The good thing about marathon walking, as opposed running or even racewalking, is that you've been doing it your whole life. If time/pace is not an issue you will probably be able to just head out the door in a pair of comfortable, supportive shoes and start walking. If you're currently able to stay on your feet for an hour of shopping, you should be able to walk for an hour which should add up to three to four miles. After that it's just a matter of adding more. Most days you can just get out and walk an easy 45-60 minutes; one day per week you should build your distance gradually—about 10% per week—to build up your endurance for the marathon. You may also consider pushing your pace a little faster on one or two of your mid-week walks.
A journey of a thousand miles—or 26.2—begins with a single step. Take that step!
The basic principles of marathon training are the same for everyone: You build sufficient endurance to get yourself through 26.2 miles of walking by gradually increasing the distance of a weekly or bi-weekly long easy walk. Then closer to the marathon you do a certain amount of training at your marathon pace or faster to get yourself ready to walk that 26.2 miles at a solid pace.
The long easy walks are what get you through the race safely. They build the muscle and joint strength that keep you injury-free, and they provide the capillaries and higher blood hemoglobin concentration that supply your walking muscles with more oxygen. The more oxygen you can get to those working muscles, the higher the percentage of fat you'll burn during your marathon. And that's the key to breaking through or eliminating "the wall."
After you've developed sufficient endurance to get through the marathon, intervals, tempo work and long sub-threshold workouts will improve your speed and conditioning, which will get you through the marathon faster. Added to the mix are your easy days, which allow you to recover from the hard workouts, and help to improve your overall endurance.
When you do each type of workout is important. But actually doing the workouts is the most important thing. You can have the best training schedule in the world, but if it doesn't fit your lifestyle, it won't do you any good at all. Everybody has different goals and a different starting point, so the path you take may not be the same as anybody else's. With that in mind, the following schedules should be used as a starting point; a guide, not scripture. They're designed to give you the most bang out of the least amount of work. There are plenty of hard workouts to make you stronger, with enough rest to prevent fatigue from overtraining. But again, everybody is different: Some days you may be too tired or not have the time to do a particular workout. That's okay. Let your body tell you what it can and can not do. Missing a few workouts will not keep you from walking a great marathon. But at all cost, try to get that long day in every week, even if you have to switch days to do so. Then make sure you walk at least 30 to 45 minutes on at least two other days during the week to help you to retain the endurance gained during your long workouts. If you have more time to train, great-go longer. If you only have a few minutes to train, it's still worthwhile to get out and do something. If time is limited do less, but go faster. If you get in those three workouts, you'll finish the marathon. If you can add a few faster workouts during the week, like intervals, tempo workouts, or even an occasional 5K race, you'll finish the marathon faster.
Once you've done your mileage build-up and completed several 18- to 20-mile walks, the real work is done. About three weeks before the race you'll "sharpen" by cutting your mileage back by anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3 of your normal workload to give your body a break from the long stuff and to work a bit more on marathon goal pace. This is your taper period. The goal of a taper is to ensure that you're well rested, but also to make sure you're "sharp" and fast. Your schedule should stay pretty much the same, but with less mileage and maybe a little bit more intensity (that means faster walking).
Your main objectives in the weeks before the race are physical and mental rest, and glycogen storage, but you also need to keep active enough to retain fitness and flexibility. Too much rest can leave you feeling flat and sluggish, but it's better to err on the side of doing too little rather than too much in the last few weeks. One of the biggest mistakes first-time marathoners make is trying to do too much too late. Whatever training you've done is "in there." You can't do a whole lot to improve your fitness in the week before the marathon, but you can beat yourself up and make yourself overtired and overtrained by trying to "catch up" on missed training.
A taper is just what it sounds like: a gradually tapering decrease in weekly mileage rather than a sudden drop. Most walkers will cut their weekly mileage by about one third the first week of the taper, then gradually drop down to about one half of their normal weekly mileage the week before the marathon. Others will cut back by as much as two thirds in the week before the race. I don't recommend dropping back that much because it violates one of the primary principles of marathon training: Don't do anything drastically different immediately before your race. You never know what effect such a drastic reduction will have on your body. Maybe you'll feel fine, but maybe you'll gain five pounds because your body is used to burning a lot more calories during the week. You never know.
For better or worse, whatever training you've done in the months before the marathon will rise to the top on race day-but only if you allow it to. You need to have faith in your conditioning going into the race. Don't undermine your training by doing too much in the last few weeks. So do cut back a bit, just don't cut back too much or make any drastic changes in your training program.
As mentioned earlier, the following schedules will get you to the marathon fit and ready to go. But there are many paths to success. Your goals, your current level of conditioning, the amount of time you have to train, and the evil hand of genetics will all play a role in the exact nuts and bolts of how you will train for your marathon, and also in how well you will adapt to that training. Bad weather, job and family commitments, fatigue and other factors may prevent you from completing every workout exactly as it is written. And that's perfectly alright. Just try to make sure you don't cut too many corners, and try to do everything you can to consistently get yourself through those long walks.
If you're training for your first marathon, you should follow the beginner's schedule, regardless of any time goal you may have. You need to build strength before you can handle speed work and other elements of the more advanced schedules. If you have already completed at least one marathon and you want to try mixing some spurts of racewalking technique into your training and racing, you're ready to follow the intermediate schedule. You should only follow the advanced schedule if you've completed at least one marathon and you've been racewalking (as opposed to "regular" walking) for at least six months.
If do not currently walk for exercise, you'll need to build up gradually to the point where you can walk at least 30 minutes per day, three to five days per week, with a long walk of 90 minutes one day per week. Add no more than 15 minutes to the duration of your current longest walk during the week. If you are not walking at all now, allow six weeks to get up to 90 minutes: (6 x 15 = 90). At that point you can move on to week 1 of the beginner's schedule.
One final note: If you are part of a marathon training team or have your own coach, all bets are off. I hate to say it, but having someone there to guide your day-to-day training is always preferable to following a schedule printed in a book or posted on a web site—even this one. By all means, discuss these schedules with your coach, but stick with his or her recommendations.
The following are my “secret codes” that will help you to decipher the training schedules:
These are your must do workouts. If you can't fit the workout in on the scheduled day, fit it into your week any way you can.
10-20-10 (or similar)—These are tempo workouts. 10-20-10 means do an easy ten-minute warm-up, twenty minutes at tempo pace (half-marathon to 10K pace), then an easy ten-minute cool-down. It's okay to substitute a 5K to 10K race on these days. Just don't push too hard.
30-60 (or similar)—This means walk anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, usually at an easy pace.
60+ (or similar)—Walk 60 minutes, or more if time allows.
A. Temp—An acceleration tempo workout. After a complete warm up, then you'll start walking at your distance workout pace, but then gradually build up to your goal marathon pace or faster by the end of the workout.
Economy—Economy intervals are short, fast intervals with relatively long recoveries. Beginners will just walk very fast using their usual technique. More advanced walkers will use racewalking technique, aiming for their 5K race pace or slightly faster. Always do a complete warm-up before even thinking about doing this or any other fast workout! An example is a "6x200m" or "6x1 min" workout, which indicates six fast 200-meter or 1-minute intervals with about 200-meters (or two-minutes) of very easy walking to allow recovery between each fast interval.
Easy—On easy days you can either walk the prescribed amount of time, or do some easy cross-training like swimming, biking or roller-bladeing for a similar amount of time. But easy means easy! Pushing too hard on these days will detract from the quality of your hard days and will also keep you from fully recovering from those hard workouts. If in doubt, err on the side of doing too little rather than too much.
Fartlek—Fartlek is a Swedish word for "speed play." For our purposes, these are easyish walks, interrupted by one- to two-minute bursts of faster walking, perhaps using racewalking technique, or by walking fast up every hill if you train on a hilly course. Don't worry about when or how many bursts to do, just throw in a fast spurt whenever you feel like it.
Goal pace—Whatever the workout, it should be walked at the same pace that you expect to walk your marathon. These are your so-called long sub-threshold workouts.
Hrs—Hours, as in "5 hrs." that means I want you to walk for 5 hours-ouch!
Push—Push the pace, usually down to half-marathon race pace-fast, but not crazy fast.
S—Seconds, as in "+ 4 x :30s fast", which means walk 30 seconds fast, rest for a minute or so, then do it again three more times. (You would normally do this on a very easy day right before a race.)
Tempo—Tempo workout. See 10-20-10.
Thresh—Lactate threshold intervals. Sounds scary, but it's really not all that bad. These are relatively "slow" intervals-at about 10K race pace, but the distance is only 800 - 1,600 meters (about one half mile to one mile). Rests are about two minutes.
X—Times. As in "8x400." That means walk 400 meters at about 5K race pace (fast but not all-out), then recover for about two minutes (or 200 meters) of very easy walking, repeated eight times.