attain relatively easily if they just commit to it and you can cover these distances in your day to day training walks, perhaps not immediately but certainly in the short to medium term. The power of completing a more substantial challenge that pushes you a bit but which is, ultimately, within your reach is huge. You feel a massive sense of achievement and the discovery that you’re capable of far more than you perhaps thought can be life changing.
So for your first challenge, pick a distance that’s further than you’ve previously walked in one go but which you feel you should be able to complete. A half marathon is a really good first challenge because, at just over 21km, it’s a decent distance but even for someone who’s only at the stage of attaining a modest pace, it’s achievable within 4-6 hours. If you’re not ready for that sort of distance though, just choose something that feels closer to where you’re at but do go beyond your comfort zone.
Make sure you fix a date to do the challenge (at least 6-8 weeks away) and then you’ve got a tangible target. This is really important because a challenge that’s not fixed is as intangible as just walking for no particular purpose. No, the challenge only exists if it’s an immovable object, so pick your task, set the date and then work back through the preceding weeks and/or months setting out the distances and sessions you’ll need to complete in your day to day walking to be ready to take it on. And of course these day to day walks are….. your daily walks, it’s just that they have a different purpose now!
The other thing to do is to set yourself a time goal for this challenge and you can do this by understanding your pace for a reference distance that you have actually walked – 10km is always a good reference distance as you can just go in multiples of 10 (obviously! – Ed). This time goal is not a measure you adopt from anyone else – it’s what you think you can achieve by pushing yourself beyond what you know you can actually do. It needs to be a time that you’re not sure you can meet but which you think you can achieve given your level of fitness and how you feel about the test, using your reference distance as a guide. So, for instance, if you know you can walk 5km in one hour and you’re walking 20km, set yourself the time goal of completing the route in under 4 hours. You might even say you want to complete it in under 3 hours 45 minutes, it’s up to you but use what you know about your abilities and then set a time goal that is faster, so to achieve that goal you’ll need to push yourself a bit, not simply go through the motions and have it come easy because, let’s face it, that’s going to give you nothing.
Going beyond your perceived limits and testing yourself, even to the point where you perhaps fear the test, is where Sport Walking will give you your biggest rewards. It’s only when we test ourselves beyond our scope of understanding about our actual ability that we truly grow and realise what we’re really capable of. And the simple fact is, that once you’ve made that discovery, you’ll be empowered forever! All the limitations you place on yourself about what’s within you, what you’re able to do will vanish.
Just repeat this process! Make your next challenge a bit tougher and longer, so that you’re progressing but don’t get too carried away and jump from a half marathon up to a 100k ultra event! The important thing is to soak up all the positive aspects of Sport Walking – to enjoy your day to day walks, to go exploring new trails and to develop that sense of adventure, the sense of achievement you get as you become stronger and can go further faster. Captain Kirk probably put it best (paraphrase coming up): “to boldly go where no ‘you’ has gone before”!
Further reading: ‘What is Sport Walking’, ‘Going it alone – how to build your own challenges’, ‘Your first training plan’
Videos to watch: ‘Sport Walking explained’, ‘MOVE FAST – How to walk faster’, ‘CHALLENGE YOURSELF – How to build challenge into your walking’