For most runners, walking has a bad rap. Sure, the run-walk method is a tried and true way to finish your first marathon or slowly increase the distance of your long run. But outside of that, when most runners reach a certain fitness level, walking during training runs and races is taboo. If you can run without stopping, you should, right?
But this logic isn’t necessarily true, and in some instances, including more walking in your training runs could help you to progress your fitness without becoming susceptible to overuse injuries. Recently we got together with RunDoyen coach Tara Welling to discuss why walking more during runs could be a good idea for you.
When most people begin a training regimen, the goal is to increase weekly mileage as much as can be tolerated. The problem is, the stress of running takes a long time to adapt to, and if you do too much too soon, an injury is inevitable.
“A good rule of thumb is to not do too much too fast,” Welling says. “Combining too much running at too fast a pace will increase the risk of injury. Walking (more) is definitely a great starting point for runners looking to increase their endurance without the risk.”
For beginning runners who have a hard time managing slower paces, alternating 2–5 minutes of running with a minute of walking can be a beneficial way to slowly progress fitness until you can run farther without placing as much stress on the body. But is this solely a beginner strategy?
According to Welling, even more experienced runners can run too fast during the in-between phases of workouts like fartlek or interval training and can use walking in the rest phases to keep from pushing too hard until the next interval begins.
“Walking during training runs is something that can be applied to professional runners, too,” Welling says. “Intensity is relative to each person. Whether that’s someone who is starting to run, or an Olympian doing a hard interval workout, walking can be necessary.”
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Anyone who has trained for a marathon or an ultra-marathon knows time on your feet counts for something. Walking up hills during training runs and races is a strategy even the best ultra-marathoners use, and is something most runners can implement to increase distance and stay in the correct heart rate zone.
“Walking during training runs allows you to exercise for a longer period of time,” Welling explains. “The walking portions allow the heart rate to come down and don’t build up the lactic acid in the muscles, which allow for quicker recovery and decreased muscle soreness.”
This strategy can be helpful during the base phase of training, too, when the primary goal is building endurance and not necessarily working on your speed. Walking as little as 1/10 of a mile every few miles could be enough to keep your heart rate in the intended zone instead of letting it drift into a higher heart rate zone as your run progresses. Increasing the time of your run helps you tolerate those longer distance races by getting your legs conditioned to being on your feet for longer periods without upping the risk of injury.
“Walking can help prevent injury and is a method that runners at all levels can benefit from,” Welling says. “After suffering running-related injuries myself, medical professionals advised me to supplement more walking into training runs to alleviate the pounding and risk of reinjury and imbalances (due to compensation).”
One of the primary reasons injuries happen is because of fatigue, particularly when your muscles aren’t as developed to handle the same amount of mileage as the cardiovascular system may be able to tolerate. Once fatigue sets in, your running form can begin to falter, making it more likely for you to place additional strain on tendons or smaller accessory muscles that might not be able to handle the extra load. As the miles pile up, this eventually leads to injury.
This is a principle run-walk guru Jeff Galloway has used training runners for decades, and even advises this method for runners who are injured or returning from injury in his book “The Run Walk Run Method.” “Thousands of runners have reported that by using liberal walk breaks, they were able to continue running, while allowing the injury to heal. In some cases, the blood flow generated by walking with gentle and short jog segments has been cited in healing some injuries as opposed to a complete layoff from running.”
Like anything else, how much you walk during your run is highly individual and should be based on your current fitness level, injury history and the goal of your workout. For less experienced runners, relying on heart rate monitor data to keep track of cardiac drift or utilizing perceived exertion are two ways to gauge your walk breaks.
“I recommend runners (on long runs) to shoot for a conversational pace,” Welling says. “This means that you should be able to hold a brief conversation while running with a friend. This keeps the pace in check, so you’re able to recover.”
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When you begin to drift past this point during your run, a short walk break is one strategy to bring your effort back down into a lower intensity zone. The same can be said for interval and fartlek training when your heart rate races into the upper end of zone 5 and doesn’t recover quickly between sets. Walking instead of jogging in between can help your heart rate reset much quicker than continuing to run at a slower pace. The same can be said for longer races like ultras when other issues commonly pop up.
“Ultras are long, and there are unpredictable circumstances like leg cramps, stomach issues, and dehydration that can happen during the race no matter how well-trained you are,” Welling says. “Professional runners are not immune, and many need to walk (to get back on track).”
Whichever method you choose, whether it’s walking for one minute for every 15 minutes of running or walking only when your intensity gets too high, remember each workout should have a goal. Decide if your workout’s focus is to increase endurance, recover from a hard run the day before or ease back into the swing of things following an injury. In these cases, walking can provide some benefit, and can be a good way to stay on track while you progress your fitness without doing too much too fast.
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” and set your next goal — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.