It’s Good To Walk

Shhhh. I’ve got a little secret to share with you. You see, I used to be a fairly fast runner. In fact, 30 years ago, I won the Boston Marathon. And there’s a certain amount of honour among Boston winners – a code of steely toughness, a sort of ‘pain is my friend’ ethic – that we’re sworn to uphold.

Now, about that secret. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’ve gone soft or anything but... um, this is hard to get out... I often take walking breaks during my daily runs.

There, that feels much better. Though I don’t know why it was hard to say in the first place. After all, it makes perfect sense to mix running and walking. Think about it:

  • When new runners begin a running programme, they often start by following a run-walk routine. They run for maybe 30 seconds, walk until they feel recovered, then repeat the process for 20-30 minutes. This system has proved successful a thousand times over.
  • When world-class runners peak for the Olympics, they concentrate on ‘interval’ training – the still-unsurpassed method for achieving maximum results. They run hard for one to five minutes, then walk or jog very slowly until they’re ready to run hard again.
  • When ultradistance runners participate in those seemingly crazy races of 100 miles or six days (and beyond), they inevitably alternate running and walking. Which only makes sense. It’s hard to imagine any other way to cover the mega-mile distances. You, on the other hand, probably view walking as the enemy. The thinking is: you run, and this is good. You are proving and improving yourself; you are determined; you are a moral person. Whereas when you walk, this is bad. You are lazy; you are a loser; you don’t deserve to be loved (not even by your mother).

Mental-health therapists have many words for this sort of inflexible, perfectionist thinking, and I have one, too. I call it ‘stupid’. (None too elegant, but has the benefit of clarity.)

The goal of a session is not to avoid walking. This bears repeating: the goal of a session is not to avoid walking. The goals are to feel better, get in better shape, reduce tension, lose weight, train for an upcoming race and so on. Take your pick. They’re all worthwhile goals.

And here’s the important thing: you can achieve these goals more easily if you incorporate some walking into your running. I’ve been doing it for several years, and it hasn’t made me less of a runner. In fact, I used a heavy dose of run/walk training to get ready for Boston this month.

Run/walk training, which I like to call ‘R/W training,’ is a simple, common-sense approach to conditioning. It can help you to train more (for better marathon preparation and calorie-burning); it can help you to train healthier (who needs injuries and burnout?); and it can even help you to get faster (through interval training).

Enough talk. Let’s get more specific.

The Galloway Marathon

In recent years Jeff Galloway has pioneered the idea of walking breaks during marathons. Jeff advocates this programme not only for many first-time marathoners, but also for those who have previously hit the wall and experienced the crushing fatigue and depression of those last few miles. By walking early and often, Jeff has found, most runners survive the final miles in much better shape. They feel better, and they often run faster.

You can run/walk a marathon any way you want, but the simplest is to run the first mile, then walk for 60 seconds. Run the second mile, then walk for 60 seconds (and have a sports drink). Repeat 24 more times, then hold your head high and sprint like a hare.

The Galloway run/walk marathon has been used successfully by thousands of marathoners. Jeff says it’s possible to run under 3:30 this way, and several runners did so at the last Chicago Marathon. But fast times aren’t the point. The point is that you can finish the marathon, feel good, run strong to the end, and admire that gleaming finisher’s medal for the rest of your life.

The Next Step

The Galloway programme has made many converts, and I’m one of them. I’ve now run four marathons with walking breaks, in times ranging from 3:45 to 4:30, and I’ll run many more the same way. Walking breaks have added confidence to my marathoning. Since I’m a modest trainer these days, averaging 20-30 miles a week, the marathon can easily intimidate me. A few years ago, I was beginning to dread the thought of running 26.2-milers. Now I don’t even think of the marathon that way. I think of it as a one-mile run that I just happen to repeat 26 times. Piece of cake.

R/W training has also made my daily training easier. It used to be that, much as I love running, I sometimes felt too tired to get through the door. I talked myself out of many sessions: when you’re already tired, why drag yourself out on the roads for 40 minutes?

I don’t have this problem any more. Because I don’t run for 40 minutes. I run for four minutes, then walk for a minute, then repeat the process until I’ve completed 40 minutes. Okay, it’s not the greatest session of all time, but so what? All I care about is getting into the session and feeling wonderfully energised afterwards, which I always do.

A Step Backwards

Let’s pause for a moment to consider some of the differences between running and walking. Some are small, others more significant. Running and walking do have much in common. Running is basically fast walking, with one difference. Runners ‘jump’ from foot to foot, walkers don’t. When you run, the knee flexes more than in walking, the quadriceps muscles contract, and you ‘toe-off’ in more or less the same way as the long jumper who explodes off the jump board.

Because you toe-off and jump, you come down forcefully on the other foot. This is the infamous ‘impact shock’ of running – said to be two to three times your body weight – that can lead to over-use injuries of the foot, knees, tendons and so on. Walkers don’t jump, so they are less likely to get injured.

But because you jump, you can cover ground much faster than a walker and burn many more calories per minute (because moving faster requires you to consume more oxygen). In other words, you get a superior session in less time, which is one of the major benefits of running.

Unfortunately, many potential runners never get into the rhythm of running, because it can be hard work. They set out to run around the block a few times, but find themselves breathless and bedraggled at the first corner. Not a pretty sight. So they repair to the sofa and never leave it again.

Or maybe they do try another time, but on this next effort they decide to skip the running. They walk. It’s hard to fail at walking. But a leisurely stroll, while better than nothing at all, probably doesn’t produce as many health and fitness benefits.

These are the people who need to learn about R/W training. They’re already motivated to exercise; they just have to step up the pace a little. Which is what a programme of running and walking does. You won’t get exhausted and frustrated (thanks to the walking breaks), and you’ll get all the benefits that vigorous exercise brings (thanks to the running). Not a bad deal.

And there are many other runners and exercisers who should give R/W training a try as well.

The Many Varieties of R/W Training

Jeff Galloway has seized the moment with his strategy of running/walking marathon races; indeed, R/W training has its most obvious application in long runs. I’ve been doing this for several years, and it works just fine.

I now do many of my long runs using a ‘9/1’ method – that is, I run for nine minutes and walk for one minute. On a typical out-and-back course, I head out for 60 minutes, then turn back toward home. Two hours, nothing to it. When I want to increase my training prior to a marathon, I just add another 9/1 segment on the outbound trip. Now the session lasts two hours and 20 minutes, and I hardly notice the difference. Two weeks later, I do two hours and 40 minutes, and so on. In this build-up process, I stop at three hours.

Lest you think me a complete slacker, I often turn this long run into a tempo work-out on the way back. In the middle of each nine-minute run, I do a three-minute pickup at close to my 10K race pace. Since I do six running segments every hour, this amounts to 18 minutes of tempo running in the last hour of my long run. That’s a quality day.

If you want to outdo me, fine. Increase your pickups to four, five or even six minutes during each nine-minute running segment. Do six of these during the last hour of your long run, and I guarantee this: you’ll never again think that walking breaks make a session wimpish. You’ll crawl up your front steps, desperate to remember where you stashed the energy bars.

There are many other varieties of R/W training. And just as many benefits. Some physical, some mental, all guaranteed to change (and probably improve) your running. Here are a few:

Running further, easier
I’ve already mentioned this several times, but it can’t be over-emphasised. All runners, from beginners to veteran marathoners, would like to run longer and easier. The R/W system gives you a new tool to achieve this. Does it come at a cost? Sure. Your overall session is slower, so you get slightly less training effect. But most of the time you do long runs to build overall endurance and increase your body’s ability to burn fat and calories in general. A long R/W run does this just fine.

Increased variety
Far too many runners do the same session at the same pace every time they run. It’s boring, and it’s not a smart way to train. An R/W session naturally has many small segments, which encourages you to experiment. Yesterday, for example, I did an hour of 4/1 run/walking, and each four-minute run was different. I did everything from four minutes very slow to a variety of four-minute fartlek runs to four minutes at a hard, steady pace.

Better speedwork
Same as the above, but with harder effort. An R/W session is an offshoot of the classic interval session, so it’s easy to make it a real gut-buster. Here’s one of my favourites, again built on the 4/1 pattern. During each four-minute running segment, jog for one minute, run hard for two minutes and jog for one minute. Then do the one-minute walk. Repeat this eight times, and you’ve come reasonably close to the 8 x 400m interval torture that my college coach loved to inflict on us.

On the topic of intervals
Exercise physiologist Jack Daniels recently had two groups of women run three times a week, either continuously or with walking breaks. After 12 weeks, the run/walk group was more fit. Why? “In effect, the walking breaks turned the sessions into one big interval session,” says Daniels. “It allowed the women to go faster overall.”

Fewer injuries
Walking doesn’t cause as many injuries as running, and R/W training shouldn’t cause as many either. No, I can’t prove this, but it makes intuitive sense. Since walking uses the leg muscles and connective tissues in a slightly different manner than running, it should reduce over-use injuries. During R/W sessions, I walk with a deliberately slow, elongated stride. This is a change from my normally short, choppy running stride, and I can feel other muscles coming into play.

More sightseeing
What’s the point of running in some gorgeous environment if all you see are the rocks and gnarly roots on the trail right in front of you? Yet that’s all many trail runners see, because they’re concentrating so hard on avoiding falls and twisted ankles. Take your new R/W philosophy to the trails, however, and you can drink in those scenic overlooks during your walking breaks.

More effective recovery days
This one’s easy and obvious. Some days you need to run slow. Maybe you ran long or fast the previous day. Maybe you’ve been having a tough time in the office or at home. You want to run, but you’re not exactly bursting with mental or physical energy. Try an R/W session. You won’t regret it.

Faster comebacks
You’ve had a sore knee, a bad Achilles or a nasty, week-long cold. You’re ready to get back into your training routine but want to make sure you don’t overdo it and suffer a setback. A series of progressive R/W sessions may do the trick. Try a couple of 2/1 sessions, then a couple of 3/1 runs, and keep building. Listen to your body, and don’t run further or faster than what feels right.

More quality time
My wife runs, but my teenage kids don’t. They do all the other things kids do – football, computers, tae kwon do – but probably wouldn’t make it through a steady 30-minute run. They will, however, do an R/W session with us. We pick something easy, keep it relatively short and enjoy the time together.

Final Thoughts

The part of R/W training that I find most appealing – the mental breaks provided by the brief walking periods – won’t prove equally compelling to all runners. Many will staunchly resist. “I didn’t start running to become a walker,” they’ll snort. Or something to that effect. We runners succeeded as runners because we’re an extremely determined, motivated breed, and we don’t take easily to anything that smacks of laziness or backsliding.

Okay. I understand that. Old habits die hard. And R/W training isn’t for everyone. Or for every session. I do it a couple of times a week, usually when I run by myself and often as a long run.

But – and this is the most surprising thing – I’ve found that it has motivated me to do more speedwork and tempo training. That’s because R/W training is so close to classic interval training that it seems to nudge me in that direction. In fact, you could simply say that R/W training is classic interval training that’s been liberated from the track and allowed to roam wherever you want to take it.

Free at last. You just might discover an entirely new, enjoyable (and effective) way to run. It’s worth a try, isn’t it?

Amby Burfoot is Editor of Runner's World US.