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Start Walking To Go Longer, Faster

There is an ongoing debate on the usefulness and legitimacy of using run/walk intervals in one’s training and racing. It seems like some people think that if you have to walk, you didn’t really complete the distance. Jeff Galloway would give you a haymaker if he heard you talk like that.

If my memory serves me right, I thought the objective was to get from point A to point B in the least amount of time possible. I believe most amateurs are more than capable of doing their best scratch marathon or shorter distance race without walking, but ultra marathons and marathons within an Iron distance triathlon are another story. This becomes less of a battle of fitness, and more of a battle of fatigue resistance, impact reduction, and smart nutrition. Oh, and some mental toughness. But that’s a whole other topic.

But the pros don’t walk! You are only mildly correct. Depending on the distance and difficulty of the course, many pros run/walk in their training. But, just as a reminder, here are the reasons why they are pros:

1. They have a natural ability to perform at a high aerobic level
2. They have an affinity for vast amounts of pain and suffering
3. They have much more time to train and RECOVER from training
4. The are fast enough that they are only on their feet 50-60% of the time that an average amateur is
5. They have fewer outside stressors that affect their ability to train and RECOVER

We constantly get people coming to us training for ultra distance events. Many of them have in the past hit the duration milestones, nailed their pacing during training, and then fell apart on race day. There are a ton of things that can go wrong in an ultra distance event, but the 2 major killers are poor fueling and fatigue.

The fact is, very few people will do the mileage of an ultra event before race day. One, because its not safe. Two, because most people don’t have the time to train that much. And three, it would take weeks to recover from such a workload.

By utilizing a run/walk schedule, you can help fight ultra performance enemy number one and two! The impact on the muscles during each and every ground contact causes tiny tears that are a major source of muscle fatigue. By taking periodic walk breaks, your body gets short recovery periods, much like not pedaling on a bike. At the same time, walking with long strides actively stretches out the working muscles and helps preserve their elasticity, thus helping reduce damage. In our own athletes, we have noticed much smaller regression rates in pacing for those utilizing run/walk for runs over 90 minutes.

The other performance enemy is poor nutrition. By taking short walk breaks we can better plan and time our nutrition. The walk break is a reminder to eat/drink. When we are constantly running, it is very easy to forget to eat and drink…and it is very easy to get behind on our nutrition. Choosing specific walk intervals to eat and/or drink on ensures you are getting all the necessary nutrition you need to keep your fuel, water, and electrolyte stores topped off.

At the same time, when our heart rate increases, digestion tends to shut down. This means that the food we are putting in is just going to sit there. In the realm of poor nutrition I am grouping in GI issues because stomach problems are usually a result of poor nutrition timing, meaning eating when the effort is too high. Over long duration, our heart rate will increase for the same perceived exertion due to the phenomena known as cardiac drift. One of the reasons many people go exclusively to coke toward the end of an ultra distance race is because their heart rate is elevated regardless of their exertion level, and their body will only tolerate simple sugars. Anything that takes more effort to digest will just sit there and likely cause GI distress. As you walk, you can easily take in nutrition, and more of it. As your heart rate drops, your body will more easily digest the foods you are taking in, which means you won’t fall behind and suffer the dreaded bonk.

But doesn’t walking mean I am going really slow? What is worse? Running half the race and then walking the rest because you are fatigued and/or bonking, or taking walk breaks and maybe sacrificing 30 seconds per mile on your overall pace. Given the unpredictability of ultra distance events, along with the sacrifice and work put into training for one, I would rather take the safer bet.

Thanks to my high school algebra teacher, I can still do equations. Mrs. Pinion would be so proud. She would also say “math never contradicts itself, it only reinforces,” which I find useful because I am about to do just that.

Using the equation:

Combined Pace = (Run Int +Walk Int)/((Run Int/Run Pace)+(Walk Int/Walk Pace))

We can see that some very respectable paces are possible. Keep in mind the distances we are discussing here.  Most people can walk a 15 min/mile pace, but it obviously depends on the course. The example highlighted in red was done to show an athlete how feasible it was for him to break a certain 100 mile course record.

Run Interval Walk Interval Run Pace Walk Pace Combined Pace
00:07:30 00:00:30 00:07:30 00:15:00 0:07:44
00:07:00 00:01:00 00:08:00 00:15:00 0:08:29
00:08:00 00:01:00 00:09:30 00:15:00 0:09:54
00:07:00 00:01:00 00:09:30 00:15:00 0:09:57
00:08:00 00:00:30 00:08:00 00:15:00 0:08:13
00:10:00 00:01:25 00:07:00 00:15:00 0:07:29
00:10:00 00:01:34 00:09:30 00:15:00 0:09:59
00:10:00 00:11:25 00:08:45 00:20:00 0:12:29
00:07:00 00:01:00 00:07:30 00:15:00 0:08:00


Now lets compare this to running half of an iron distance marathon, and then walking the other half. Say your goal pace is an 8:30 mile. If you run half the marathon at that pace and then crash and walk the rest. Or lets say you crash and get yourself back together so you only walk about 2-4 miles of the marathon. More equations were involved but I will spare you this one.

Run Distance Walk Distance Run Pace Walk Pace Combined Pace
13.1 13.1 00:08:30 00:15:00 0:11:45
20 6.2 00:08:30 00:15:00 0:10:02
22 4.2 00:08:30 00:15:00 0:09:32
24 2.2 00:08:30 00:15:00 0:09:02


So would you rather sacrifice 30 seconds per mile and take your walk break every 7-10 minutes, or hope you don’t have to walk more than 2.2 miles of the run? In our experience, the ones that don’t end up being forced to walk usually qualify for Kona and have run a sub 3:30 off the bike. But in case you are wondering, there are those who have qualified for Kona using run/walk.

Still not convinced? Try the calculator below for yourself. Please excuse our primitive calculator. Although I can handle mathematical equations, I am not a computer programmer. Just in case you don’t know, you can multiply your minutes by 60 to get the number of seconds and vice versa. (i.e. 10 min = 600 s)

For more info on how a run/walk schedule could get you to the finish line faster, give us a shout.

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