As a runner, the suggestion of walking for exercise can sound a bit strange - the equivalent of a powerlifter picking up some little 2kg weights and effortlessly curling in bemusement. “Why would I ever walk for exercise if I can run?” was the mentality I used to have around walking. For quite a few years in fact.
For me, fitness is about the challenge. I don’t finish a run if I’m not tired or I don’t feel like I’ve pushed myself. I want to know that I’ve put the effort in. Like I’m improving in some way. The notion that simply walking could offer such an equivalent challenge puzzled me.
Walking for 100km
Three years ago, I saw a challenge advertised where participants have to walk 100km in one go. 100km, now that sounded like something I might actually find hard. The most I’d ever walked in the past was probably about 30km in one go, although I’d done 42km whilst running a marathon a few times.
It was tough, far tougher than any marathon I’d ever done. The sheer effort of walking for over 24 hours was both emotionally and physically draining on a whole new level. It wasn’t like a marathon where your legs are tired and you’re running out of energy. You’re pretty much falling asleep whilst every part of your lower body wants to give up. It’s not only monotonous, but it feels like an eternity. Given this, I can’t even imagine what a 24hr ultra would be like!
But aside from the fact I could barely walk for two days afterwards, and ignoring the realisation that my feet were covered in more blisters than I thought was possible, I absolutely loved it. I soon afterwards became a hiker, travelling around the country spending a few days walking across various scenic routes.
Unlike the challenge I get from running, where I’m panting my way up a hill, or desperately trying to reach the finish line before the clock ticks onto the next minute, walking is a completely different sort of exercise. When I’m doing it I think differently, I stop and look at things, I sit down and eat something or I carefully take landscape photographs. It’s hard and sometimes, when there’s a steep climb, it can seem almost impossible.
As runners, it’s often easy to overlook the benefits of walking (trust me, there are loads). And not just for general fitness. It can actually help to improve your running. In fact, one of my best ever marathons was run after an injury meaning I could only walk for about seven weeks before. On the day, after I’d stood at the start line wondering if I’d even finish, my legs felt like they had the distance in them.
Firstly, you have the recovery elements. As you can probably imagine, walking is a fair bit easier on the joints. The fact that there’s a lot less impact means you can do it without risk of injury. Even more so, walking actually helps alleviate aches and pains caused by more strenuous types of exercise whilst increasing blood flow.
It’s also great for strengthening key muscle groups used when running, like calves, quads, hamstrings and glutes without putting them at risk of damage. Which is great for pretty much everyone, but significantly higher in individuals at a greater risk of injury, like the elderly or people with muscular problems.
It’s also a hell of a lot more convenient than running if you actually need to go somewhere. Like travelling between meetings, commuting, coming back from the shops, and you can do it in shorter blocks without the need to keep getting changed into your gym kit.
Walking, as you can probably imagine, is perfect for endurance training to help assist your running. You can walk a lot further than you can run, but the fact you’re walking doesn’t diminish the value of the exercise. You’ll strengthen your feet, build leg strength, increase lung capacity and reduce stress.
For beginners training for a distance, walking is a necessity. Some trainers even base their training style on the walk/run methodology. People like Jeff Galloway <http://www.jeffgalloway.com/training/run-walk/> who focus mainly on distance covered instead of time taken to do it, treating it as assort of high recovery interval training. It’s a system most people subconsciously use in the early days; gradually building up distance by minimising the amount of walking you need to do.
And then, aside from all the many health benefits, the training and even the relaxation, you have the social element. In my friendship group, I’m one of the only runners. If we go on holiday together and I suggest going for a run I’m often left heading out on my own. But if I suggest a walk, everyone puts their hands up. Why? Because people are comfortable with walking, there are no athletic connotations behind it, no-one is worried they can’t do it as well as someone else. You can talk while you do it, you can get your phone out, you can even eat a sandwich. It’s probably the most accessible type of fitness out there.
Think of it as a way to cheat your running training. A sneaky little trick to bolster your training that’ll you’ll probably end up becoming obsessed with.