For fitness enthusiasts and newbies alike, 26 miles is a bit of a magic number. Get your walking marathon calendar ready because that magic number — or 26 miles and 385 yards, to be precise — is the official length of a standard marathon.
Whether you run them or walk them, marathons and charity races are more than just communal events. They date back to well before the first modern Olympics in 1896 and offer real health benefits — much of which you'll reap during the all-important training phase. But before you pencil in that training calendar, it's important to have a time estimate of your long trek.
Based on walking speed averages, it'll take a typical walker about eight and a half hours to finish 26 miles, but there's a lot of room for variation in that estimate.
What's the Average Walking Speed?
To come up with an estimate of how long it takes an average person walking at an average speed to complete a 26-mile trip, you first need to know what is considered "average" walking speed. That's where two studies come into play.
In September of 2011, the journal Physiotherapy published a meta-analysis of 41 prior studies covering data from 23,111 subjects, measuring gait speed among women and men aged 40 to 99 years. Similarly, Portland State University published findings in May of 2005 wherein city planners detailed the recorded walking speeds of 815 pedestrians of all genders and age groups.
Perhaps reassuringly, these two sources come to very similar conclusions. The Physiotherapy review pegs the average walking speed for the 40-to-49-year-old age group at 143.4 centimeters per second, while Portland State University's data arrives at an average overall speed of about 5 kilometers per hour — that's almost the same speed. In Imperial measurements, that would place the average human walking speed at about 3.1 miles per hour.
Read more: The Best 5K Races for Any Fitness Level
Walking 26 Miles: Time Estimate
With a reliable average walking speed in hand, a little basic math is naturally your next step — just divide 26 (the total miles) by 3.1 (the average amount of miles a person covers in one hour of walking). This formula reveals that it would take the "average" person about 8.39 hours (roughly 8 hours and 23.4 minutes) to walk 26 miles at a steady pace and speed.
If you want to be more specific, a marathon is 26.2188 miles, putting the time at about 8.46 hours, or 8 hours and 27.6 minutes.
Of course, not everyone is walking at that average speed. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) agrees with the 3 mph average walking speed, while calling 2 mph a "casual pace," 3.5 mph a "brisk pace," 4 mph a "very brisk pace" and 5 mph "fast" walking (or what you might call power walking). With these speeds in mind, here's how a 26-mile-long walk might alternatively break down, in terms of time:
- 26 miles at 2 mph: 13 hours
- 26 miles at 3.5 mph: 7 hours and 25.2 minutes
- 26 miles at 4 mph: 6 hours and 30 minutes
- 26 miles at 5 mph: 5 hours and 12 minutes
26-Mile Walk: Training Plan
If you plan to walk a 26-mile marathon, the importance of training can't be overstated. Fortunately, Walk the Walk Worldwide — a UK nonprofit that has been organizing walking marathons to raise money for breast cancer causes since 1996 — chimes in with a detailed training plan.
Here's the walking marathon calendar the organization recommends for the 12 weeks leading up to your full walking marathon, rotating walking days with relaxing or "other physical activity" days:
- Week 1: Walk 3 miles at a steady pace for three days of the week. Relax and stretch for the other four.
- Week 2: Walk 4 miles at a steady pace for three days of the week. Relax and stretch for the other four.
- Week 3: Walk 5 miles at a steady pace on one day, 4 miles at an increased pace on two others and 6 miles at a steady pace on one more. Relax and stretch for two days; do any other physical activity (for about 30 minutes) on another.
- Week 4: Walk 5 miles at an increased pace on two days of the week and 8 miles at a steady pace on one other. Relax and stretch for two days. Do any other physical activity on the other two.
- Week 5: Walk 5 miles at an increased pace on one day, 4 miles at an increased pace on one day and 10 miles on another day. Relax and stretch for two days. Do any other physical activity for two days.
- Week 6: Walk 4 miles at an increased pace on one day, 6 miles with intervals of intensity on one day and 12 miles on another. Relax and stretch for two days. Do any other physical activity for two days.
- Week 7: Speed walk 6 miles on one day and 6 miles with intervals on another. Relax and stretch for three days. Do any other physical activity for two days.
- Week 8: Speed walk 6 miles on one day, 6 miles with intervals on another day, 14 miles on another and 16 miles on one more. Relax and stretch for three days.
- Week 9: Speed walk 6 miles on two days and 7 miles on another. Relax and stretch for two days. Do any other physical activity for two days.
- Week 10: Speed walk 7 miles on two days and 16 miles on one day. Relax and stretch for three days. Do any other physical activity on one day.
- Week 11: Speed walk 5 miles on two days and 20 miles on one day. Relax and stretch for three days. Do any other physical activity on one day.
- Week 12 (the week of the marathon): Speed walk 3 miles on two days and 5 miles on one day. Relax and stretch for three days (including the day before the marathon).
The American Heart Association recommends about five minutes of light stretching of the inner thighs, calves, chest, hamstrings and hip flexors before walking. Palm touches, shoulder rolls, toe touches and wall pushes appear to be particularly beneficial.
The Calorie Burn
As you might expect, you're looking at a pretty significant calorie burn for a 26-mile walk, according to the ACE's Physical Activity Calorie Counter.
Because your weight affects the number of calories you burn, body weight averages for U.S. men and women provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) come in handy here. According to the CDC, the average American man weighs 197.8 pounds while the average American woman clocks in at 170.5 pounds.
With these weights in mind, ACE states that a man of average weight burns about 2,518 calories walking 26 miles, based on an estimated walking time of roughly 8.5 hours and a speed of 3 mph. For a 170-pound woman at the same time and speed, that figure is 2,161 calories.
Ramping up the speed not only reduces your time but also affects your calorie burn. At a brisk pace of 3.5 miles, calorie burn increases to 2,566 for the average-sized man and 2,197 for the average-sized woman. At 4 mph, it jumps to 2,918 or 2,505, respectively. Power walking at 5 mph results in calorie burns of a little over 4,175 in the 198-pound category and 3,583 in the 170-pound category — that's more than one pound's worth of calorie burn in either case.
Other Marathon Walking Benefits
You know that even just a bit of daily walking provides a whole host of benefits for your general well-being, but what about the particular benefits of walking in a 26-mile-marathon format? From weight loss to improved brain function, walking benefits your health in more than one way.
For one, Laura Goldberg, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic recommends walking as a sensible re-entry point for training if you've suffered an injury (once you're able to walk without pain, that is). The low-impact nature of walking is also what makes it a friendly way into completing a marathon for those who may not be comfortable with running.
"A combined run/walk strategy ... allows non-elite runners to achieve similar finish times with less (muscle) discomfort." — Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Volume 19, Issue 1, January 2016
A combination of speeds is a viable option as well. According to a small January 2016 study of 44 people from the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, alternating walking and running in a marathon doesn't drastically alter the cardiovascular load compared to running straight through, so you needn't worry that you're not getting solid cardio in. More than that, run-walkers and full-time runners only exhibited a seven-minute difference in finishing times.
The researchers conclude that, "Although a combined run/walk strategy does not reduce the load on the cardiovascular system, it allows non-elite runners to achieve similar finish times with less (muscle) discomfort."
Read more: 22 of the World's Best Marathons
After monitoring data from 521 participants in the international Nijmegen Four Days Marches, which range from about 79 to 125 miles over the course of four days, the journal Rejuvenation Research published some interesting findings in October of 2017.
Well outside of all the known physical benefits of walking, the researchers found a positive association between training walking speed and working memory, suggesting a possible link between long-distance walking and cognitive function — so as it turns out, long-distance walking isn't just healthy, it's smart too.
- National Center for Families Learning: Wonderopolis: "How Long Is a Marathon?"
- NCBI: Physiotherapy: "Normal Walking Speed: A Descriptive Meta-Analysis"
- Portland State University: "Establishing Pedestrian Walking Speeds"
- Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport: "Does a Run/Walk Strategy Decrease Cardiac Stress During a Marathon in Non-elite Runners?"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Injured During Marathon Training? Here's How to Get Back in Stride"
- American Heart Association: "Stretches for Walking"
- Walk the Walk Worldwide: "About Us"
- Walk the Walk Worldwide: "Walk the Walk Full Marathon Training Plan"
- Centers of Disease Control and Prevention: National Center for Health Statistics: "Body Measurements"
- American Council on Exercise: "Physical Activity Calorie Counter"