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Training for Trailwalker: 100 km along the South Downs Way

Catharine Gregory

So, you have just received your entry pack for Trailwalker and you are probably wondering what you have let yourself in for. This article will give you some useful training tips to help you get your whole team round in one piece (and hopefully still smiling at the end of it).
I was in one of ten teams from work who took part in Trailwalker in 2006. It was the furthest any of my team had ever walked and we had the added difficulty that we had only met a few times before the event and did not know each other well. However, we all managed to finish in 21 hours 43 minutes despite setbacks of accidentally doing 4 extra kilometres near the start due to a navigation error and one of my team mates being sick half way round due to heat stroke! Trailwalker is a mental challenge as much as a physical one and the key piece of advice I was given before the event is that you have to break it up into small, bite-size pieces if you are going to succeed.

Getting started

The first thing to do is to get out as a team and walk say 10-15 miles on a hilly cross-country walk that requires a certain amount of navigation or route following. Finish at a pub so you can debrief the walk. What went well? How long did it take? If it was longer than you expected then was that to do with fitness, terrain or navigation?
You may walk 10 miles, finish with blisters and wonder how on earth you are going to walk 100 km. Do not worry. You will be amazed how quickly you can build up your mileage after just a few walks.
I had to drag some of my friends round 25 miles in the Cotswolds only three weeks before Trailwalker and they were suffering with blisters, knee problems and general weariness. Three weeks later, they all went on to finish Trailwalker.

Remember, it's a team event

For some, this is the hardest aspect of all; for others, it's what gets you round. There are plenty of challenge events out there that you can do on your own; this is not one of them. The whole point is to get the whole team round. Getting two or three people round in 25 hours is nowhere near as impressive as the teams who hobble in after 29 hours, holding hands and knowing that they could not have finished without each other's support.
Train together as much as you can. That way you will learn how fast you each walk, who is strong uphill, who is good at navigation, what motivates each of you and where your weak points are. Everyone (even the Gurkhas) has weaknesses and those will out on endurance events such as this so you need to be prepared to meet them head on. You may hate hills but perhaps you are like a packhorse on the flat. You may get grumpy when you get tired but your navigation doesn't falter. Or perhaps you are good at fundraising. Every team member deserves their place and you must not forget that if you want to finish Trailwalker.

How much walking do I need to do?

Some people seem to get round on sheer guts and grim determination but I fear they are smiling through clenched teeth at the end. Training prepares you both physically and mentally for what you are taking on and ensures a far more enjoyable experience.
There are plenty of events you can use for training. Have a look at our events calendar for some ideas. Ideally, you should get a few 25 mile events under your belt well before Trailwalker, to give yourself time to recover for the big event. If you can, do two events back to back (e.g. Saturday and Sunday) so that you have done 50 plus miles over two days. If you can do that, you can do Trailwalker.
Most LDWA events are similar to Trailwalker, in that they are cross-country and you are given a route description to get you from checkpoint to checkpoint, usually about five miles apart. This will get you used to the key success factor in Trailwalker, which is thinking checkpoint to checkpoint: never think about the whole distance you have still to walk; just think to yourself, 'it's five miles to the next checkpoint, then I'll have a cup of tea and a sit down'.

I don't have much time for walking. What cross training can I do at the gym?

It has been said that the only training for long distance walking is long distance walking. Actually, I would say that all walking counts so, if you are short on time then try walking to work, in your lunch hour or in the evenings. A short brisk stroll every day will stand you in good stead when you can get out to do longer distances. On top of that, building up strength in your legs through cycling, aerobics, barbell pump or using weights will really help with the hills.

I prefer running to walking. Should I run Trailwalker?

People do run Trailwalker (there are even some crazy people who run the LDWA Hundred) but you should only consider this if you have plenty of experience of running long distances (at least marathons) and plan to incorporate running into your training. Otherwise you are in danger of exhausting yourself early on in the event and may struggle to last the distance. The Gurkhas run of course but they are almost inhuman in their stamina!

I want to finish in under 24 hours

Good for you. Remember, though, that getting the whole team round (and, indeed, finishing) is more important than your speed. Be realistic about what you can achieve. Trailwalker is not as hilly as some 100 km walks (it has approximately 6,600 feet of ascent, which includes 3 memorable hills) and you should be able to get a reasonably fast time if you have done enough practice.
To achieve this time you would need to walk at 3 mph and have less than 3 hours in breaks. That may sound easy while sitting in your chair reading this article but I should warn you that the minutes you spend at checkpoints will tick away faster than you can imagine and it is easy to spend half an hour at a checkpoint without even noticing.
The key is not to set off too fast, maintain a steady pace and be efficient at checkpoints. To have a realistic hope of doing this time, you need to be able to do a 26 mile walk in under 9 hours (and feel like you could carry on at the end of it). Get to know your pace during training walks. At the risk of sounding slightly nerdy, I always record my times on walking events (including stops) and use them to calculate realistic goals for myself on longer walks.
If you have all agreed on a realistic goal, it can be a great motivational help. My friend's team were hoping to finish in under 25 hours but had only minutes left when they reached the racecourse. They started a slow and painful jog and the people at the finishing line spotted them, realised what they were doing and started cheering. Four Gurkhas lined up on the finishing line and grabbed each of them as they finished and dragged them to the electronic check-in point. They each had 24 hrs 59 mins on their certificates!

Do I need to practise walking at night?

Trailwalker is mainly along the South Downs Way, which is a well-defined path and fairly easy to navigate at night with the aid of a headtorch. I recommend a lightweight LED headtorch as these last much longer than other types. Note that although the bulbs last for thousands of hours, your batteries will not. A sign that you need new batteries is a dim light from your torch.

Do I need to know how to read a map?

The navigation is not difficult but you do have to have basic map reading skills. Do not fall into the trap of just following the people in front of you as you will not be happy if they lead you astray (I have seen this happen countless times). A 2 km detour on a 100 km walk can be heart-breaking, so make sure you check the route when you are uncertain, rather than risk some extra mileage.
You can buy the two OS maps for Trailwalker here: Landranger 197 and 198. You can also buy these from the Buy a Map page. If you prefer it, there is a single waterproof stripmap from Harvey Maps. The official guidebook to the South Downs Way includes more detailed maps as another option. There are other South Downs Way guidebooks and DVDs listed here and a download about the trail here. If you want to train on a marked long distance path near you, you can find one using Search for Path.

Should I wear boots or trainers?

Most people opt for either lightweight canvas boots or trail-running shoes. It's a myth that you need ankle support in order to walk cross-country but some people do prefer boots to shoes. Whatever you pick should be comfortable, roomy enough for thick socks and to allow your feet to swell a bit (inevitable, I'm afraid), normally a size larger than shoes you would wear for work. Most importantly, you must wear these shoes on all your training walks and, at the very least, have completed at least one walk over 20 miles in them.

Should I wear two pairs of socks?

Boots are what give you blisters, not socks, so you can ignore various advertising campaigns that promise no blisters. Some people seem more prone to blisters than others and that's just a question of luck. However, most people I know prefer socks made mostly of wool. You do get what you pay for: don't risk cutting off your circulation or getting heat rash due to cheap socks. Personally, I wear one pair of thick socks and make sure I change them every 20 miles. A new pair of socks can do wonders for sore feet and may be what gets you out of the checkpoint and on your way to the finish!

What should I eat and drink?

Eat what you want and plenty of it. Even on a hot day, most walkers enjoy a good cup of tea. Stick to what your body tells you: just because you normally take your tea sugar-free does not mean that you have to stick to that on an event. If you feel at all faint, then you may be short of salt so add some to your food to avoid getting cramp later on. Most people prefer to eat lots of carbohydrates, including cakes and sweets. Pick foods that are easy to digest and that suit you (one of my friends ate no fewer than 14 pork pies on Trailwalker but that kept him happy). Try and get your support team to give you different food at different checkpoints; you may get bored seeing the same set of sandwiches every few miles. Nuts and dried fruit are easy to nibble while you are walking.
A hydration pack, which fits into your rucksack and allows you to drink and walk at the same time makes life much easier and usually makes you drink more, which is particularly important for Trailwalker, as the South Downs get awfully hot in the summer. Alternatively, try putting two half-litre water bottles in the side-pouches of your rucksack for easy access. Once again, choose what suits you but do make sure you can drink on the move.
Remember to drink before you feel thirsty and eat before you feel hungry and you should avoid dehydration and lack of energy.


This is what gets you round. This is why you are in a team and not on your own. This is how one of my team-mates finished despite throwing up everything he had eaten at checkpoint 5! This is what you need to finish.
Use your training walks to work out ways of passing the time when the going gets tough. Ideas include the 'name game' (where you each have to name a famous person with initials following the previous one) or even 'I spy'. A few minutes' conversation may be all you need to take your mind off things!

Training events

Have a look at our events list for some ideas of training walks. There are usually several walks in different parts of the country each weekend. Many events offer shorter routes to get you started and then you can build up to longer distances.

A final note to keep you going

Do not forget how much planning, preparation and effort you have put into this event. Now you just have to show everyone you can do it. Think how proud you will be when you finish. Imagine how happy you will be when you and your team mates cross that finishing line and you will honestly be able to say that this is the best thing you have ever done.

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