Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 20 Sep 2012 06:01:41 -0400

Talking the Walk

RUNNING COMMENTARY 955

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the March 2006 issue.)

A student of mine refuses to walk. That isn’t unusual. Many runners think they’re cheating or failing if they ever stop to walk during a run. But one woman takes this phobia further. She runs the recoveries during interval training and runs to cool down, when everyone else walks. She hasn’t yet noticed that walking speeds up the recovery.

Another runner, from my Marathon Team, made one of her goals in the race “not to walk a step.” She didn’t succeed that way, and as a result couldn’t give herself full credit for PRing. She didn’t notice that most of the runners around her did some walking, if only through the drink stations.

The student reminds me of myself at her age, not yet 20. The marathoner reflects myself at that stage of her marathon life, early and with more PRs to come. Back then, I too never walked by choice. I not only ran my interval recoveries and grabbed drinks on the run; I also avoided walking anywhere, anytime.

You could have seen me do what I still see runners doing: come to a stoplight, run in small circles while awaiting a break in traffic, thinking that walking or stopping would bring down a deadly lightning strike.

My walk-avoidance went beyond the running hours. I would run for miles, but would drive a half-mile to the grocery store. There I’d circle a parking lot until a space opened up at the front door. Anything to keep from walking.

To runners who still think and act this way, “walk” is a four-letter word. It is synonymous with giving up or wimping out.

Like it or not, though, more marathoners each year run with walk breaks, walk with run breaks or purely walk the distance. They are the reason that marathons have grown so much in this country – and running purists will add, accurately, why these events have slowed so much.

Walking has caught on because it works. Walks can work not just as breaks within runs but also as a pre-warmup before a run begins, or as a cooldown afterward, or as an early rehab method after an injury, or as the first choice in substitutes when we don’t or can’t run.

If the word “walk” still strikes you as dirty, think of it instead as recovery during interval running. Intervals aren’t just for speed training anymore. Breaking any big job into smaller pieces, separated by recovery breaks, lets us do more total work without feeling we’ve worked any harder. Walk breaks can make a long run last longer, a fast run go faster, an easy run feel easier.

Walking has served me well in all of these ways. But this happened only after I’d learned that “walk” is not a bad word. I had run, and only run, for a long time before finally learning to walk.

It happened, as many good and lasting changes do, because I talked to the right people at the right time. Here I both relay their teachings to you and gives thanks to my teachers.

BEGINNING TO BREAK

Ken Crutchlow passed through this sport briefly in the 1970s. Before moving on to other pursuits, the British adventurer crossed Death Valley in the summer and also ran from Los Angeles to San Francisco. That second run of 500 miles brought us together for an interview. I asked how he had trained.

“Oh, not at all,” he said. “I wouldn’t do any special training. That would take the sport out of it. The challenge to me was to do this totally unprepared, as any man on the street might.”

So how could he run 50 miles a day for 10 straight days? Few trained runners could even do a single 50. (I never had at that point.)

“You want to know my secret?” he said. “I don’t hurry, and I don’t run very far at one time – only a mile or so, and then I walk for a while, then I run some more and walk again. It takes me the whole bloody day, but I get there.”

Back then I was dabbling in ultras, mostly unsuccessfully. My only attempt at a 50-mile race had ended 20 miles too soon. My longest completed run was a 50K. I had tried a three-day race of equal segments totaling 100 miles. One day’s running had been my limit.

The next year that same event squeezed itself into a single 24-hour period. Based on the wisdom of the times, I had no business entering. We believed then in the collapse-point theory. It held that runners would hit their wall at about triple the length of their average daily run. That meant you could eke out a marathon while averaging just under nine miles a day.

My corollary to collapse-point also seemed to work. I needed a longest training run the length of the race, in time, to be assured of finishing strongly. I wasn’t going to average 33 miles in training for the 100. Nor would I take a 20-hour trial run.

So why try? In a word, Crutchlow. I figured if this untrained runner could go as far as he did, what was my excuse?

My plan didn’t include walk breaks. Mine would be STOP breaks, milling in place or sitting down to rest before starting to run again from the same spot. I would run five miles between these breaks through 50 miles, then 2½ miles (the length of each lap) from then on.

This experiment failed. I bailed out at 70 miles, at two o’clock in the morning, after 14½ hours on the road. But in three other ways this effort was a great eye-opener: (1) the distance more than doubled the length of my longest nonstop run; (2) the running averaged eight-minute miles, which was about as fast as I usually trained at a small fraction of this distance; (3) the recovery afterward took far less time than any marathon I’d run.

The rest breaks had made all of this possible. But I wasn’t convinced enough to try them again in my next, and last, ultra. Running without pause, my race ended 10 miles short its scheduled 50 – and 30 miles short of the go-and-stop distance covered a few months earlier. I still had a lot to learn about walking for runners.

LEARNING TO WALK

Ernst van Aaken, a German physician-coach, first published an article in English in 1960. I read it then, but wasn’t yet ready to believe it. He talked of run-walk as child’s play, and at 17 I already thought of myself as a grown-up runner.

Dr. van Aaken wrote then, “The play of children is nothing more than a long-distance run, because in a couple of hours of play they cover many kilometers with several hundred pauses. The play of children is a primal form of interval training.”

His adult runners trained the same way, covering great distances but seldom going far between walk breaks. By the time I finally met the man, he had coached an Olympic medalist (Harald Norpoth in the 5000) and advised two world record-setters in the marathon (Liane Winter and Christa Vahlensieck).

By the mid-1970s, when I first met van Aaken, he had lost both legs in a traffic accident and didn’t have long to live. As he spoke that night to a too-small group of runners in California, I wasn’t yet a converted run-walker but was about ready to become a believer.

“Run as a child runs,” van Aaken said in German, with Dr. Joan Ullyot translating. “Run playfully, for 10 kilometers a day, without pain or fatigue. The plan is the same for everyone from competing athletes to patients recovering from heart attacks. Only the pace and the amount of walking varies.”

I didn’t plan to prove van Aaken’s theories correct right away. My plan the very next morning was to take a long run with several friends. Barely two miles into that scheduled 15, a sore calf that I’d nursed for the past week cramped up and stopped me. I began walking back to our starting point. A few minutes of this loosened the offending muscle, so I tested myself with a short run. At the calf’s first sign of rebellion I walked again.

These run-walk intervals continued for two hours that day – this after failing to run two miles steadily. The intervals were just what the doctor, Ernst van Aaken in this case, would have ordered.

I’ve since learned that almost any injury responds better to intermittent running than to uninterrupted. Run-walk is, above whatever else it offers, a leg-saver.

DOUBLE THE DISTANCE

Hundreds of running books have passed through the presses since I first read one in 1958. Too many of them moved me too much to name a single favorite, but I could give a short list.

Certain to make it would be the Serious Runner’s Handbook, which didn’t sell well enough in its day (published in 1978) and fell into out-of-print obscurity too soon. Its author, Tom Osler, is so little recognized now that I call him an “unsung genius.”

Tom never was a running writer by trade. He was, and is, a college math professor in New Jersey. He viewed running as a long series of problems to be solved, then described his solutions quickly and clearly. His book covers 255 topics in barely half that many pages, giving more good advice per paragraph than some writers do in a chapter.

Tom is the godfather of walk breaks in this country. He used them while running races as long as 48 hours.

“I find it convenient to walk briskly for five minutes following every 20 minutes of running,” he wrote in his Handbook. “More walking seems to leave my legs heavy and unwilling to run again.”

Tom didn’t comment on the effects of walking less than five minutes at a time, or running shorter than 20. Later users of these breaks would have to find their own answers here. He understated his case for walks in the book. But my proddings led him to speak more boldly for a magazine article that I edited.

He wrote, “Runners can instantly double their longest nonstop distance by taking the walk breaks.” I’d already believed this from my 70 miles of run/rest. That experience was almost a decade old before I truly tried walk breaks in a race.

Circumstances conspired to put me at a marathon starting line woefully undertrained. My longest run lately had been six miles. I intended to follow the Osler plan: run 20 minutes, then walk five. Maybe finishing a marathon wouldn’t be possible, but doubling my longest recent distance would still be a good day’s work.

Two problems arose early: Stopping while others kept running proved embarrassing, and a five-minute walk seemed interminably long. I made midcourse corrections: running the two miles or so between drink stations (where many runners stopped with me), and walking about one minute for each running mile (while pretending to drink slowly).

This routine had payoffs immediate and longterm. It let me get through that marathon without undue struggle. And it previewed future run-walk advice to marathoners, shortening the runs and the walks of ultrarunner Tom Osler.

THE GALLOWAY WAY

Want to hear the war of words over walk breaks heat up? Mention Jeff Galloway’s name. His detractors and devotees are equally vocal.

Ask purist runners what they think of “Gallowalks,” and they’ll tell you this is a ploy to make marathoners of people who really aren’t. They’ll blame Jeff for slowing down – some critics say “dumbing down” – the sport. I’m sad to see Jeff defamed this way, because there is no more sincere a missionary for running.

You can agree or not with his approach. The fact remains that no American has contributed more to the marathon’s growth in recent years. Upwards of 100,000 marathoners have come through his training program, centered on walking early (from the first mile onward), often (every mile or even more often) and briefly (seldom more than a minute at a time).

I can’t call myself a true Gallowalker. My use of these breaks predates his teachings. But I can call Jeff a good friend. While visiting his running camp each summer, I’ve seen his walk ideas develop and his roster of marathon finishers grow long.

My own run/walk routine was well set a few years ago. By then it was run nine minutes and walk one. Then came another marathon that I really wanted to enter but had trained for too little. I asked Jeff Galloway for advice.

“Walk twice as often,” he said. “Run FOUR minutes and walk one.”

But wouldn’t walking an extra 25 minutes add an unacceptable amount of time to my total? “Not really,” said Jeff. “I know a woman who qualified for Boston while doing four-and-ones.”

Still skeptical, I followed Jeff’s plan. This marathon was less than five minutes slower than my most recent one, which had employed half as much walking. And I didn’t lose the time to the breaks but only when the training deficit overtook me in the late miles.

Jeff knows from tens of thousands of case studies what I’ve learned from only an experiment of one: Walk breaks cost much less time than you might think. I’ll calculate the amount in the next column.

UPDATE: Five years further along, the overall pace is slower, but I can still reach satisfying total distances. My next book, nearly finished, is titled Learning to Walk.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. The other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine, starting with the September issue.]
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