Attempting to break the female GWR (Guinness World Record) marathon carrying a 40# backpack. The training plan. The training failure. Reminders and lessons learned. 

The author grinding through threshold ruck run intervals.

By Tammy Kovaluk, MTI Contributor

Prior to the 12 and 24hr “chest to ground pushup burpee” GWRs, I started looking for others to try for. Any GWR attempt would need to both challenging and inspirational. Burpees resonated the most, but those were done. Pushups were attractive, and a few events carrying a backpack (aka rucking) was of interest. These would continue to raise awareness and fundraise for local non-profits.

Research and Basic Strategy

One of the GWRs of interest was the female marathon carrying a 40# backpack. The current record was a time of 4:34. Having had to perform ruck time trials for ultra-endurance events, the GWR marathon carrying a 40# backpack seemed challenging, inspirational, tough to pull off, but possible. There was also a half marathon record with a 40# backpack, so I applied to break both records at the same event.

To meet the GWR standards, the record needed to be broken during an actual marathon, and have the whole attempt videotaped, and witnessed. I targeted a relatively flat marathon in Eugene, Oregon on May 1, 2022  and needed to complete it at a 10min/mile pace, with a goal finish time time 4:22. 

This seemed possible with some solid training, would provide a margin incase things went to shit during the last 10k. I also wanted to break the record by more than just a minute or two. 

My strengths are an ability to maintain an even pace and mental fortitude to withstand suffering during longer events. My weaknesses are power and speed. Past personal experimentation revealed that a focus of interval training did not transform me into a speed demon. However, interval training did translate to a greater speed on longer runs. 

In addition to interval training with a 40# backpack, marathon pace training would be required with the load. I needed to train the body and mind to maintain the required pace over 26.2 miles.

Running with a weighted backpack is more of a strength stamina issue rather than a cardiovascular-stamina issue. The additional load makes the legs feel much heavier as compared to regular running. The greater forward causes differences in muscular load and force production, as well as increased risk of injury. Traps especially get sore, and you cannot move your arms as freely as you can with regular running. The waist belt affects breathing, making it more difficult to take in and expel deep breaths.  

The training program progression included an undulating volume of relatively large volume weeks and longer ruck runs, alternating with lower volume weeks. Injury was of moderate concern and was hopeful that an undulating volume would help in preventing this.  Both ruck .interval training and long, marathon-pace ruck runs would be key sessions within the training plan.

Pre-Training, Events and Battling Injuries

Shortly after the burpee records in June 2021, I started training for my first 100 mile race in November of the same year. This was for a longer term goal of Badwater 135, as you need at least 3 x 100 mile races before applying for Badwater. My left shoulder was quite injured for the first couple of months, requiring me to hold it with my right arm until I could withstand the pain from bouncing while running. In hindsight, should have probably worn a sling. 

My plan was to train for the 100 miler and include one ruck session per week, starting with a 25# backpack and progressing to a 40# backpack, combining some “strides” and a run/hike up a one-mile hill. This would begin once my shoulder healed.  The purpose of the strides was to build some leg speed without taxing the system, and the purpose of the hill training was to build some specific leg stamina-strength for both the 100 miler and the GWR attempt. 

The Training Plan Basics

November-December: 

  • 2 weeks active recovery from the 100 miler before starting more specific training. 
  • Late November: Begin light run-rucking carrying a 30# pack and progressing to a 40# pack, with sessions of up to 5 miles. Start playing with speeds at both the track and the steady runs for programming purposes. 
  • Include ruck hiking up a moderate hill 1 x week with a 40# backpack, at 500 feet of gain in one mile, especially to re-strengthen the left quad tendon.
  • Rebuild general strength in the gym. 
  • December annual Tacti-fit challenge. Daily short workouts of ~15-20min instead of an emphasis on sandbag and ruck workouts.

January-February: Pre-peak phase. Focus on leg speed and building volume.

Key sessions with a 40# backpack:

  • 1 x track session, with emphasis on 200s and 400s, building from 60sec/mile to 90sec/mile faster than goal marathon-pace 
  • 1 x threshold: Starting with mile repeats and building to 20-30min straight at 60sec/mile faster than goal marathon pace. 
  • 1 x longer run alternating 
    • Week 1: Longer run at steady pace, starting at 9 miles and building to 15 miles. 
    • Week 2: Relatively shorter run of 6-10 miles, with some strides included near the end of the run for speed-endurance. Strides for this were 30sec work/30sec rest at approximately 30sec/mile faster than goal marathon pace. 

Other running sessions: 

  • Heavier pack run of 3-5miles, using a slightly heavier pack of 45# plus with the goal of the 40# pack feeling relatively lighter over time.
  • 3 x per week of moderate-pace running, unloaded, for active recovery.

March – April: Peak phase. Focus on marathon pacing and marathon-specific runs.

Key sessions with 40# backpack:

  • 1 x track work, emphasis on 800s and 400s, typically at a pace of 60-90sec/mile faster than marathon-pace.
  • 1 x tempo run at marathon pace/up to 15sec/mile faster. 
  • 1 x long run, building to 21 miles, alternating 
    • Week 1: Long intervals at a little faster than marathon pace 
    • Week 2: Negative split run (progressive build from easy to marathon pace/a little faster if possible). 

Other sessions: 

  • Heavier pack run at 45-50# at a moderate pace for 3-4 miles.
  • 3 sessions per week of moderate running, unloaded, for active recovery.
Week of: Ruck Running week volume

(in miles)

Running week volume

(in miles)

November 29 15.5 12
December 6 18 15
December 13 (deload week) 8 9.75 plus ~6 cross country ski
December 20 16 17
December 27 (bit of deload, travel and long Sunday mountain run in AZ) 6 *4+ in thick snow 17.2 plus 6.2 cross country ski
January 3

(visiting AZ part of week, with mountain running and hiking)

15.3 26.9
January 10 25 15
January 17 (deload) 6 10+
January 24  16.5 12
January 31 26.25 6.8
February 7 (deload – Mexico with search and rescue team. Brought pack but decided to try a week off rucking and see if this helped) 16.5+ lots of walking
February 14  17.5 17.1
February 21  15.8

*plan was a 28 mile week

13
January 10, 2022 Ruck (and run) Training Detailed Sample Week
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
3.5 miles run no pack 14 miles with 40# progressive build

*7 miles @ average 10:52/mile 

*3.3 miles @ average 10:33/mile

*3.3 miles @ average 11:17/mile (this was supposed to be close to 10min/mile pace)

3.5 miles run easy no pack AM 3.5 miles run easy no pack

PM track work with 40# pack 

*1 mile warmup

*6 x 30sec strides with 30sec rest @9min/pace building to ~8:30/pace. 

*6 x 200s ~8:30/mile pace with 60sec rest

Off  5 miles with 45# pace, average 11:50/pace, including a short walk break every mile or so 5.7 miles with 40# pack threshold style intervals

4 x 1 mile with 90sec rest/walk at ~9:15/mile pace

Training notes of interest:

January 10th week: Longer run with backpack session seem to be getting worse, not better. But sometimes the body goes into a state of fatigue before responding positively, so was not too concerned and continued pushing these.

January 17th week: Back starting to feel more ‘jacked’ – in terms of more spinal vs muscular, as if the spine was getting compressed.

February 14th week: After a week off running with a backpack: Running relatively well for intervals and shorter bouts, but still having back issues despite a week of recovery. Long run was a complete failure after 5-6 miles. This was a bit surprising. In the past, after taking a week or so off rucking while maintaining fitness, I would come back very strong. 

February 14-21st weeks: Still feeling quite beat down and destroyed especially during and after longer sessions. Tried increased both recovery time between sessions and therapy sessions. Knew that if things did not improve quickly, I would not be able to pull this marathon record off at this time. Was also growing very concerned of long term back injury. 

February 21st week: Planned on a larger week, but back still feeling ‘compressed,’ feeling pretty burnt out. 

When and Why I stopped training for the GWR attempt 

First off, I realized the GWR attempt was not going to happen. Not in the time frame of only two months left until the marathon. A 15mile run with the 40# backpack for example, was approximately 40sec/mile slower than where it should have been, too far off pace, at this stage of training.

Second, these backpack runs left me feeling completely beat down. I could not imagine another mile of this, let alone 11+ miles. It was a bit frustrating, as I was accustomed to getting stronger, not weaker, throughout longer training session. It was also kind of surprising at how taxing the long ruck runs felt relative to other training sessions that, on paper at least, appeared much harder. This posed a new challenge. 

After discussing with my chiropractor, also a professional strength and conditioning coach and accomplished strength athlete, it was decided to stop training at this point and revisit the attempt later, after re-building some solid strength in the gym. Due to other symptoms and nonresponsive treatment, my chiropractor was concerned of a lumbar disc injury in my back.. Months later, his concerns were confirmed by medical diagnosis.

I was also feeling burnt out. Until taking a step back, did not realize how much I had been pushing myself physically the past few years and think this caught up, especially when factoring in life stressors. There was also an addition of intensive physical labor outside of my profession from the time of covid shutdowns, that included a lot of bending and twisting.

Before even getting to the start line of a challenge or event, I was planning and thinking ahead to the next one, getting right back to training and work instead of allowing my body and mind to truly recover. 

Reminders and Learned Lessons:

Event-Specific “Base” is Needed for Long Events and Can’t Be Rushed
In the past few years, I had performed relatively high volume of rucking, typically with 35-40#. However, especially in the ten months before beginning the ruck training, the focus has been on the burpee GWRs and the 100-mile ultra. There should have been a longer build up with the pack, including a proper progression of both load and speed, after allowing my body to properly recover from the recent events. Instead, was trying to force my body right back to it. This is one of the basic principles when it comes to strength and conditioning and to be blatantly honest, should have known better.

Do not underestimate the importance of strength work, especially for running with load carriage

Bucket squats …

Strength was insufficient largely due to recent injuries and the relative focus on ultra-endurance feats. A build-up of strength and power should have been programmed for at least several months before starting any type of general backpack running program. The GWR marathon attempt goal should not have been considered until 2023.

Having sufficient strength and power maybe even more important due to my size. As a lighter female of under 125lbs, running with a 40# pack is of a relatively high load. Female soldiers, for example, have been shown to experience more severe back injuries, due to higher relative loading and greater forward lean resulting in increased stress throughout the lower back. 

Running with a weighted backpack versus hiking or marching exasperates compression forces, particularly as volumes progressed. It felt like someone’s hands were on my shoulders and pressing down on them with each step, compressing my spine. Again, a good phase emphasizing strength and power should have been programmed for as long as required, to both rebuild and further enhance adaptations, helping to bullet-proof my body.

Due to limited time and trying to manage the negative effects felt, I increased mobility work and even tried yoga as a personal experiment, despite my doubts. It did not work but am not surprised. Although I believe that sufficient mobility is necessary, anecdotal evidence has indicated that strength and power, not being bendy, is key for both a reduced risk of injury and enhanced sport performance.

This was a needed reminder. Sufficient strength is key for spinal stability. Spinal stability is key in handling load bearing challenges and tasks.

Patience
I’m patient when competing in endurance and ultra-endurance events, understanding the positive and negative consequences of sticking to your plan and letting go of ego. But tend to be very impatient with other things in life, sometimes paying the price. 

In hindsight, trying to rush my body instead of allowing it to adapt resulted in training failure, injury, and an inefficient use of time. My strength and power were not even close to adequate, the timeline pushed the pace and volume too fast, and taking the time to work on important things needing attention was foregone. It is like building a brick house, only to realize you forgot to lay the foundation.

This taught a valuable lesson: It would have been better to embrace the journey, allowing my body to adapt versus getting too attached to an outcome and force it. 

Training progressions should have entailed mixing in some runs with a lighter pack for a longer period of time, allowing my body to adapt effectively, while working on sufficient gym strength and power. The GWR carrying a 40# backpack should have been a 1-2 year goal, not a 5 month one. I strongly believe that being impatient was the biggest reason for failure. 

The approach taken is one I would not take with an athlete. Sometimes it is tough to coach yourself, but could take a step back, and ask: “What would I do if an athlete came to me with this goal?” 

Don’t be dumb! If you don’t look after your body, it will crack!
I started taking my body for granted based on the previous few years of handling the challenges thrown at it, recently starting to get more dinged up but training through these injuries. Despite knowing better (ie compensatory and an increased risk of a different injury down the road), did so anyways. This approach caught up. 

I believe that movement is medicine and could have continued doing ‘stuff’ through injuries.  But should have done so in a healthy manner instead trying to force past limits and the next goal. It ended up in paying a price, leading to a back disc injury and having to build back up basically from ground zero. But am really learning lessons in this and am resetting onwards: Staying present, rebuilding a good foundation and in doing so, will return stronger, healthier, and better. It was a punch-in-the-face reminder of a personal priority: Enjoying a fulfilling, healthy life. 

Conclusion

This was a failed training attempt and that is ok. It isn’t the only failure and won’t be the last. I was excited to share this, as it seems we too-often only see successes. And too-often those successes look like they were easy, as if they magically happened. Perhaps failures and truths should be shared more. Perhaps failures should be celebrated. Failure is how we grow. It is how we overcome, adapt, and can help us become the best version of ourselves.

“I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed” (Michael Jordan).

Tammy is a professional strength and conditioning coach currently coaching in Arizona as well as an accomplish endurance, obstacle race and fitness athlete. 

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