Strategic walk breaks can make you a better marathoner

Credit: Allsport
As one who has run for more than four decades, I sometimes find it hard to admit, but our bodies weren't designed to run continuously for long distances such as a marathon.

Sure we can adapt, but we pay for it in extra fatigue and lose some of the enjoyment of running. But there's a better way to go the distance -- alternating walking and running from the start. Once you commit yourself to doing this, there's probably not a distance you can't cover.

When taken from the beginning of all long runs, walk breaks erase fatigue, speed recovery and reduce injury; but best of all, they bestow the endurance of the distance covered. In other words, a slow long run with walk breaks gives you the same distance conditioning as a fast run of the same distance.

On every long run, you should take a one- to two-minute walk break every two to eight minutes. If you're just beginning to run, you'll walk more than you'll run. Experienced marathoners will recover much faster from their long runs when they take one-minute walk breaks at least every eight minutes. The walk breaks can be done at a fast or easy pace, but the easier walking pace relaxes the legs better.

When running at your comfortable pace and incorporating walk breaks, a total beginner can expect to finish a marathon after training six months or less. Those who struggle to run their daily distance can increase by a mile with walk breaks and feel great afterward. Runners over age 40 who incorporate strategic walk breaks in certain runs reduce fatigue and injury, and many improve times.

Once we each find the ideal ratio for a given distance, walk breaks allow us to feel strong to the end and help us recover fast, while bestowing the same endurance we would have received if we ran continuously.

Most marathoners will record significantly faster times when they take walk breaks. Thousands of time/goal-oriented marathon veterans have improved by 10, 20 even 30 minutes and more by taking walk breaks early and often in their goal race. You can easily spot these folks in races -- they're the ones who are picking up speed during the last two to six miles when everyone else is slowing down.

Use your muscles in different ways

When a muscle group such as your primary running workhorse, the calf, is used continuously step by step, it fatigues relatively soon. Walk breaks give that main running muscle a chance to recover before it starts accumulating fatigue, thus reducing the damage to the muscle dramatically.

Walk breaks force you to slow down early in the run so that you don't start too fast. This reduction of the intensity of muscle use from the beginning conserves your energy, fluids and muscle capacity. The running muscles are able to make adaptations inside so that they can go farther with less fatigue.

When you run continuously without taking a break, the weak areas of your running muscles get overused and force you to slow down later afterward. How do they do this? It's called pain.

By shifting back and forth between walking and running, you distribute the workload among a variety of muscles and increase your overall performance capacity. For veteran marathoners, this is often the difference between achieving a time goal or not. Walk breaks will significantly speed up recovery because there is less damage to repair. Early walk breaks erase fatigue, and later breaks will reduce or eliminate overuse and muscle breakdown.

The earlier you walk, the better

You must start walk breaks before you feel any fatigue -- in the first mile -- for maximum benefit. If you wait until you feel the need to walk, you've already reduced your potential performance. Even waiting until the two-mile mark to take the first walk will reduce the resiliency you could regain from walking in the first mile.

If you feel self-conscious about walking early, carry an empty water bottle and pretend to drink as you walk. You can also blame me: Tell those who pass you that Jeff Galloway made you do it!

Would you like a discount? To put it in shopping terms, walk breaks give a discount from the pounding on legs and feet. If you walk often enough, start early enough and keep the pace slow enough, a five-mile run only leaves three miles of fatigue, and a 10-miler produces only five to seven miles of tiredness.

How walk breaks can help you speed up

A survey of veteran marathoners showed an average improvement of 13 minutes when they put walk breaks into their marathon, compared with running continuously under the same conditions. By saving the strength and efficiency of the running muscles through early walk breaks, you'll avoid the slowdown in the last six miles where most continuous runners lose their momentum. If you paced yourself conservatively and walked enough from the first mile, you'll amaze yourself as you pass people and pick up speed.

There's also a mental benefit -- breaking 26 miles into segments that you know you can do. Even sub-three-hour runners continue to take their walk breaks to the end.

One of them explains it this way: "Instead of thinking at 20 miles that I had six more gut-wrenching miles to go, I was saying to myself 'one more mile until my break'. Even when it was tough, I always felt that I could go one more mile."

A three-minute run/one-minute walk person told me that she got over the tough parts by saying "three more minutes."

Convinced? Then give it a try. For more information on this training program, visit www.runinjuryfree.com.


Former Olympic runner Jeff Galloway is a best-selling author, motivational speaker and running coach.

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