We’re working towards a challenge event in spring 2016 and have done several, either walking or running, in the past. Choosing the right event can make all the difference between a great day and a frustating slog that doesn’t achieve your goals. So what should you look for?
Level of challenge – You need to pick wisely, selecting something that will provide you with a genuine stretch to your current abilities but which is not so ambitious that it will be a disheartening slog to train for and complete. If you choose too high a distance then it will trickle down all the way through your training schedule and may leave you looking at something that leaves you too blistered, sore or exhausted to go about your everyday life. Conversely, something too easy will not assist you in achieving your goals. What are your wider fitness/adventure/lifestyle goals? Does this help you with them?
Logistics and distance from home – Will you need to travel on the day, and will this cause problems before or after the event? Does it require an overnight stay, a flight, a long train journey or does it otherwise throw up logistical or budgetary challenges? If you plan on using public transport, does it run when and where you need? (It is particularly unwise, as many rueful walkers will tell you, to plan to catch a particular bus or train based on an optimistic assessment of your abilities, only to find you were wrong or that the unexpected happened.) And are you really confident about your ability to sit behind the wheel to drive home after travelling, say, 30 miles on your legs? Thinking about these problems in advance will make your progress through the day much smoother.
Training – Think about whether you need to step up or vary what you do. Cross-training, more varied training or exercises to strengthen specific areas of the body are all possibilities. We follow a programme that takes you within shouting distance of the full challenge distance but not quite there, so there is something left to do on the day, which is adapted from John Bingham’s plan to get mortals through marathons and other long endurance distances. There are plenty of training plans out there in walkers’ and runners’ publications, so take some time to research what might be best for you.
Terrain – How might this affect the mileage you are capable of? You may be able to walk a lot further on flat ground than on hills, but will this spoil things and make you feel it was all too easy? Is your priority outright mileage, a challenging course or travelling through a particular kind of landscape? Some people love the hills, some the fens, and some are unfulfilled unless they’ve walked through the woods. Know which type you are and plan accordingly. And can you train on the right kind of ground, or come up with a cross-training solution? (Stair-stepper anyone?)
Time of year – this is largely a matter of personal preference but needs to be considered. For instance, hayfever sufferers might not want to go all out in the earliest days of spring, when tree pollen is a menace, or in early summer when the blasted oilseed rape makes antihistamine an essential. Others hate the full-on summer heat. Winter days are much shorter than summer ones, with sunset imposing a natural time limit. And public transport may be curtailed on a bank holiday. How will time of year affect your motivation and your training planning? And how will all this fit with your other commitments and plans?
Organisation – Some people are ‘turn up and walk’ types who cannot bear the faff of a formally-organised event. Some, especially if they have had much to do with the running fraternity, will be all at sea without race numbers, checkpoints, completers’ medals, official timing and even timing chips. How is the event you are considering organised, and does this suit you? Must you enrol in advance and start at graduated times depending on age, gender, experience, intended distance or predicted finishing time? Or can you just wander along and join in on the day. What do you consider a reasonable entry cost? Some major event organisers are membership organisations and may offer discounts, priority booking and other perks to members, so you might want to consider this course of action.
Gear and equipment – It is useful to consider whether your gear and equipment is up to the challenge, or whether you need new or different stuff. It’s also worth thinking outside the box here. Assuming yours is a one-day event, do you need heavy-duty waterproof kit or leather boots? Are trail shoes and running gear, or hybrid boots, more appropriate? If you are thinking of buying new boots, don’t forget that they will need breaking in. If you will need new gear to complete your challenge, this will have cost implications and need budgeting for.
Injury and pre-existing conditions – Do you have any health issues or conditions that may be aggravated by training or participating in challenge events? If this kind of thing isn’t in the normal scope of your activities, or is way beyond what you’ve done previously, seeking proper medical advice may be in order. Simple precautions can do a lot to keep your training and participation on track. Weak or injury-prone joints need a balance between support and strengthening work – again, targeted exercises may be in order and professional advice from a doctor or sports therapist may be advisable. Routine things to keep handy include blister plasters, sun cream, energy bars or gels, anti-inflammatories and antihistamine products. Also ensure you remain properly hydrated and, if you are planning on disappearing alone into remote countryside for a 20-mile round trip, make sure someone knows where you have gone. Also, don’t ignore niggles that come out in training – you could soldier on only to find you have developed a full-blown injury which came on gradually and which you therefore dismissed as unavoidable aches and pains. (We’ve developed bursitis of the Achilles tendon and the dreaded plantar fasciitis this way, a severely painful foot condition that even our worst enemies don’t deserve). The better you understand the way your body functions, the less this kind of thing can catch you out.
Personal goals – It is worthwhile taking some time to ask what you are hoping to get out of all this. What do you want to achieve? Lower weight, better health, improved fitness, a satisfactory distance or time, beating a previous performance, fundraising for a cause, giving walking a purpose, developing better relationships with partners or family through joint projects, and seeing more of the UK or the world are all possible answers. It is important, if you are to maintain motivation, to have an understanding of why you want to push yourself in this way and what you are getting from it.
Reward and celebration – how are you going to reward yourself for achieving your goal? (Or console yourself if not everything goes to plan.) How are you planning to move on towards new goals, including setting an appropriate timescale? Will you feel lost afterwards, or like you have earned a well-deserved break? Knowing these things will help you manage the transition to your next challenge.