It was the night before the Lululemon Seawheeze half-marathon in Vancouver, and I was talking to the pacer I planned to follow during the race. He was promising me he’d pay extra attention to me to help me meet my goal time. “You might lose track of me sometimes,” I warned him. “I use run-walk-run.”
I said it to him in a hushed tone—I was in a room full of other health and fitness writers and editors, and I was afraid to admit that I planned to walk the next day.
“Oh girl, no!” he said, confirming all my fears. “That’s not right. You gotta run it for real!”
I’ve been a run-walk-run runner for the past five years, and I’ve always harbored a low-key concern that people don’t think of my strategy as “real” running. Hearing the pacer say that to me made me want to disappear. I went back into the run-walk-run closet after that. (Related: What Might Happen If You Walk 30 Minutes a Day)
But I’m coming out now—for good this time—because run-walk-run is awesome, and it works.
The Science Behind the Run-Walk-Run Method
For starters, the strategy is what took running from a slog to a challenge I enjoyed. Using this method, I started craving greater distances and even #milesforbreakfast. (Related: 5 Reasons Mornings Are the Best Time to Run)
I found the method early on in my distance running career when I was training for a runDisney half marathon. I used their official training guide, which is designed by Olympic runner Jeff Galloway, who is basically the godfather of the run-walk-run method. I, like the Lululemon pacer, went in thinking that this was not a legitimate way to complete my first half, but if it was the officially recommended way to train, I figured I’d give it a shot.
After a few training runs, I realized this was my jam. Walk breaks let me feel confident that I wouldn’t run out of steam and not be able to finish a planned distance or time. Things didn’t seem so overwhelming suddenly, and I didn’t get frustrated or intimidated as the mileage mounted. Walk breaks were the little treats that let me take in the beauty of my route (especially if I was on a vacation running somewhere I’d never been before). Running was fun again! (Related: The Best Walking Workouts for Weight Loss, According to Fitness Experts)
This is, of course, exactly the point. Galloway started teaching run-walk-run to true beginners back in 1973, knowing if he had them run nonstop there would be injuries and quitters. At the time, he too thought of it more like a workaround for people who couldn’t handle running straight through.
“Then, the former beginners using run-walk-run started beating veteran runners. That’s when it really took off,” Galloway told me.
He then started digging into the science of why it works and found there’s actually an evolutionary reason. “Our ancestors used very little running,” he explained. (Take note, Paleo fans.) “Up until about 1,000 years ago, the leading cause of death was starvation. We wouldn’t use up resources running when walking is so efficient. Running was done in short segments as hunts developed. When [our ancestors] needed better quality food, they’d spot the animal and jog toward it, walk to recover, and repeat.” In other words, run-walk-run. Because there were recovery breaks built in, the hunt could go on for several hours, at which point the animal would keel over from heat exhaustion. The human’s endurance triumphed.
There’s also the science of Galloway’s own running career: He’s run a whopping 226 marathons since he started using run-walk-run himself in 1978, and he’s never oncebeen injured. He gets that regular runners might be hesitant to try the method, especially because it requires building walk breaks into the early part of runs, before you actually feel like you need a rest. (Related: How an Injury Taught Me That There’s Nothing Wrong with Running a Shorter Distance)
This is always the thing that makes me feel the most self-conscious—sure, lots of runners take walk breaks around mile 15 of a marathon, but taking one five minutes into a 5K has always felt like it makes me look out of shape. But Galloway says it’s all about calibrating the run time to the walk time, regardless of how much distance you’ve covered (or plan to cover): When he laces up, he runs for 15 seconds, then walks for 15 seconds.
“Look, if someone wants to run nonstop, there’s no problem with that,” he says. “But they’re gonna pay for it. There will be a distance when the stress is going to build up on weak links and something is going to break. What we do with each walk break is we erase the fatigue and stress that builds up on those weak links.”
Still not convinced? Runners using run-walk-run have completed marathons in under two and a half hours.
What Run-Walk-Run Does for My Running
Personally, I shaved eight minutes off my previous half-marathon time using run-walk-run at that Lululemon race and felt great—I beat my goal time by almost two minutes.
I may have been hiding my run-walk-run status all this time, but I’ve never regretted it: I had a baby earlier this year, and I never had to stop running during my pregnancy thanks to those little walk breaks. I’d just reduce the number of minutes I spent running and increase my walking time—in my 39th week I was at about one minute of running to one minute of walking. (I did stop at 40 weeks, but only because I was worried I’d run one morning and go into labor later in the day and be out of much-needed endurance reserves!). (Related: Training Through My First Year of Motherhood Made Me a Better a Runner)
I picked my running back up at about the same ratio as soon as I got exercise clearance from my doctor postpartum. Sure, I was slow, but the run felt amazing.