Coach Tip Tuesday: A Highly Undervalued Running Strategy
Over the next several weeks, I’m going to explore some tips that are relevant to specific sports. Endurance sports is a broad category and many, many principles apply universally - no matter what sport an athlete chooses to partake in - but there are some tips worth exploring that have the possibility of enhancing one’s experience in a specific sport.
I’m going to kick things off with the sport of running. This week, I’m going to do a deep dive on what I have observed to be one of the most undervalued strategies in running: Running AND walking.
Some of you may remember that I’ve written about this before. That post is now almost four years old, and while the premise that prompted it hasn’t changed, what I’ve observed in my coaching since then has. Thus, I’ve collected an additional four years’ worth of analysis and observation by talking to athletes to know that this strategy is severely, severely undervalued.
This post is a long read (you've been warned :D ), but I wanted to really explore why a Run/Walk strategy is a good idea to consider, not just say, “This is a good idea!” and leave it at that.
The number one and most common piece of feedback from athletes I hear when I suggest a run/walk strategy is:
“I don’t feel like I’m a real runner if I walk. I feel like I have to keep running to be a runner.”
I get why people feel this way; it’s rooted in the early origins of modern running. In the 1960s and 1970s, coaches really pushed the idea that one must run if they were to be called a runner. Breaks were not acceptable. Heck, even hydrating wasn’t acceptable. This mindset has permeated the entire sport and has far-reaching impacts into the minds and training philosophies of many modern-day coaches and athletes.
But, like so many things, we’ve learned a lot about humans over the last several decades. We’ve also learned a lot about running itself and how it impacts the human body. I’m here to tell you that this line of thinking is outdated and it’s worth considering updating it.
Let’s take the statement that I shared earlier - “I don’t feel like I’m a real runner if I walk. I feel like I have to keep going to be a runner.” If this is something you’ve ever thought to yourself, I am going to ask you to look in the mirror and consider the following:
#1 - If you are running, you are a runner. This includes if you run/walk. If you are making forward progress and putting in the effort, you are a runner.
#2 - I have run/walked every single run I’ve completed since 2015. Every. Single. One. I employed this strategy when I was at my peak fitness in 2016 (when I set my marathon personal best time, I might add) and it’s been a critical component of my return to health and fitness since having COVID-19 in 2021.
If you would say that statement out loud and to someone’s face - that the only real runners are runners who never walk - you are effectively telling me that I’m not a real runner.
Now, if you were to say this to me, I wouldn’t be offended or get mad at you. We’d still be friends. Truly. :) But my point here is this: Would you really say such a thing to someone else’s face (out loud and in real words as you watched them react to what you are saying) who was running and walking instead of running continuously? Even to me?
If you wouldn’t consider it acceptable to say to me or another human, then it’s honestly not acceptable to say to yourself. You shouldn’t ever be willing to tell yourself something that you wouldn’t be okay with saying to someone else. As you all know, I encourage you to be kind and loving to yourselves first and foremost, because that’s what helps you to help others. So do that, my friends! Say nice things to yourselves. After all, you are the person you will talk to most over the course of your life. :)
Okay, so now that we’ve worked past the first (and most prevalent) mental block that many athletes have regarding this strategy and you’re having kind conversations with yourselves, I’m going to get into the nitty-gritty of how and why it can be so effective and should be considered by athletes as a viable tactic.
A Run/Walk strategy is incredibly effective at safely building one’s durability. Out of all of the endurance sports I’ve coached over the years, running carries the highest risk of injury. A full 80% of runners will be injured at some time in their running careers and 65-70% of runners sustain at least one injury once every twelve months. These data points are backed up by Yale Medicine, Harvard, the Nationals Institutes of Health, and countless other reputable research institutions.
Those numbers are rather staggering, my friends. And chances are that you are not in the smaller of the percentages here. That’s just not how odds work. If you are one of the very few who hasn’t ever sustained an injury in running, know that this is a very rare occurrence and be diligent about maintaining all the good things you’re doing so you do not switch into the majority pool.
Running is very hard on the body. Forces equal to at least three times one’s body weight (and often more) are distributed down through the lower extremities when the human body runs. The average runner will take 800-1000 strides per mile, which means that there are over 3,000 impact points in a “short” 5K run where the body is absorbing at least three times its own weight.
When we extrapolate things out like that, it’s easy to see how the body can break down over time. Thousands of huge force applications like that is a lot. As the body fatigues, form is what suffers; we start to be unable to effectively handle those impact forces and that load. And when form starts to break down, this is where the door opens to the possibility of injury.
Let’s say we deploy the method of continuous running despite this truth about accumulated fatigue and running form. The consequence of pushing through and keeping on running like this is structural damage. Structural damage manifests in the form of stress fractures, soft tissue injuries, and more. Structural integrity is necessary to be powerful in running; you need to be able to get into the right posture so that when you load your connective tissues so your body can safely handle the motion and activity.
By slogging on and continuously running like this, a workout can become incredibly (if not totally) ineffective. Yes, a completed workout can actually be completely ineffective. How? If an athlete suffers an injury due to this, then the workout wasn’t “worth” it…i.e. it wasn’t effective. At all.
A Run/Walk strategy more accurately accounts for running with good form; when designed well, it has you running only as long as you are maintaining quality form. You run effectively for a designated period of time, take a short rest break, and then are able to (both physically and mentally) resume running with quality. This is effective for maintaining better running form for a higher percentage of the overall workout, thereby reducing the probability of injury.
Being able to tell if you are running with good form on your own requires a great deal of proprioception - a fancy way of saying incredibly dialed-in and accurate body awareness is needed to employ this method. In my experience, most athletes will not be able to tell in advance of “The Danger Zone” if their form is poor. They will only notice it once it starts to break down, and by then, it’s too late. Again, some may feel that they don’t fall into this category, but the injury rates and data show us that this is not so.
Sticking with this strategy helps the body adapt to increased training load - whether that load comes in the form of volume or intensity (or both). The body is better able to maintain good form while running this way, which increases structural integrity, which then decreases the risk of injury. More is not better; better is better.
Now, I will be honest and say that this strategy is not something that should be employed as a “one and done.” It should also not be attempted for the first time on race day. Rather, it should be employed for a minimum of 6-7 weeks of training to allow the body to fully adapt. Remember: The earliest we can expect to see and/or feel changes brought about by a single workout is ten days after the workout takes place. The cells in our body literally take this long to adapt to the stimulus we place on them in the form of training. So, in order to see the true results of the work we’re putting in and the tactics we’re deploying, we need to give an appropriate amount of time to allow the body to respond to what we’re doing.
I talked about cardiac drift in my 2018 post about Run/Walk strategies, but it’s worth bringing up again, especially since it actually impacts one's durability.
Cardiac drift occurs in all endurance events; it is the inevitable climb of your heart rate as you carry on in the event. No human is immune to this unless they have a pacemaker installed. Continuously engaging in the activity (we’ll use the example of running since that’s what we’re talking about today) will mean that the heart rate will continue to rise, and there is nothing you can do about that.
…except to take rest breaks in the form of walking breaks. Walking breaks delay this drift. It doesn’t stop it, but it delays it. In the context of durability, this is an incredibly effective strategy, as it slows the accumulated fatigue that builds up. When our heart rate rises, we feel that in the form of tiredness or fatigue. When we feel tired, we act tired. By “acting tired,” I mean that our running form suffers. We are unable to fully engage in what we are doing (i.e. be fully aware of what our body is doing) because the sensation of fatigue becomes very prevalent. Delaying cardiac drift effectively helps us maintain good form by keeping our heart rates in ranges that do not feel as tiring.
For those of you out there who are performance-oriented (read: very concerned about your pacing), delaying cardiac drift and giving yourself the best opportunity possible to have good form for a higher percentage of your run will do more for you time-wise than you may think. This is particularly true if you train for longer events (such as a half marathon or marathon) or long-course triathlons. By doing both of these things, you will be able to run more consistently over the course of your entire run, thereby averaging out to a faster pace than if you try to run the entire time, suffer mechanical breakdown (aka poor form) and then slow down as a result.
As I talked about in 2018, planning a Run/Walk strategy from the start of a workout (and then as part of a race plan after training this way) can feel much better mentally than thinking of running as a “last resort” or something you only would do if you “need” to. As discussed earlier, if you feel like you “need” to walk, you’ve probably already waited too long. Performance and form will suffer exponentially from that point on out. (The same applies to hydration, but I digress.)
From helping you to keep up good running form to making a run feel better mentally, a Run/Walk strategy can truly be a game-changer. Maybe it’s the game-changer you’ve been seeking in your training! For all you runners out there: I encourage you to consider giving it a solid try to see if it works well for you. :)
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.