Walks Breaks Can Make You Faster!
Rebekah Mayer completed her first marathon in a speedy three hours and 14 minutes. Still, she hesitated to claim she “ran” the entire race, because she walked a bit after kilometre 35.
Like many runners, Mayer once considered breaking stride during a distance race as an admission of defeat. “There’s this culture of ‘If you’re going to run a marathon, by God, you run the marathon,’ ” says running coach Bobby McGee. “Walking is seen as a sign of weakness.”
But McGee and Mayer (who’s now national training manager for Life Time Run) – along with Runner’s World columnist Jeff Galloway – are among a growing number of coaches who advise even experienced runners to consider the run-walk approach, especially for half and full marathons.
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Brief respites from race pace can keep your heart rate controlled, help fuel go down smoothly, and make racing more fun, they say. In fact, a German study found that four-hour marathoners who took walk breaks sustained less muscle damage and finished in about the same time as those who didn’t – and McGee believes most runners with marathon times of more than three hours would finish faster.
Here’s when to consider the run-walk, and how to make it work.
Your training was sub-par.
When Olympic triathlete Barb Lindquist (who placed ninth in Athens in 2004) lined up for Ironman Hawaii in 2000, her training was largely focused on Olympic-distance events with 10K runs. So she walked the aid stations en route to a 3:40:39 marathon-leg split and a 19th-place elite finish. Now a running coach, Lindquist recommends the approach to other triathletes stepping up in distance. Walk breaks can also help you cover a half or full marathon more comfortably if life events or an injury caused you to miss some of your planned training, says Jeff Gaudette, owner and head coach of RunnersConnect.
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Make it work: Walk the aid stations or set a predetermined run-walk interval. McGee typically starts athletes with nine minutes of running and one of walking and suggests tinkering to see what works best for you. Just keep walk breaks brief: Most of the benefits accrue within 30 seconds to one minute, Mayer says.
Your course ascends.
Super-steep hills are an obvious spot to change your gait; a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found it more efficient to walk inclines of 16 degrees or greater than to run them. But in a long race, even slighter slopes might be worth hiking, McGee says. Otherwise, your rising heart rate can push you above your lactate threshold, the point at which the by-products of running that cause you to slow accumulate in your blood faster than your body can clear and metabolise them. “You’re paying an amount of interest you’re never going to get back again,” McGee says.
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Make it work: Study the elevation map and determine where you can align walk breaks with uphills, McGee says. Or throw in a 30-second walk break every time your breathing becomes laboured and choppy on an incline. Don’t push harder than your usual race effort on the downhill, Gaudette says: The advantages come later in the race, when your muscles aren’t as fatigued from climbing.
You struggle with mid-run eating and drinking.
Simple carbs energise your muscles during races that last an hour or longer, but ingesting sports drinks, gels, or chews at running speed comes easier to some runners than to others. The stress of stomach sloshing can cause digestive disturbances; meanwhile, your heart rate may spike as you fumble with cups and packets. “That’s going to affect your performance in that next kilometre,” Mayer says.
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Make it work: Grab a cup and proceed to the end of the aid station. Then shift to the side of the course and slow to a walk. Take a few moments to ingest your fuel, then ease back into your run rhythm.
When race day dawns warm, the challenge of a long race increases exponentially, along with your core temp, McGee says. Heat can also trigger gastrointestinal distress, as bloodflow heads away from your digestive system and toward the surface of your skin to help cool you. This makes it hard to replace what you’re sweating out. Walking can stave off exhaustion by offering opportunities to fuel and cool.
Make it work: Stick with a pre-planned run-walk interval, with flexibility. For instance, if you hit a shady spot, walk to take advantage of it, Mayer says. If possible, take in some cool fluid and wipe yourself down with a wet sponge as you stride.
You can’t hold back.
Call it the first law of long-distance physiology: Go out too fast in a half or full, and you’ll pay for it later in the race when your muscles fatigue from the effort. Even if you’ve run smack into this wall before, cheering crowds and race-day adrenaline can make a slower start difficult. The solution: early, regular walk periods. “The walking acts as a braking mechanism and as a reminder to keep it slow and under control,” Gaudette says.
Make it work: Use a pre-determined run-walk plan for the first half of the race. Once you hit the halfway point, evaluate. If you feel good, move to a continuous run; if you’re fatigued or just comfortable in the run-walk rhythm, stick with it.