Who Should Use a Run-Walk Program?

Here’s how to determine whether a run-walk or continuous running program is right for you.

I’ve signed up for a marathon training program in town for my first marathon, and based on my current running fitness, the coaches assigned me to a run-walk program. I’m fit and do a ton of cross-training, but only run five to six kilometres a few times per week. I’d prefer to train with a continuous running plan. Is that a bad idea? Thanks! – Emily

First, let me just take a moment to praise your coaches! Assessing your fitness before prescribing a program is essential, as it will decrease the risk of injury and improve your chances for success and happiness. Kudos to them! It sounds like you’re in a great program.

It may be tempting to jump up to the next level, but based on your current mileage base, it would be quite risky. Because running is a high-impact sport, it takes time to build your mileage and adapt to the impact forces. When you start a marathon training program, it will progress right from the start through the rest of the season.

If your base is below that of the plan at the start, and you jump into higher kilometres and follow the progression, it’s only a matter of time before your body will break down. Your body interprets this significant jump in activity as stress and will protect you by showing signs of overtraining, including lack of sleep, weight gain, aches and pains, lack of motivation, crabbiness and more.

The great news for you is you’re in with a group led by solid coaches this season. Listen and learn, as this is only the beginning. This will be the base as you build slowly and become a long-distance runner. Your goal should be to finish the marathon. Period. Then when you do, you’ll have a base of experience, and can set your sights on a continuous running program and faster times. You’ve got to run-walk before you run if you want to train without a high risk of burnout and injury.

The run-walk strategy has been used for decades and is the most primal way to cover long-distance events efficiently. In fact, most if not all ultrarunners use a run-walk strategy for training and racing. Only they go by the terrain – they walk the hills and climbs and run the flats and downhills. This strategy helps them conserve energy to run stronger for longer.

Alternating running with walking decreases the amount of impact on your body and allows you to go further with less stress. And this is vital as you get started and progress throughout the season. The key is to run at a conversational effort (easy) and walk with purpose so your heart rate doesn’t drop too low. If you were looking at a chart of your heart rate, you’d want it to look like gentle rolling hills rather than huge spikes. Run easy, walk purposefully, and keep your effort in a small range.

The other powerful use for the run-walk strategy is it can be easily modified on the go. Let’s say you’re using a 4/2 run to walk ratio and it is 26 degrees Celsius outside and very humid. You can modify the ratio to 3/2 or 2/2 and finish the workout with better quality instead of fighting the heat. The same is true for continuous runners. On a hot day, walk a minute every kilometre or so and give your body a break in the heat.

Talk with your coaches about a hybrid training plan. Since you have been running five to six kilometres, another alternative is to run your mid-week runs and run-walk the long training runs. That would mean slowly increasing your mid-week runs to the program distances if they are much greater than five to six kilometres, but with the help of your coaches that can be done. Then listen to your body to see how it responds to this formula.

Finally, you’ll come to appreciate this method of training as the mileage builds throughout the season. You’ll also have a built in mental strategy. Think about it: you only have to worry about the next four to five minutes. It works!

The secret to successful marathoning is to start from where you are, rather than where you want to be. Because when you do, you evolve like a fine wine over time and develop an excellent bouquet. Have faith in the strategy. It will take you to the finish line and beyond.


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