When a runner friend suggested I run my first distance race by adding walk breaks, the idea startled me. I didn’t think you were allowed to walk in races, not if you wanted to be a real runner. But the thought of running in New Jersey, all the way to the boardwalk in North Wildwood from Cape May in a single clip, seemed impossible, and I came around.
When I lined up at the start line of the Ocean Drive 10 Miler on that sharp cold morning in 2008, I shimmered with nerves. But I did have a plan: Run for nine minutes, walk one minute, run another nine minutes, walk one, and repeat, for 10 miles up the coast — even if I felt silly stopping to walk so soon into the race.
At about Mile 4, the course goes over a toll bridge, and I charged up the steep incline. On the way down, though, I hit my next walk break, and slowed down to a crawl.
“You run up the bridge but walk down?” an older man chided as he ran by.
“It’s all part of my plan!” I shouted back over a howling wind, still not entirely comfortable with my chosen course of action.
But it worked. I made my way through Cape May and over the marshes that connect it to the island just north, which held the finish line.
I gave up on the run-walk-run plan soon after that first distance race. In 2009, I took on the Ocean Drive 10 challenge again, cutting out the walk breaks and beating my time by more than 16 minutes. I felt like a champion, a real runner, and vowed to run all my races going forward, especially when I made the leap to the marathon, because I thought that’s what real runners do.
But out of the five marathons I’ve run, I’ve walked in four — and never by choice. In those races, I started too fast, taxed my legs too soon, and fell back into a forced run-walk-run around Mile 20 as a way to just to get to the finish line. I felt humiliated as spectators goaded me on. “You’re almost there!” they’d shout, but I wanted to spit at them. They didn’t know my pain, standing on the sidelines with their earmuffs and coffees and handwritten signs. Six miles isn’t almost there, I’d tell myself self-pityingly as I hobbled onward.
In those four marathons, when I should have been charging the finish line in a blaze of glory with my hands thrown triumphantly over my head, instead I dragged myself across the final timing mats. A shroud of failure hung over me during those races and for weeks after, a sense that I wasn’t a real runner, that I had given up.
Now I’m ready to embrace walking again. A study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that including regular walking breaks in your race can bring you to the finish line at the same pace as if you ran the entire way — while doing a lot less damage to your body.
The study looked at 42 runners who trained 12 weeks for their first marathons. A week before the event, the runners were split evenly into two groups: those who would run the entire way and those who would take 60-second walking breaks every 2.5 kilometers.
The walk breakers performed well. Runners in both groups finished the marathon with similar times, and the group that took walking breaks experienced less muscle pain and fatigue after the race than their running-only counterparts.
“Most people think that if you walk in a marathon race, you will need much more time to finish,” said Kuno Hottenrott, a professor of sports science at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany and lead author of the study. Even he was surprised by the results.
But the benefits of intermittent walking goes beyond the physical, he says. “Since running a marathon is as much of physical as well as a mental challenge, it is for a runner mentally easier to break the marathon distance down into smaller parts and focus on one segment at a time, instead of looking at the whole marathon distance.”
Jeff Galloway, the running coach and Olympian runner, pioneeredthe run-walk-run method in the mid-1970s. He added walks to his beginner students’ training because he saw that it helped them run farther and for longer periods of time than if they tried to plow through the distance just running, with fewer injuries. “It allows each person to gain control over their running,” he says. “They get to set the amount of running and the amount of walking, and they can feel good on every single running segment.”
More than 300,000 people have used the Galloway Run Walk Run Method, he says, with the fastest marathon time reported back to him from a 30-something male student who dropped his marathon time to 2 hours 28 minutes, from 2 hours 33 minutes, by adding walking breaks.
This weekend, I will be undertaking the Gasparilla Challenge, a series of races in Tampa, Fla., that include a 15K and 5K on Saturday and a half marathon and 8K on Sunday. It’s a lot of work, and I know my legs will feel like telephone poles at the end. But the only thing I’m really anxious about is a potentially hot weekend.
Why? Because to get through more than 30 miles in two days, I’ve returned to that proven strategy: nine minutes of running, followed by one minute of walking. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Jen A. Miller is the author of “Running: A Love Story,” to be published by Seal Press in spring 2016.
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source: WELL by Jen A. Miller