A few months ago I decided to take part in the Isle of Wight Challenge, a 106km walk done over the first weekend in May. This is totally unlike any other physical thing I have ever done, so I am approaching it with caution. (Props to Joanna Penn for suggesting it; I've joined her Creatives team for the walk.) My overarching goal is to stay healthy, so I have been thinking a great deal about how to train for it. I have been a fan of minimalist footwear since wearing medieval shoes on the medieval streets of Verona in early 2014, and have now gone so far as to own and use a pair of five-toed shoes, to the horror of my children and other conservatives. I trust a million years of evolution over fashion when it comes to my feet. But I need to build up the strength in my feet to handle the uneven terrain and the unusually long duration of this walk. My current approach can be divided into “gym stuff”, “morning routine”, and “training walks”, which I'll outline below. I’d be delighted to hear your suggestions for how to improve it.
I’m taking most of my training inspiration from Ryan Flaherty (sorry about the Insta link; it's the only place on the net I can find him) and have been working on my hex bar deadlift. I was at 80kgs in September, and hit 110 before Christmas. This exercise really works the lower leg, and trains the feet to take the strain of all that weight. I’m concentrating on doing a few sets, with low reps: a typical session might look like this: 3 reps at 80kg, 3 at 90, 3 at 100, 3 at 110, 2 at 110. Job done.
I’m also including his 7 way hip exercise for knee stabilisation:
I'm also doing box jumps, at which my current personal best (without putting my hands on the box) is 33 inches. These are great for developing the fascia, which store and release energy.
And of course, I’m following my own advice from my (free) knee maintenance course regarding range of motion work, massage, and so on.
I usually do about 25 minutes or so of exercise every morning immediately after waking up (and making my wife a cup of tea— priorities!): gentle range of motion stuff, followed by three rounds of Wim Hof breathing, followed by a fourth with push-ups in the empty lungs stage, then my shoulder mobilisation routines, and a few burpees if I feel like it. This is followed by a cold shower (I brush my teeth while letting the shower run to get it properly cold). I videoed my routine a couple of years ago, so take a look here if you'd like to see it, though it has changed a bit since then. Then breakfast, and walk the angels to school. This was my normal morning routine before I decided to do the challenge walk, and I haven’t changed it materially. I also do about 5-20 minutes of stretching in the evenings while watching TV.
I tend to walk everywhere anyway. On a day when I don’t train at all, I’ll more likely than not walk about 10k (according to my motion-tracking ring of power), taking my kids to and from school, and walking to the office and back. On a recent trip to London I needed to get from the hospital where I was visiting my mother in law, to the pub I was having dinner in, about four miles away. It seemed easier to walk it than to fiddle about with tubes and busses. But four miles is not 70. The big problem with going on long training walks is the time they take. I’m used to being able to hit most of my training goals in under an hour’s work. Fortunately, the current trend in training for races is not to cover the total distance (even for short sprints like the 100m). I recently went on a 24km training walk around Alton Water (a convenient beauty spot, with a footpath circuit) which served as a useful diagnostic for the efficacy of my current approach. Two laps of Alton Water covers 24km, and took me four hours, plus half an hour each side for getting there and back. Five hours spent, and it’s less than a quarter of the total distance I’ll be covering in May. (I'm using the Map My Walk app on my android phone to measure training walks. It seems quite accurate, and gives useful data, like elevation as well as distance.)
Lessons from 24km
The walk served as a useful diagnostic for my training progress so far. By far the biggest problem was actually my shoulders. About 15k in, both of my shoulders were spasming in agony. A few shoulder rotations helped, and I didn’t stop for it because there was no clear indication that the walk was creating an injury; it’s just my bloody useless thoracic/cervical spine doing it’s usual crap job. So I will be increasing my shoulder maintenance routines, and seeing if I can figure out why walking is causing the problem. As far as I can tell, it’s irritating the nerves, probably at the junction of C5 and C6 (based on the pattern of the pain), which suggest a hypermobility there, caused by a lack of mobility probably between C6 and C7. In addition to mobility exercises for my upper spine, I’ll also be trying those ghastly ski poles that have become super-fashionable amongst walkers. I hate them because they’re ski poles, but you’re not skiing, and because they occupy both hands at once, and because they’re weapons but not very good weapons (not least because the handle is optimised for an ice-pick grip, though you’d never normally hold a weapon that long that way); seeing a gaggle of walkers coming towards me who are all heavily armed with crap weapons (as I see them), and clearly have no idea of point control, gives me conniptions. [Boy was I ever wrong about those sticks. They are a complete game changer.]
I started out the walk with a four-beat breathing rhythm: in for four steps, out for four steps (no breath-holding). As I warmed up and sped up over a couple of k, that went up to three and three; on the hilly bits, it even went up to two and two. In the easier stages (most of the walk is pretty flat; this is East Anglia after all!) it sometimes went down to five and five, and at no stage was I at all out of breath. When I could see a hilly bit coming, I'd deliberately increase the pace of my breathing to purge CO2 and prevent creating an oxygen debt.
The next day I was completely fine: no significant stiffness or pain. I could feel that my legs had been active, and the soles of my feet were a bit tired, but that was it. (I was wearing Vivobarefoot winter boots).
I am also thinking about doing the long walk in a state of ketosis, to reduce oxygen requirements and because it’s generally better for endurance work. Triggering ketosis is easy enough, but it requires some preparation, and may be hard to maintain with the food available at the actual event. We’ll see…
Perhaps the most important decision that I have yet to make about this walk is which charity to support. Givewell.org have their recommendations, which are based on lives saved for dollars spent. But I’m not sure that the charities they recommend are necessarily the best use of the funds. Preventing malaria is of course massively worthwhile, but Bill Gates is currently working on it. Will whatever I can raise really make a difference? Perhaps something along the lines of education? Or sexual equality? Education for girls in the developing world perhaps? What about baby rhinos? Or pandas? God, this is such a first-world problem to have, isn’t it? I would very much like to hear your recommendations. When I’ve chosen a cause to support, rest assured I’ll be asking you to donate towards it.