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Walk, and run better

by Martin Barnard

Runners are willing to try just about anything to get faster, or to somehow get more out of training fartlek, intervals, heart-rate monitors, carbo gels, and even LSD (the running kind, that is). But walking? For that serious runner who is about to turn the page with a smirk, read on. Once commonly viewed as a sign of weakness, walking is emerging as a useful training tool to boost your running performance.

The idea of adding walks to runs in training and during long races certainly isn't new, but it has been winning converts in recent years, especially with the resurgence of the marathon. Walking can be a useful tool for runners of all abilities. Let me outline six ways that walking can help your running.

Surviving a long race

Joe Henderson, the West Coast editor for Runner's World, is a lifelong runner who has written about running for over 25 years. Henderson, once a self-described "running purist," lived by the words "Real runners don't take walks." Now he is a crusader of walks for runners and claims that walking has saved his marathoning career. After mileage-limiting surgery, Henderson thought he would be forced to give up marathons altogether. Now he's averaging two marathons a year. Henderson states, matter of factly, "I wouldn't be finishing any marathons without the walks."

Walking breaks dramatically reduce the stress of continuous running on the legs, without a loss in aerobic benefit. In fact, many runners report that they can cover two and three times the maximum distances they could attempt without walking breaks. If you've entered a long race but just haven't been putting in the miles, consider taking walking breaks during the race. Or if you're thinking of moving up from 10Ks to half-marathons, half-marathons to full marathons, or marathons to ultra-marathons, short walking breaks may be just the boost you need to cross the finish line.

Exactly how long should your walking breaks be? Over the years, Henderson and Jeff Galloway, another walking advocate, have experimented with lengths of walking breaks in search of the best ratio of running to walking. Independently, both arrived at the formula of one minute of walking every 10 minutes, which translates into six minutes of walking per hour. There is no magic formula for exactly when to slow down, but for marathons, Henderson suggests slowing at every aid station, or every few miles. The one in 10 formula translates to 48 seconds of walking per aid station, if you are running 8-minute miles. Walking through the aid stations will also have an important side benefit you'll have time to take in lots of liquid as you go by.

Increasing your weekly mileage

How many times have you heard after a race, "If only I could have squeezed in more miles in training..." Easier said than done. The biggest problem with adding mileage is that it can lead to every runner's nightmare a downward spiral of injury or overtraining. Walking can help avoid this problem both by extending the distance of the long run and by reducing the impact of extra mileage.

If you include a long easy run in your program to build up endurance, then walking can help. For marathoners, half-marathoners, and 10K runners, those long aerobic runs can really punish the body. Walking breaks can make the long runs a little less taxing on the body, so you can recover faster. Depending on your schedule, a quicker recovery might make it easier for you to handle some of the faster miles, making the rest of your training week more productive.

The best way to find out is to experiment. Test Henderson and Galloway's formula, or try your own time frame. Make sure that you insert the walks early enough in the workout or race to reap the benefits later. If you don't take a break until your body starts screaming, you've waited too long. Ideally, you should feel good throughout the long runs and stop when the time is up not because you have to.

Regaining fitness

If you're a beginner just starting out or an experienced runner returning from injury, walking can help you reach your goals faster. When you're out of shape, a training run can seem daunting, especially if you are used to covering the distance with ease. Running harder for shorter bursts is more effective for elevating your fitness level than slugging it out slowly without stopping.

Jack Daniels, head cross country and track coach at State University at Cortland, N.Y., studied the benefits of walking and running for beginners. In a study for Nike, Daniels examined the effects of walking on a group of sedentary women between the ages of 20 and 40. The women participated in four 3-week stints of either continuous running or a combination of walking and running. They exercised for three days each week, ranging from 20 minutes a day during the first 3-week period to 45 minutes a day in the final three weeks. The greatest improvements were realized by the group that mixed walking and running.

Daniels explains, "In effect, the walking breaks turned the workouts into a big interval session, which allowed [the women] to go faster than continuous running for the same amount of time."

The same technique can be used for returning from injury. If your legs can only put up with limited miles, then walking breaks will help you to cover the running miles much faster, which will speed your return to fitness.

Burning Fat

Owen Anderson, editor of Running Research News, theorizes that walking during your hard training runs may be a way to burn more fat. As exercise intensity increases, blood flow to the working muscles goes up to ensure that the muscles get a steady supply of oxygen. The problem with this is that most of the free fatty acids (FFA) released from fat cells during exercise are not located in the muscles they are released from fat stores. Because most of the blood is in the muscles, the FFAs have a difficult time getting circulated to be metabolized as fuel. During a walking break, however, the heart rate drops and the blood is diverted away from the muscles and back into the central core of the body. This increases the concentration of FFAs in the blood, so that when exercise resumes, the blood flows back into the working muscles where the FFAs can be used as fuel.

Another benefit of walking breaks is that they can lengthen the time you spend exercising, which in turn burns more calories during the workout. If you are trying to lose weight, this may be a way to add volume to your workouts without adding stress to your body.

Warming up and cooling down

Walking seems to be a natural activity for warming up and cooling down, since it uses a lot of the same muscles as running. Henderson recommends walking as a good way to ease into a run or slowly wind down from a hard workout. Anderson, however, sees walking only as a form of recovery for non-workout days. He explains, "Not many elite runners use walking for warm-up or cool-down."

Before a difficult workout, jogging may still be the best way to warm-up to get your heart rate up relatively quickly and blood flowing to the working muscles. For those workouts, try walking before jogging to bring the heart rate up to jogging speed, then jog to bring the heart rate up to workout speed.

The same applies to the cool-down. Walking during a cool-down is a form of active recovery, which helps clear the lactic acid out of the muscles faster than if you come to a dead stop. Jogging may be more effective after a hard workout, but usually walking is a more comfortable way to cool down especially in the heat. You'll have to experiment to find out what works best for you.


The jury is still out on using walking as cross-training. The Penn State Sports Medicine Newsletter says that "fitness walking is a good cross-training technique because it involves different muscle groups and different biomechanical motions" than running. Henderson agrees. He recommends walking for cross-training because it "is as close to running as you can get." Walking also fits your schedule and budget just as well as running does other forms of cross-training require extra equipment, time, and/or money.

However, Anderson believes that there are several better cross-training choices for runners. He explains, "I would rank walking behind activities like cycling, weight training, aqua-running, and the Stairmaster." Anderson cited several studies that have shown cycling and aqua-jogging to be very useful to runners, but "there has been very little evidence to support walking."

Daniels believes that cross-training is fine, but he cautions against replacing running workouts with walks. He believes that walking can be beneficial in addition to regular training but that it is no substitute for weekly mileage. Daniels adds, "If the cross-training helps you avoid injury, then it would certainly benefit you, but only because you would be able to run more."

So whether you're a beginner runner just starting out or a hard-core pavement pounder, walking can benefit your running. In your efforts to go farther and faster, don't forget one technique that might help you get there in record time slowing down all the way to a walk.

How walking helps your running

  1. Helps you survive a long race on a reduced training base.
  2. Extends the distance of long runs while reducing wear and tear on your legs.
  3. Improves fitness faster if you're just starting or are returning from injury (interval effect).
  4. Burns more fat by mobilizing free fatty acid stores during walking breaks, and burns more calories by extending the length of your workouts. Increases aerobic training when your body can't handle more mileage (cross-training effect).
  5. Eases you into your run when warming up and helps you actively recover while cooling down.

Originally from Toronto, Canada, Martin Barnard has degrees in both economics and kinesiology . He is an acquisitions editor for Human Kinetics. Before landing in Illinois, Martin was a Contributing Editor for Rocky Mountain Sports magazine and a Contributor for Inside Triathlon magazine in Boulder, Colorado.

Permission granted to redistribute, as long as you acknowledge the author, FootNotes and the Road Runners Club of America.

Women in Motion -December 1.2002