Mary Jennings: Is walking during a run cheating?

Many runners use a run-walk-run method to help run faster and speed up recovery

‘It was only when I moved to ultramarathon distance that I realised that not only was it okay to walk but it was encouraged.’  Photograph: iStock

‘It was only when I moved to ultramarathon distance that I realised that not only was it okay to walk but it was encouraged.’ Photograph: iStock

 

I’m pretty sure the thought of walking during a run has crossed your mind on more than one occasion. But how do you react when this happens? Do you stop and walk or do you do everything you can to avoid walking?

Runners are stubborn creatures and although one part of us may want to stop, pride can often get in our way. Runners can feel frustration, embarrassment or even shame in walking. Yet running is a hobby for most of us. Why are we so hard on ourselves? Is walking really a failure?

A beginners mind
Think back to when you started running. Most of us embarked on training plans that alternated running with walking. Slowly and gradually we built our endurance by walking for a few minutes then running a few more. As beginners we embraced those walking breaks. They replenished our energy, strength and enthusiasm for the next running section and allowed us to stay focused on the task at hand.

Then one day we reached our final destination – that wonderful 5km run with no walk breaks. We felt amazing. No walk breaks equaled success. I wonder if that definition of success has made so many of us reluctant to embrace walking in the middle of a run now, many years on from our formative days. I know as I moved from 5km to longer distance I assumed I had to avoid walking.

But is walking really cheating?
For many years when marathon running, my goal was always to run the entire distance without stopping. I’m pretty sure I was one of those runners who kept jogging on the spot waiting for traffic lights to change afraid to stop for a moment. It was only when I moved to ultramarathon distance that I realised that not only was it okay to walk but it was encouraged. There was no benefit to wasting energy unnecessarily, especially when going uphill.

If runners who were competing at much faster speeds than me were walking, why was I letting my ego hold me back? Surely being energy efficient would be better in the long run. So walking the steep uphills then became a sensible choice for me and to this day, even in much shorter runs, I will walk when I feel like I need to loosen out, catch my breath or refocus. There is no point building up extra tension that will slow me down later.

The run-walk-run method
While my approach to walk breaks can sometimes be quite sporadic, there is a huge movement towards structured run-walk-run training. Coach Jeff Galloway kicked off this approach in the 1970s and over the years it has grown with great success for long-distance competitive athletes as well as recreational runners. His training plans encourage runners to take walk breaks right from the start of their run, even when they are feeling fresh.

These early breaks in a run hit the ego more than anything. Walking in the first mile of a marathon when you are full of adrenaline and positivity can be hard to do. But it does work, if you have the discipline to follow the plan. Thousands of runners of all levels have credited this approach to helping them run faster, avoid injury and speed up recovery.

Make walking work for you
If we see walking as a failure, it is only natural that our body displays this negativity. It is easy to spot a runner who is not happy to be walking. Their plodding steps can often be accompanied by a deflated posture, heavy stride and downward gaze. But this demeanour can wear us out more. If you are going to walk on a run, do it with pride, walk tall, keep your cadence quick and your arms bent like you are running. This way you will recover quick, loosen out, catch your breath and be ready to go again.

A smile wouldn’t go amiss either. In these situations where I feel I need a walk but also a little discipline, I allow myself 100 walking steps and then start running again. If I need to walk again in a few minutes, that’s okay, I always run again after 100 steps. Walking on a run is nothing to be embarrassed about, especially when you learn how it can actually help you run stronger and faster overall.

Challenge your beliefs
If walking during a run has never entered your mind in recent years, can I encourage you to give it a guilt-free go this week. You can check out the full Galloway approach or try a little experiment. Include a one-minute walk every five to 10 minutes on your long run (whatever distance that might be). Yes, the ego will kick in and you might feel silly stopping to walk so soon after starting. But you will have more energy, focus and strength for the next section and may end up running faster overall.

Every training session has a challenge and the hardest part of this one is disciplining yourself to stop when you know you can go on. But don’t dismiss it until you give it a go. It might not be for you right now, but it could be a secret weapon for your running future, in training, at races or even during recovery from injury or running setbacks. If nothing else, it is something new to experiment with while we await the return to races and park runs.

You have nothing to lose. 

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with forgetthegym.ie. Mary’s book Get Running, published by Gill Books, is out now

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