As mentioned in In a race, walk before you have to, running until you are forced to walk is a mistake. For many marathon runners, and most ultrarunners, walking is a key part of a successful race. We will look at this in four sections – benefits of walking, run/walk patterns, specific training and guidelines on when to use walking breaks
1 Benefits of walking
Walking in a race has a lot of advantages
- Running burns more calories per mile than walking, so walking is more efficient. (Generally, for paces up to around 14 min/mile, walking is more efficient. For paces faster than 12 min/mile, running is more efficient. Paces between 14 and 12 min/mile are not so clear cut.)
- Walking has a lower Heart Rate, which allows the body to burn more fat than carbohydrate. (You have a lot of fat, but carbohydrates are a limited resource)
- The lower Heart Rate of walking also makes digestion easier. The digestive system needs blood and oxygen; if it is all being used by the muscles, you will have a problem.
- It is much easier to take off or add clothes when walking, or adjust other bits of equipment.
- The lower intensity of walking gives a more relaxed Breathing pattern, making it easier to eat and drink.
- Walking gives the muscles a chance to recover from running.
- Because walking uses less energy, it can help if overheating is a problem.
2 Run/Walk Patterns
There are three main patterns that I've noticed runners using for run/walk.
2.1 Sliding Scale
This approach starts with the majority of the time spent running, then moves to a run/walk pattern, with the proportion of walking increasing as the race progresses and fatigue sets in. While this approach may avoid the 'forced to walk' stage, it does tend to give too little walking in the beginning, which leads to too much walking at the end. I would suggest that this is not an optimal approach.
2.2 Fixed Ratio
By fixing the ratio of running to walking, you get the benefits of walking from the beginning of the race. There is no generally agreed 'correct' ratio of running to walking. For ultramarathon distances, a ratio of 15 minutes running to 3 minutes walking seems to work well for many people and is a good starting point. A break every 15 minutes gives a frequent enough break to reap the benefits of walking. It also is psychologically short enough that you can focus on the time to the next walking break when things get tough. Three minutes is long enough to eat or drink, as well as add or remove clothes. This approach works very well on relatively flat courses, or courses with long flat sections. For shorter distances, such as the marathon or people running faster 50K races, shorter walking breaks may be appropriate. Some runners will walk through each aid station to ensure they have adequate hydration.
2.3 Walk the uphill
Walking up the hills makes intuitive sense, as these are the hardest sections to run up. On some courses, the hills are steep enough that they would be hard to run up even for a fresh runner. On hilly courses, this is usually the best option. However, with big hills, this can mean long periods of walking, possibly with long periods of uninterrupted running as well. A hybrid approach of walking up steep hills and then doing a timed/run walk on gentle uphills or other terrain may work.
3 How Fast To Walk
Walking faster is obviously desirable. However, if you pace is fast enough, it is easier to run than to walk. For most people, this transition pace is around 12 min/mile, but does vary with individual and with training. This suggests that you should train to walk somewhat slower than 12 min/mile pace. Personally, I aim to train between a 15 and 13 min/mile pace. Going faster than 13 min/mile may have some benefits for short intervals, but does not seem to make sense for protracted periods.
The optimum Cadence for running is generally recognized to be around 180 steps/minute. Walking appears to be somewhat different, as it is much harder to vary the stride length in walking in the way that is possible when running. It is claimed that Olympic race walkers have a cadence of 240 steps/minute. It is suggested that race walkers work towards 160 steps/minute, possibly reaching 180-200 steps/minute .
Many ultrarunners who will walk significant sections of a race focus all of their training on running, and ignore the walking. If you run a 70% of a 100 mile race, improving your pace from 9:00 to 8:00 will save 70 minutes on your finish time. If you improve your walking pace from 20:00 to 15:00 you will save 150 minutes on the same race.
5.1 Specific Walking Training Sessions
Dedicate some of your training sessions to walking. Keeping a track of your mileage and pace can help you understand the effectiveness of your training. Start easily, as walking uses different muscles.
5.2 Walk barefoot/VFF
Walking barefoot or in Vibram FiveFingers (VFF) can help improve your biomechanics for walking, just as it does for running. I found that walking casually in VFFs improved my fast walking dramatically. The lack of cushioning causes you to land more gently and more efficiently. I found that lots of hip movement helped.
5.3 Downhill intervals
When doing downhill interval training, you can use the uphills to practice walking. Don't stroll up the hill, but use it to build strength and speed.
5.4 The long walk
It can be useful to practice extended walking. On longer races, such as a 100 miler, being able to sustain a fast walk for a long way can be important.
5.5 The long run/walk
Practice your chosen run/walk pattern on some of your long training sessions. Get a sense of how well the pattern is working for you, and use the training to try out different approaches.
5.6 Practice the transition
The transition from running to walking and vice versa can be quite stressful. Be mindful of the transition and practice it. Slow up to a walk gradually rather than breaking hard. Likewise, lean forward and move into the run with as little effort as possible.
6 Are walking breaks right for you and your race?
There are no absolute rules due to Individuality, but I will try to provide some guidelines.
- If you can’t run the full distance of the race, don’t run until you are forced to walk, but take walking breaks earlier. See In a race, walk before you have to
- If your running and walk paces are closer, then walking breaks will have less impact on your time. If you are expecting to complete a marathon in about 5 hours, your overall pace will be about 11:30. This pace can be achieved with running 11:15 and walking 15:00 in a 10:1 ratio.
- If your running and walking paces are dramatically different, then walking breaks will have a much larger impact on your overall time. If you are expecting to complete a marathon in about 3:10, your overall pace will be about 7:15. This pace can be achieved with running 7:00 and walking 15:00 in a 20:1 ratio. However, the difference between 7:15 and 7:00 (3.6%) is much larger than between 11:15 and 11:30 (2.2%).
- The longer the race, the more beneficial walking breaks tend to be. In ultramarathon races, walking breaks are the norm for most runners.
- In hot conditions, walking breaks provide a better chance for hydration. Even the faster runners may benefit from taking enough of a walking break to adequately hydrate.
- If the limiting factor on your race performance is aerobic capacity, then walking breaks are unlikely to help.
- If the limiting factor on your race performance is muscular fatigue or fueling, then walking breaks are more likely to help.
7 Run/Walk Pace Tables
Run:Walk ratio of 5:1 Run 5 Walk 1
Run:Walk ratio of 10:1 Run 10 Walk 1
Run:Walk ratio of 20:1 Run 20 Walk 1