By Bonnie Stein, M.Ed.
Would you believe that some racewalkers actually enjoy walking for two or three hours at a time? Others are trying to build endurance for a looming goal such as a half marathon or marathon. Still others like a long walk once a week for the powerful fat and calorie burning benefits it provides.
On Sunday mornings the Walking Club of Georgia gets together in Atlanta for “Long Walk” training of six to 12 miles. Some marathoners do 12 miles with the group, then get in another 10 or more after the rest of us have gone to breakfast. The experienced walkers wear their Polar heart monitors to make sure they walk at the correct training intensity - about 60-75% of max heart rate.
When a walker, who typically finishes two or three minutes behind me in a race, is keeping up my pace on Sunday morning, I’m convinced that he has forgotten the purpose of the long walk. He thinks that he’s doing a great job - walking at the pace of the faster racewalkers for ten miles. Such a mistake. The purpose of the weekly long walk is not to race.
I am not suggesting that you do all of your walks at the low end of your target heart rate zone. Rather, you should do all of your long, endurance walks in that range. That will give you a chance to recover sufficiently and have more strength to do your speed workouts at the higher percentages of your training zone. Most of our improvement occurs during recovery. To improve performance one needs "stress and rest."
If you're continually stressing the system, it has no opportunity to recover, get stronger and improve. In fact, if a racewalker is doing his long walk too fast, he most likely is overtraining. He may notice that his race times are getting slower even though he feels that he's training quite hard.
The once a week (to once every 10 days) long walk should be done at 65-75% of max heart rate, about two-three minutes per mile slower than your race pace. This is supposed to be an endurance walk, intended to train your aerobic capacity. The effort may be hard due to duration, not hard due to intensity.
According to Jonathan Matthews, 42, the current, fastest masters racewalker in the US who has set four Open American Records and eight Masters American Records, “training by percentage of max heart rate is a simple and accurate way to gauge pace on the long walk.” For Matthews, with a max around 193, he tries to stay with a pulse between 125 and 145. Matthews explains, “Actually, after a warm-up, I try to be in the mid 130's, allowing things to rise into the mid 140's during the last third if the legs feel lively. I wouldn't want to do my long walk any faster than two minutes slower than my 5K race pace. When I've tried to go faster than this, my hard workouts in the next week have been compromised.” For Matthews, who can walk 6:30 minute miles for a 5K, a long walk would be no faster than 8:30 per minute.
For a racewalker who is keeping up with the faster walkers on Sunday morning, but is two to three minutes slower than them in a 5K race, this could be your problem. If you’re walking faster than 65-75% of max heart rate, because of the stress to your system, you most likely are not recovering enough to do quality speed workouts during the week. Stressing the system without proper recovery will result in slower race times. This is assuming all the other training variables (proper nutrition, quality speed work, etc.) are in place.
In last month’s issue, we talked about how long your long walk should be. It's about double your racing distance for most of us who do 5K's and 10K's. Obviously, if your race distance is 50K, you wouldn't want to do 100K for your long walk. Furthermore, personal preference plays a part in determining the length of your long walk.
What if you like racewalking three hours on Sunday, but your race distance is 5K? I usually recommend you do whatever you enjoy, especially if you’re racewalking for fun and fitness rather than competition. If you like doing real long distances, that’s fine. However, be aware that most racewalking coaches feel that anything longer than double your racing distance will probably do little to help your race times.
Having said that, if your goal is fitness, fun, exercise, weight loss, socializing, eating breakfast with your friends after racewalking - all the fun stuff that goes along with training - I recommend that you walk as long as you want. Just don’t be surprised when your race times don’t get faster.