I’m often asked how I walk so fast, or how I can maintain a fast walking pace for so long. Runners, especially, ask this question as they are surprised to see how competitive a walker can be in an ultra-distance ‘running’ race.
So, I thought I would write some notes about my training and some of the strategies I use in ultramarathons and multi-day races.
In reading this though, please note that I am not a coach and am only talking about my personal experience. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. My focus and experience is also based on me walking 100% of the time whereas you might be reading this with the view of incorporating walking into your running training and races, and whilst I think that a lot of my ideas below would work for a runner, I don’t have any recent experience with running anything longer than 5km.
My training is completely unstructured. I don’t have a coach and don’t do ‘training sessions’. Also, I only train four days a week, occasionally five days if I’m doing high mileage.
‘High mileage’ is a relative term. For me, ‘high mileage’ means 100km or more per week and when I look back through my training diary, I see that in an average year I have walked more than 100km in only about 10 to 20 weeks with no more than three consecutive weeks of 100km+. And given that I average five races per year of 100 miles (160km) or further, that brings my 100km+ training weeks down to just 5 to 15 weeks per year. Not many.
One of the reasons my ‘high mileage’ is low compared to many, is that with only four training days per week, I don’t do any junk miles.
A typical week is:
- Sunday – two to four hours
- Monday – Rest day
- Tuesday – recovery walk after the weekend – normally about one to two hours
- Wednesday – rest day unless I want to get in some extra mileage
- Thursday – two hours including some fartlek
- Friday – rest day
- Saturday – long walk day and also parkrun day (see below)
So firstly, you may have noticed no mention of hill work and that I refer to my training mileage in hours rather than kilometres or miles.
Personally, I have never liked hills. I train on hills when I come across them and will occasionally pick a hilly course for my long Saturday walk if I have a hilly race coming up, but I just don’t like hills.
When you race distances of 100 miles or further, I find it easier to think about hours than distance. Mentally, it is easier to leave the house for a six-hour training walk than it is to tell myself that I need to walk 50km or 30 miles. That said, I record the number of kilometres and the time taken in my training diary and keep a record of my weekly and monthly training distance.
Saturday is always my big training day unless I have other commitments. It is also parkrun day and I am a big parkrun fan (440 parkuns and counting, and the founder of the first parkrun in New Zealand back in 2012), but I’m not really interested in racing short distances. Instead, parkrun is my speedwork and when incorporated into the middle of a long walk, it makes the long walk that little bit harder giving me even more training benefit. My usual rule is that Saturday’s walk will be make up between 40 and 50% of my total weekly mileage. Looking at the above typical week, this means that my long Saturday walk will usually be between about four and eight hours including parkrun (5km).
My training speed has reduced in recent years due to some persistent niggly injuries but previously I aimed to walk at around 7:30-7:45 per kilometre (12:00-12:30 per mile) for most of my walks with a 31 to 33 minute 5km parkrun in the middle on a Saturday, and Thursday fartlek at speeds of up to 6 minutes/kilometre (9:30/mile). Obviously these speeds are all relative. My fastest 5km as a walker is around 29:20 and my fastest 100 mile time is 20 hours 44 minutes (7:44/kilometre).
These days I generally train at 8:00 to 8:30 per kilometre (12:45 to 13:30 per mile) with 1km of what I call easy walking followed by 2km of power-walking, and repeat. I can’t race-walk like I used to due to two minor injuries (left shin and right piriformis) and with parkrun only just resuming in August 2021 after the Covid pause, I haven’t actually done any speedwork for a very long time.
Other things that I incorporate into my training include:
- Back-to-back training walks
If I don’t have a race for an extended period, I will often do a back-to-back training weekend whereby I do my usual long Saturday walk followed by an equally long Sunday. These will often be six to eight hours each day.
The purpose of the back-to-back sessions is to walk on tired legs on day 2, replicating what it feels like in longer races. I will usually also try to keep my day 2 pace close to that of day 1.
- Overnight training walks
Training for sleep deprivation is something that I personally believe to be beneficial, but I can justify that because I usually have three full rest days per week. Other athletes might tell you that sleep is more important, and they won’t training for sleep deprivation.
Generally, I only race about five times per year and only in the summer, so in the winter I will do a couple overnight training walks, often leaving home at around 10pm on a Friday night after a full week at work and walking for 12 or more hours. And then after I finish, I try to stay awake until bedtime on Saturday night, or if I need a sleep I keep it to 90 minutes as if I was having a short sleep during a multi-day race.
As well as being great training (in my view) overnight training walks offer a great opportunity to see your local area when most people are asleep. I love my overnight walks and these days, thanks to years of training and racing, I find that I can usually walk 36 hours before I need a sleep in a race – whereas in the early days I used to struggle to get through the first night.
As mentioned, my speedwork is a weekly parkrun and some fartlek. My best 100 mile time is at a pace slower than my usual training pace (at the time) and for longer races my race pace is even slower, but some form of speedwork is still important – both for variety in your training and also for strengthening your muscles.
You will also find that naturally faster walkers tend to do more speedwork whilst slower walkers, like me, prefer to focus on building endurance.
- Core strength/weights
Personally, I don’t actually do any core strength work or weights/gym work but if you find yourself leaning to one side late in ultra-distance racing, this is an indication that you need to strengthen your core.
If interested, you can view my recent training on Strava.
Again, a reminder that I am not a coach, and I am not an elite racewalker. I have had a bit of technique coaching over the years and based on that coaching, I focus on the following when walking:
- Drive with the arms
Your legs work in synchronisation with your arms. They will move as fast as you swing your arms, so when your legs are tired, concentrate on arm swing.
- Arms should be bent 90% at the elbow
You can’t drive with your arms without them being bent at the elbow. Watch any runner or elite walker. Their arms are bent, and they are driving with their arms.
Also, I find that if my hands hang too low, they swell up during long walks and become very painful.
- Rotate the hips
Elite racewalkers are well known for their ‘funny’ style, and whilst my style is nothing like that of an elite racewalker, when walking I pretend that I am walking along a line on the road/trail and I aim for each foot to land close to that line. See my illustration to the right.
For example, if I was walking along the painted line in the middle of a road my left foot would land with the left-hand side of the line going down the middle of my left foot, and then my right foot would land with the right-hand side of the line going down the middle of my right foot. I’m not walking with each foot exactly in front of the other, but close.
The benefit of walking like this is that a) your stride is longer meaning that you travel further with the same number of steps and very little additional effort, and b) I find that this style makes it easier to maintain a good pace/rhythm for longer.
- Pull the toes up when landing
As each foot hits the ground, pull the toes up towards you. This pulls the heel forward and lengthens your stride with very little extra effort. Again, more distance travelled for almost the same amount of effort.
Elite racewalkers can walk at up to 240 steps per minute (4 steps every second)!
For me, my training cadence is around 130 steps per minute and that increases to around 160 during a 32 minute parkrun. Personally, I find that I can maintain a cadence of 130 steps per minute for many hours on end.
- Walk with attitude!
You are training to walk fast. You are not training to walk down to the local shop. For runners reading this article, this means that when you take your walking breaks during long races, remember the above technique tips. Get used to them in training. You will find that your running leg muscles will get more rest by walking fast than by walking slow – because walking fast uses different muscles than those used for running.
The mental side:
If you really push yourself to your physical limits, whether that is speed or distance, you need to be mentally strong too. In fact many ultra-distance athletes will tell you that an ultramarathon is 90% mental and only 10% physical.
My experience and my comments below are based on my experience as an ultra-distance walker with 34 walks of 100 miles or further at the time of writing this.
- Don’t think about the full distance
You’ve already walked 50 miles of a 100 mile race and you are feeling tired. If you think to yourself that “I’ve still got 50 miles to go”, you are more likely to get a negative mental stimulus than postive. Your sub-conscious will say “I’m already struggling. How on earth can I do another 50 miles?”.
But if you just focus on the here and now, or on the next checkpoint, or the next 15 minutes, it won’t be long before you will be at 80 miles.
- The ‘Why’
Whether in training or a race, reminding yourself of why you are doing it will help you when you are struggling. My best race results have come when my ‘why’ has been strongest.
If necessary, write your ‘why’ on a piece of paper and carry it with you. When you are struggling, read your ‘why’.
- Always think positive.
Negative thoughts will ruin your race. If you find yourself thinking anything negative, slap yourself in the face!
If you are feeling the start of a possible injury coming on, think about the parts of your body that are not hurting. You will be surprised how many ‘injuries’ are mental and will come and go during a race if you don’t think about them.
If you are feeling tired, use one of following techniques to get over that feeling.
You can’t have negative thoughts when singing. Personally, I restrict singing to when no other competitors are near me, but there have been many occasions when I have been walking down roads or trails in the middle of the night singing aloud.
- Listen to high tempo music
If the race allows it, when you are struggling in a race, put on some high-tempo music and try to speed up your walking to the same tempo.
Most songs only last three minutes so even if you begin to slow down, when the song changes that can be a reminder to pick up the pace again.
As well as music, I have some stand-up comedy audio saved on my phone. Laughing is the best medicine – as the saying goes – and you can’t have negative thoughts and laugh at the same time.
- Phone someone
Depending on the race, carrying a phone may be part of your mandatory kit. If you are feeling tired, struggling in a race, or just wondering whether you can finish, call someone who can give you some positive encouragement. You will be surprised how fast time goes by when you are talking to someone who isn’t actually in the race. I recommend carrying earphones with you so that you don’t need to hold the phone to your ear when talking.
Talking to another competitor who is going at the same pace as you is also good, providing that they are feeling positive and won’t be sharing their negativity with you. Also, make sure that your pace doesn’t drop when you are chatting with other competitors. I have passed many runners in races who are just meandering along having a good natter.
Some tips for races:
Again, what works for me might not work for you, but these points may be of interest to you.
- Don’t sit down if the race is 24 hours or less
When you get tired the desire to sit down and rest gets stronger and stronger, but if you sit down once, you will sit down twice, and each time you sit down you will spend longer and longer resting. Additionally, if your feet are blistered, it will take you longer to get moving again (due to the pain/discomfort), and very soon you will be losing five minutes every hour.
Instead, put on some high tempo music and push through that desire to sit down.
For longer, multi-day races, planning your rest and sleep strategy is extremely important, and something that I’m not very good at – choosing to push myself for too long before sleeping. Once I have this one worked out, I’ll update this article.
- Don’t waste time at checkpoints
If a 100 mile race has a checkpoint every ten miles, that is nine checkpoints. If you simply get into the checkpoint, refill your water bottles, grab some food, and get moving again, you can be in and out within a minute or two. During the course of the 100 mile race, that is 10 to 15 minutes well spent.
If you arrive at the checkpoint, sit down, have a chat with fellow competitors or the volunteers, eat your food, have a drink, and then get going again. Well, you have probably lost ten minutes (at least). Multiply that over nine checkpoints and in a 100 mile race you have spent 90 minutes at checkpoints and the athlete that was in and out of each checkpoint in just a minute has beaten you by 1 ¼ hours whilst racing at exactly the same pace as you!
Note: in a track race or a circuit race, which most racewalking events are, you don’t even need to stop at checkpoints as you will pass the feeding station at the end of every lap and can just grab the food or drink you require and consume it while moving.
- Kilometre (or mile) split times on your watch
These days almost all of us will wear GPS watches. Unless I am racing on a short lap circuit, I will have the GPS turned on and my watch set to vibrate at the completion of every kilometre so that I can check my pace. This alerts me if I am slowing down and enables me to take appropriate action immediately, rather than getting to the next checkpoint and finding that during the last ten miles I have slowed down without realising it.
On a short lap circuit, you can simply use the timing clock to monitor your pace.
- Keep cool
In extremely hot or sunny conditions I will often wear a plain white cotton t-shirt rather than a moisture wicking t-shirt. Cotton t-shirts hold water and can be kept damp and I personally find that this will help to keep me cooler than a normal running t-shirt.
Another thing that I will often do is wear lycra sleeves to keep the sun off my arms, and again I keep these wet when I can. Lycra sleeves are also good for keeping my arms warm at night.
- Never, ever give up!
This is easy for me to say in writing this article, and a look at my race results over the years will show you that I have dropped out of a few races. I can tell you from experience that the pain and regret from dropping out of a race will last a lot longer than any pain you are suffering (or think you are suffering – refer to mental tips above) during a race.
If you’ve read my race reports you will be asking yourself why I have added a section on nutrition to this article. I am well known for fuelling on McDonalds and Fish & Chips (other junk food is also available) during long races, and that is exactly why I mention nutrition here.
During a long race, your body needs calories and fast food is a quick way of consuming a large quantity of calories. In my view, you don’t need to spend exorbitant amounts of money on specifically developed high-carb sports nutrition.
As I’ve already mentioned, what works for me might not work for you but for what it is worth, here are my thoughts on nutrition:
It depends on what time the race starts as to what my last meal before a race is. I have started races at any time between 6am and midnight. It is also worth reminding you that as a walker, my stomach doesn’t have the same upwards and downwards movement that runners might have, and therefore I can digest pretty much anything during a race or long training walk.
For a morning race my last meal will normally be two bowls of porridge which is the same breakfast I eat most days of the week. If I’m staying in a hotel the night before a race, then a couple Bacon & Egg McMuffin’s and Hash Browns from McDonalds are a good alternative.
For an afternoon race, a good-sized lunch which could be pasta or McDonalds or even Fish & Chips. Again, I’m getting in as many calories before the race as I can.
And for an evening race start, I eat something similar to my lunch suggestions.
I also try and eat something immediately before the race start – usually fruit.
- During the race
My basic rule is to avoid processed sugar as much as possible for the first 12 hours of a race. I will eat lots of dried and fresh fruit and plain salted crisps. As the race progresses, I will introduce cereal bars and biscuits, and eventually other sugar-rich foods including children’s sweets (you can get 5 packets of sweets at 120-150 calories per packet for just £1 at ASDA) but check for the calorie content as not all packets of sweets are as high in calories as others. Jelly (Jello for American readers) is another good option and again, make sure that you don’t accidentally buy low calory jelly.
I try to avoid Coke and chocolate until at least the 12 hour mark, after which I will consume both regularly, although in multi-day races I try to limit the Coke and chocolate for as long as I can.
As mentioned, I also prefer not to consume sports supplements, but that is mainly because of the expense.
For most races I take my own food. In a race with checkpoints I will pre-pack my food into numbered plastic bags so that at each checkpoint all I need to do is grab the appropriately numbered plastic bag from my drop-bag and get moving again with very little wasted time at the checkpoint. I will often also include other things in my food bags such as my head-torch or battery charger for the checkpoint that I’m going to arrive at just before I expect to need those items.
I also like to stop at a McDonalds if I pass one during a race as well as ice-cream vans and various other shops.
In multi-day track races (and even in 24 hours races) hygiene may not be an important consideration for many athletes and the last thing you want is to consume food from the food table that another athlete has picked up and then dropped back on to the table, and then end up with a tummy bug (or worse) from eating contaminated food. So I prefer to eat my own food.
In the week after a race I consume all my left-over race food, or ‘party food’ as my wife calls it.
Some other ultra-distance racewalking websites that you might find interesting include:
- UK Centurions website: https://centurions1911.org.uk/
This is the website of the UK Centurions. To qualify as a Centurion you must walk 100 miles in under 24 hours at a designated qualifying race.
- Centurions Worldwide: http://www.centurionsworldwide.org.uk/index.html
This website is maintained by Centurion and multi-day racewalker, Kathy Crilley and includes a wealth of information about ultra-distance racewalking.
- Walk 100 miles in 24 hours: https://www.walk100miles24hours.com/
This website is run by Rob Robertson who is one of 8 people to have achieved Centurion status in all six countries that currently have Centurion walking clubs.
- NZ Centurions website: https://www.nzcenturions.nz/
And for any New Zealanders reading this article, I’m responsible for the NZ Centurions website.
For the time-being, I think that covers everything. But please feel welcome to comment below if you have any additional thoughts that might be of interest to people who read this article in the future, or if you have any questions that I might be able to answer.
Thanks for reading,
4 thoughts on “Ultramarathon training and racing tips”
Excellent Richard. I have your book. I walked in a race with you in Hagley Park years ago. Now at age 73 just trying for my 100 marathons.Kia kaha.If I can just get a little faster I think I can avoid running.
Thanks Jim. I remember the race – November 2012 – I have it listed here (https://richardwalkslondon.com/race-results-and-race-reports/)
It was my third race as a walker.
Hope you enjoyed the book.
Good reading, Richard!