Like many serious runners, I have an aversion to walking, at least when I am supposed to be running. Walking is what happens when something goes horribly wrong, for example, when you horribly misjudge your pace in a marathon, or when that twinge in your leg becomes a throbbing pain, or when you are overtaken by fatigue. Whatever the reason, having to walk during a run or (God forbid) a race, always feels to me like a shameful thing.
But why should this be so? Why did I long ago internalize the idea that nothing was as important as continuing to run, even as one’s stride became a stumble and one’s mind sank into fatigue-despair?
I thought about this after reading an essay in Wednesday’s New York Times by runner and author Jen Miller, who chronicles her own attitudes toward walking and touches on recent research on the efficacy of taking walk breaks during races (Real Runners Do Take Walk Breaks).
Miller describes her surprise when a friend suggested she take walk breaks during her first long distance race. “I didn’t think you were allowed to walk in races, not if you wanted to be a real runner,” she writes. As her fitness and experience improved, she abandoned those early experiments with run-walk-run. Her ability to run without taking walk breaks coincided with running faster times, and a growing confidence in her abilities. In the course of completing several marathons, she did walk several times, but not “by choice.” She, too, had reached a point where walking was a last resort when one had reached a bad place. She describes how a “shroud of failure” hung over her when she finished these races.
Miller goes on to cite recent research on the benefits of walk breaks, and her own re-discovery of the practice. She references Jeff Galloway, the runner/coach most associated with “inventing” or at least popularizing the modern practice of run-walk.
On the one hand, I don’t really believe that taking walk breaks, per se, makes someone faster. I feel fairly confident in the proposition that the fastest way to get anywhere on foot is to run at a consistent pace, without surges or breaks of any kind. However, the ideal of an even pace is hard to achieve in real life. For one thing, it’s really hard to know what pace is the right one over any long distance. For another, it takes a tremendous amount of mental effort and concentration to maintain such a pace for hours without a break. If I use myself as an example, although I was a serious runner who trained long and hard for it, I never was able to run a marathon at a consistent level of effort, and for that reason, I don’t think I ever ran to my potential.
So it seems to me that walk breaks might help in at least two ways: first, by providing a mental break that allows the brain to recover its ability to concentrate on maintaining a high level effort against rising fatigue, and second, by shifting the pattern of muscle use, if only briefly, allowing some physiological recovery. Maybe these two benefits are two aspects of the same phenomenon.
When I think back to my own running, I believe I can recall every single instance of walking in a race. In each of these instances, in the moments when I took my involuntary walk breaks, each one felt like a catastrophe. But as I reflect on it now, I realize that not all of them had negative consequences.
There was a ten-mile race where I hit some kind of physical-mental barrier with a mile to go and was overwhelmed with a need to stop and walk. This was a New England championship race, so I immediately had runners passing me. It felt pretty bad, and I assumed I was done. But after only about 30 seconds of walking, I was able to start running again, and — surprisingly — ran that last mile considerably faster than any of my previous several miles. It was weird — as though that brief respite from running had pushed some reset button.
There was the Rocket City Marathon where I walked briefly at 25 miles. It had been a tough day, and I recall that the final 6-8 miles were run into a headwind. I had been trying to hang on for so long that I finally couldn’t do it anymore. I walked for about ten seconds, and then, miraculously, found a renewed will to continue. I started running again and was able to complete the final mile at a respectable pace in a time that stands as my marathon PR.
The more I think about it, the more I think that intermittent walking “works” by interacting with deep mind-body mechanisms that signal fatigue. I need to think more about this, but at the very least, I don’t think there should be any stigma associated with walk breaks. After all, didn’t Bill Rodgers take short walk breaks to drink water (and tie his shoes) when he won the Boston Marathon for the first time in 1975?
I’m not planning on changing the way I train or race any time soon, and I don’t know whether I’ll ever be entirely comfortable with a strategy of planned walk breaks. But I agree with Ms. Miller that however we want to define “real runner,” walking once in a while has nothing to do with it.