Relentless Forward Motion

by Shawn McDonald

Based on reader feedback, there seems to be substantial interest in how to mix walking into training and racing, as well as how to become a more efficient, faster walker. As with running, practice and proper form are keys to improvement. Even the fastest ultrarunners will walk a little during races, particularly at longer events.

Benefits of walking The walking motion uses different muscle sets than running, which gives running muscles a relative rest. Hips and calf muscles are more engaged during walking and there is less strain on the quadriceps, gluteals, and knee tendons. You land more on your heels when you walk, changing foot stress points and potentially leading to lower incidence of blisters. Unless you are going up a steep hill, your heart rate and breathing will slow as you walk and you get some physiological recovery. In general, you use about ten – 50 percent as much oxygen walking as running. Eating and drinking are easier and your fuel will settle better in your stomach. Taking a five- to ten-minute walk break lowers your core temperature since you are generating much less heat while walking. If you mix in several walking breaks during long training runs, you may find you can complete longer runs; you might also find that your running pace is faster near the end of the long run. Enhanced blood circulation during walking helps flush waste products (hormones, lactate, and CO2) out of working muscles for better processing.

Walking mechanics and recovery Much research has been conducted in recent years on the mechanics and energetic cost of walking. About half of the energy used in walking goes into forward propulsion. The remainder goes into either heat generation or vertical force generation. In running, about one-third of energy used is applied to forward propulsion and more goes to vertical force generation. The medial gastrocnemius (a calf muscle) provides a majority of the forward impulse in walking, with the soleus (another calf muscle) having a supporting role when propulsive demands are higher. For example, when walking at 2.9 miles/ hour up a 15-percent grade, the soleus is recruited for propulsion and this type of walking has a 63-percent higher energetic cost than walking on flat ground. Both heartbeat and respiration rates return to near resting rates quickly in athletes. For example, following maximal exercise (heart rate in lower 180s), on a treadmill by female longdistance runners, heart rate decreased an average of 43 percent following two minutes of rest. After an additional three minutes of rest, heart rate only dropped another nine percent.

Walk training To improve your speed and strength as a walker, aim to practice walking two to three times a week during your runs. Two run/walk workouts per week should be enough practice for 50-km – 50-mile preparation. Adding a third walking-only (or mostly walking) session of about 45 minutes would benefit many runners going into a 100-mile or 24-hour race, where they might walk from several up to a couple of dozen miles during the race. Try some sessions with short walk breaks between running segments. Complete other workouts with longer, four- to eight-minute walks and run segments of 15 – 25 minutes to find which you like best. Some athletes struggle with the walk-run transition and prefer the longer walk breaks.

Your walking pace should be 14 – 17 minutes/ mile on flat or rolling terrain and 19 – 21 minutes/ mile on hills. Focus on keeping a good walking stride with erect posture, use a strong steady arm swing without your hands crossing over the centerline of your body, and push off with your trailing foot at the completion of each stride. It may be tempting to rest your hands on your waist while walking, especially uphill, but you will be more engaged and make better forward progress with a good arm swing. Don’t lean forward substantially from the waist when walking uphill, so as to not impair your breathing. Shorten your stride and use a faster stride cadence when walking uphill.

For the first few practice sessions, focus on keeping a steady effort and pace during each walk break. Ease back into full running pace over the first minute or two after each break. After a few weeks, increase the pace of some of your walking breaks to develop your “fast stride”. By conducting the pace workout once a week for a few weeks in a row, you can note your progress in walking faster without an appreciable increase in heart or breathing rates.

Sample run/walk plans Two plans for walk breaks are given in the table below. Note that with each plan you will be walking about the same amount each hour. Not all your walk breaks have to be the same duration. Aim to match the durations to the terrain, so that you are walking all or most steep uphills and running all downhills. Some walk breaks can be taken after an aid station stop, where you will walk while eating and drinking.

Short breaks should be long enough to reduce your breathing rate by 25 percent or more and your heart rate by 20 beats/minute by the end of the break. Long breaks should allow your heart and breathing rates to drop further (an additional ten percent) with a substantial drop in body temperature.

The short break plan works well for cold to cool weather races so you avoid becoming chilled. The longer break plan is ideal for hotter races to give you a couple of chances an hour to cool down while maintaining decent forward progress. For very long ultras (100 miles, 24 hours, or longer), you can shorten the running segments to 15 minutes and take four- to six-minute walk breaks to enable adequate fluid and food intake.

The proportion of time spent walking in the modified long-break plan is a little higher (near 15 minutes per hour). You may want to switch to a shorter walk break later in the race since it can be more difficult to run well for 15 minutes at a time when you are sore and tired.