Walking in Ultras: How to train to walk faster.

 In Running training, Ultramarathons

Walking is typically seen as the soft option in running races, however in an ultra its often the smart option. In a hilly race even the elites walk, the difference between them and the back of the pack runners is the amount of walking and the speed at which they walk.

When training for my first Ultra I made the mistake of thinking that I didn’t need to practise walking in training. Surely if I can run then I can walk. This was a big mistake!

Walking is a different activity to running and whilst it involves the same muscles, it uses those muscles in a different way and you need to train your muscles to improve your ability to walk fast.

Why walk instead of run?
When climbing hills, the effort required to run may cause your heart rate to increase up to and over your anaerobic threshold. This will burn through your valuable muscle glycogen stores very quickly which are very difficult to replace during a race. It also increases the lactate levels in your blood which means you will have to slow down for a while to allow the body recover.

Normally a race doesn’t finish at the top of the hill. There are no king of the mountain jerseys in an ultra. Having enough energy to run fast for the rest of the race is critical. For this to happen your effort level needs to be as constant as possible throughout the race. This means you will need to walk any hills that cause your heart rate to rise too much.

How high can you let your heart rate rise before slowing to a walk?
This will depend on your training and how fit you are. The elite will be able to tolerate efforts above the normal race pace for short periods, particularly early in a race. But for most of us we should ensure that our effort level stays constant. When running uphill, as soon as you feel your effort level increase, slow your running down, when you can’t slow any more start walking.

How to train to be a faster walker
Like any skill to improve it you must train it. Find some steep hills to train on. If your race has long hills then longer the better.If it has lots of short inclines then short hills will suit. If you only have access to short hills , you will just have to do more repeats. When I trained for the UTMB the longest hill took 2 minutes to walk up so it meant in a 5 hour session I had to do over 100 repeats!

There are a number of techniques that can be used to increase the speed of walking. Some of the elites like Kilian Jornet and Anton Kuprichka use both hands to push down on the leading leg as they walk up steep hills. Others use poles, others swing their arms more.

Stride length will also make a big difference. It will depend on the incline and your leg length so experiment with shorter and longer strides until you find which one is most effective.

The best way to do this is to pick a hill, walk up it and time yourself. Repeat the process focusing on something different each time and see what gives you the best results. For example focus on arm swing then try using your hands to push off your front leg and see which is quicker.

Keep in mind that this may change for a steeper or more gradual incline so experiment on different inclines.

Stay Focussed
Often in ultras people think of walking as a rest break , a time to recharge the batteries ready for the next downhill or flat section. You can lose a lot of time on the uphills if you employ this strategy.

Try this to illustrate the point. Find a steep hill that takes at least 3 minutes or more to walk up. Walk up without focusing on anything; take in the view , think about the rest of the run , what you will have for dinner tonight – anything but on what you are doing. Now run back down and repeat – this time focus on EVERY step, don’t let anything come into your mind except getting the most out of every step . See how much difference in your times there is.

Switching off mentally when you walk will slow you down big time. Practice walking in training and staying mentally focussed .

Intersperse walking and running
Once you have started walking up a hill this doesn’t mean you walk all the way to the top. If the slope levels off a bit and walking is feeling easy then run a bit until the slope steepens again.

Another strategy is the walk run strategy. Some of the elites use a 1-2 minute walk, 1-2 minute run approach when ascending long climbs. The 1-2 minute walk break is enough to keep their heart rate at an acceptable level.

Walking Technical Trails
Even if the slope isn’t steep, sometimes the nature of the trail makes it very difficult to run. Rocks, tree roots, branches etc can slow even the most technical runner to a walk. What many people do is walk till they reach the end of the section. You can lose valuable time doing this. On trails such as this there are usually some sections you can run. They may only be 10 metres here , 20 metres there but it all adds up. When running these types of trails commit to running anything is runnable.

Training in the gym
There are a number of exercises you can do in the gym to help improve your ability to walk fast uphill.

Treadmills
The obvious one is walking on the treadmill. Raise the incline as high as you can on the treadmill and see how long you can walk at above 6km/hr for. When I trained for the UTMB I did 3 hour treadmill sessions on a 15% gradient at 6.5km/hr. Not much fun but if you don’t have access to big hills and the race you are training for has big hills then it’s a great way to get race ready

Weights
Exercises such as lunges and step ups are great for developing leg strength to improve your climbing ability. One point to consider is that when walking up a slope your front foot is sloped upwards but when walking up stairs your front foot is flat. So if your race has lots of stairs then step ups or lunges are great, if it has more slopes then do your step ups and lunges onto a sloped surface.

A combination of a good weight training program and specific hill walking sessions should have you passing people on the ascents in your next race.

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Showing 17 comments
  • Murdo
    Reply

    Sound advice as always. Thanks Andy!

    MtM

  • Ian Walker
    Reply

    Great advice. I struggle with hill training (or lack of it) did my first multi day ultra endurance race and tried to run the majority of the hills, but blew out on the seccond day! Heart breaking to see a DNF on the third… This post was just what I needed to read.

    • admin
      Reply

      Thanks for your comments Ian. Hopefully next time the walking strategy will help you get to the finish. Good luck with your training.

  • Beverley
    Reply

    hi, im doing my first ultra the NF50 km & have had a few niggling injuries, so took your advice found a big hill on the trail approx 500 m long & 100 m ascent, and walked up and down 4 times, in my 2 hour walk,

    Thanks Bev

    • admin
      Reply

      Hi Bev, sounds like a great workout. Great training for TNF. Hope the rest of your training goes well.

      Andy

  • Alex
    Reply

    Thanks for those great tips Andy! Will use them for sure 😉

    • Andy DuBois
      Reply

      Thanks for your comments Alex

  • Russ Bestley
    Reply

    Good tips – though also worth stressing that walking need not solely be in the area of moving uphill. From experience, ultra runners (including myself at times) seem to find it easier and more justifiable to themselves to walk hills, but find it hard to take walk ‘breaks’ on the flat – so in long ultras that are predominantly flat, we struggle to allow ourselves any slack or take advantage of the ways in which short walks can as you say bring down HR and help stave off fatigue and glycogen depletion for longer.

    Walking on the flat is also a technique worth training for (mind you, I’m an ex international race walker so I guess I have to have some advantages…!) – a strong walker can manage 4.5 to 5mph in walking sections of long ultras – on a par or even better than many of those continuing to try to run. This shouldn’t be any surprise – the first centurion 24 hour / 100 milers were walkers, not runners, and elite race walkers can maintain sub 7 minute miles for hours. Utilising a little of their approach can reap dividends for ultra runners too.

    • Andy DuBois
      Reply

      Thanks for your comments Russ. I totally agree that in long flatter ultras having regular walking breaks can lead to a better overall time.
      24, 48 + hour races are a good example.

      Learning to walk faster on the flat can make just a big difference as it can uphill. Thanks for highlighting that.

  • Jez Thomas
    Reply

    For the wider audience, I’m training for a double marathon distance run, which is fairly flat and a not especially technical trail. Taking your really helpful advice on getting the long run right, it appears that I should increase the length of the long run until a point where it’s length necessitates a recovery length that adversely affects my overall training plan for the week. Then I can experiment with back-to-backs and introducing periods of walking into the long run. Sound like a plan?
    Secondly, I should, eventually, introduce some flat hiking into the plan. The question is how? I hike a fair bit anyway, probably every other week I’ll hike hills for around 20km, not especially quickly. I’m guessing I should be changing this to flatter terrain if possible, quickening the pace, and increasing the distance to 30+kms? And should I wear trainers or boots, or is this not relevant?
    Thanks a bunch Andy!

    • Andy DuBois
      Reply

      Thanks for your comments and questions Jez.

      Re long run – spot on – the longest run you can do that doesnt adversely affect the following weeks training

      Re hiking – boots not relevant unless you are carrying a very heavy load – stick to trainers
      – terrain you hike on should be specific to the race you are training for – walking is a skill and walking fast takes discipline as it is easy to revert to a stroll
      – mixing up walking and running is the best training method as going for a long walk only doesn’t teach the body to continually switch from walking to running as you would in a race.
      – if your long run maximum was 40k you could probably do a 60k session by adding regular walking breaks – eg 5k run 1 k walk – experiment to find what works best for you

      Andy

  • Nic
    Reply

    If you are going to use poles in an event how much training should you do with them, or is it not necessary? Although I use them on hilly trails the majority of my training will be on a mind numbing set of 100 stairs..a lot of reps! Should I use the poles or toughen the legs without them?

    • Andy DuBois
      Reply

      Hi Nic – you need to practise with the poles enough so that they feel like a extension of your hands. During a race you need to be able to get to your water and nutrition easily with poles in your hands without having to stop and you need to feel very comfortable using poles going both up and down.

      So practise as much as you need to – I normally do one session a week with poles and the rest without to get a good mix of strengthening the legs and getting used to using poles

  • Edwin
    Reply

    So informative. I was wondering about the benefits of walking poles. You have mentioned it brilliantly here. Thanks for the post. Looking forward for more updates from you.

    • Andy DuBois
      Reply

      Thanks for the comments Edwin

  • Lee
    Reply

    Great article and very helpful advice that makes total sense.

    • Andy DuBois
      Reply

      Thanks for the comments Lee , glad it was helpful.

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