If you have an interest in American super long distance trail routes, trails like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, then you’ve probably come across the term ‘Speed Hiking’, although it’s not something most people who take on these routes do when they’re ’through hiking’.
It’s actually a term that’s become synonymous with ‘Fastest Known Times’ for these trails because those illustrious souls who set out to beat a Fastest Known Time, inevitably use Speed Hiking as their means of travel. Why? Because it’s a blend of running and walking that’s ideally suited to runners going extreme distances.
Speed Hiking has also been used as a term by some hiking or mountain brands in Europe, to describe ‘Fast Packing’ and, as is often the case for these sort of things, terms are used by different people to mean different things until the world coalesces around one use that seems to make the most sense to the most people.
Now it might seem like semantics but Speed Hiking isn’t Fast Packing. Fast Packing involves (as the name rather appropriately suggests) backpacking fast and light. Backpacking being something quite specific – you’re carrying your life with you in your backpack.
Hiking on the other hand, is a term that isn’t specifically tied to carrying a backpack or even any equipment at all – it’s about travelling the trail and exploring the great outdoors. So the application of Speed Hiking that American runners have adopted fits rather well – you’re traveling the trail and exploring the great outdoors, as fast as possible, no backpack required.
By default, if you want to set a Fastest Known Time, you need to go as fast as you can and, as a result, you’re not going to carry a backpack! You’re going to have yourself a support crew carry all the gear you need, so you can just speed along on the trail. And that’s why Speed Hiking has become synonymous with Fastest Known Times and is all about running and walking together as a hybrid approach – you run what you can and walk what you can’t or, more often, just mix the two to manage your effort.
At the end of the day though, all this doesn’t really matter because it just a name but in Sport Walking terms it is important to distinguish between Speed Hiking and Sport Walking because of the running component of Speed Hiking. If you’re taking on a Walking challenge, as a Sport Walker, then it’s really important that you don’t run, just as it’s important that you don’t ride a bike in a run race! There aren’t many, if any, hard rules about Sport Walking but keeping one foot on the ground, so it’s actually walking is one of them!
But Speed Hiking can still play a hugely valuable role in the Sport Walker’s life because it’s a great way to train. Running as a part of your Sport Walking training – to cover the distance you need to achieve for any given day more quickly, so the process has less impact on your life – is perfectly fine. You don’t stop being a Sport Walker if you run in training, just as you don’t switch from being a runner to a weightlifter just because you do strength training.
For some people, there’s either a psychological or physiological reason why they can’t or don’t like to run and prefer to walk. For others, they may like to do both – preferring to Sport Walk their long challenges while running shorter distances or races – Parkrun for instance. For the average Sport Walker though, building some running into their activity or training can bring strong benefits in terms of increasing their cardiovascular fitness.
Sport Walking itself will provide significant improvements in cardiovascular fitness, especially as it’s a lower intensity activity than running but to be at your best when out Sport Walking – either to be able to walk more strongly, to go faster or simply to feel more comfortable for longer, building some higher intensity components into your training routine or even just your day to day activity will make those gains come to you faster. Essentially, by mixing running and walking for your core day to day Sport Walking training, you’ll not only speed up your training sessions giving you more free time, you’ll speed up the process of getting fitter because you’re adding more intensity in a managed way.
As a simple comparison, if you walk 5km fast and that’s what you do day in day out, you’ll reach a level of fitness in a certain time. By adding running to the mix for some sessions, you’ll simply reach that fitness level more quickly.
So, Speed Hiking for Sport Walkers is a tactical win, both when you’re starting out and when you’re an experienced Sport Walker. But make sure that when you take on your longer walks at the weekend, where you’re seeking to replicate what you’d experience in a challenge, you just walk because that’s the time put everything into practice as a Sport Walker and it’s also an opportunity to see and feel how your day to day training is impacting on your walking generally.
If you either perform one running session out of three in the working week (Monday to Friday) or run/walk each session, you should notice that you feel fitter and stronger on your weekend walk because you’ve raised your effort level and intensity.
Starting to Speed Hike in training is really easy too. It doesn’t want to be too structured, this is not interval training, it’s more like Fartlek, which is a term used in running to describe varying your speed without structure. So, in the beginning, start the session by walking (so you warm up) but then at an appropriate point, just break into a slow run or jog and hold that run for a while until you start to feel tired or your route becomes more difficult, then revert to walking fast.
Be tactical though, so don’t start running on an incline or even a ‘false flat’ that’s gently rising, where you’ll be under greater stress. Run downhills or ‘false flats’ that are gently descending. Use running to effectively maintain the effort you will have made on the flat, when gravity makes the workload easier for you. By doing this, you’ll also be changing the way you move the whole time, which is another good thing about Speed Hiking – you get to move in different ways, so you’re less likely to get tight.
Of course, you could choose to make Speed Hiking your thing all the time and there’s nothing wrong with that, just as there’s nothing wrong with being a runner. But for those who prefer to walk or feel that they need to walk, Speed Hiking can be an invaluable tool, to help you get fitter faster, so you can be in great shape to take on a challenge or achieve a Sport Walking goal you’ve set yourself.
Why not try it!