Many runners, from recreational beginners to seasoned regulars at road races, view walking during a race, or even in training, as some sort of indication of weakness or failure. It’s as if you’re not strong enough, physically or mentally, to run the whole way.
This became evident to me during a recent marathon. The race combined a 36km and marathon distance, with an extra loop at halfway which allowed the marathoners to re-join the race route in the midst of the slower runners. The point at which we re-joined the crowds happened to be at the base of 2.5km of steep uphill. I duly applied my standard hill strategy of running for one minute and walking for 30 seconds, repeated until I reached the top of the hill. What amazed me was how relatively few people around me were walking! Considering these folk were much slower than me (I’d run an extra 6km by the time I caught them, and overtook them with ease up the hill). I would hardly call it a failure of mine to walk parts of the hill.
In fact, I’d started my walk breaks 30 minutes into the race. My second half was quicker than my first. And the next morning when I woke up I felt as if I hadn’t run at all.
Running is the only endurance event where we have the luxury of optional (walk) breaks. It’s not so easy to take a break mid-swim, or give your legs a rest on your bike while pedalling uphill, so why not take advantage of this?
How does it work?
Physically, it works simply because you use different muscles for running and walking. If you do either activity for too long, the active muscles are prone to damage, fatigue and cramp. This reduces running pace over time and delays post-race recovery. By incorporating walk breaks at regular intervals before this happens, you ensure that all your muscles are as fresh as possible in the latter stages of the race – allowing for a strong finish as well as much quicker recovery time in the hours and days following the race.
Mentally or psychologically, it works because instead of thinking of a race as 10km, 21km, 42km or even 90km of running, you view the venture as a series of shorter, more manageable runs. The immediate goal or reward is your next walk break, rather than crossing the finish line at the end.
Who should be incorporating walk breaks?
Although this method is more effective for longer races and slower running paces, it has been successfully used even by athletes running sub-three hour marathons. It is especially useful for those who tend to slow significantly in the second half or last quarter of a race. It’s also good for those who, like me, struggle to maintain focus when running continuously for very long periods of time. It will also help if you’re prone to cramping in endurance events.
How long should the walk breaks be?
Long-time, very successful running coach, Jeff Galloway, suggests slightly shorter intervals (more regular walk breaks) based on relative individual training speed. Several of my clients have recently adopted (albeit slightly sceptically at first) a walk-run schedule of nine minutes steady running (avoid the inclination to sprint) and one minute brisk walking (not a stroll) from the very start of a race.
Although walk-run intervals are usually time-based, if you don’t like the idea of checking your watch all the time, count lampposts, road markings or other landmarks (run 10, walk one, for example). But make sure you have a specific end-point to your walk break, otherwise it’s tempting to just continue with a walk instead of starting to run again!
Yes, on the first walk break people will ask if there’s something wrong. Maybe even on the second. But the longer the race, the more time to catch those folk who came past you in the beginning and ask them if there’s something wrong, as you effortlessly glide past them.
However you opt to divide up your race with walk breaks, test your plan in training to maximise its race-day effectiveness. You don’t have to use it on all your training runs, nor for short races, but give it a go on your next training run and then look forward to shattering that personal best on your next big race – by walking!
by Candyce Hall
A registered biokineticist in private practice in Hout Bay, Candyce has finished 10 Comrades and eight Two Oceans (by age 28). Her marathon PB is 2:55 and she’s blitzed a 38:23 for the 10km. She coaches and advises runners, from novices to professional athletes.
Originally published in March/April 2013 issue 58.