Do walking breaks work? Yes! Jeff Galloway’s talk creates a convert By Michelle Hamilton
Years ago, I had the privilege of editing Jeff Galloway’s column in Runner’s World magazine. I took a lot of Jeff’s advice—mixing up workouts to get out of a plateau, running fartleks with friends to make speedwork more fun. Jeff’s the reason I stopped rushing my long run build up during marathon training and actually ran those long runs at an easy pace. But I never tried the run-walk-run method he pioneered, an approach that has helped thousands of people start running and stay injury free. It was fine for beginners, who his column was geared toward. But for a “serious” runner like me, no.
That thinking persisted until a few months ago when Jeff stood near the shoe rack at Kelly’s Pace talking about how he started leading running groups in 1974 in order to lure more customers into his running store. He quickly figured out that the people gathered at the track would not make it through the 5K or 10K program he’d laid out for them without walking breaks. So the “huff and puff” rule was born: When you hear yourself huffing and puffing, slow down, take a walk break. When your breathing is calm, start running again.
His runners followed his advice. They got fitter and felt successful. Jeff could relate these new runners’ experience. As an overweight middle-school kid, Jeff had joined the cross-country team initially because word on campus was that the running coach was lenient. You didn’t actually have to run. You could just jog a few miles and hide in the woods. This method worked for him until one of the older kids said, “Jeff, you’re running with us today.” Jeff thought, fine, he’d feign a hamstring pull in the first mile and that would be that. But the jokes were funny and the gossip juicy and while he fell back that first day, he got better (eventually making the 1972 Olympic team in the 10,000 meters). What he remembers, he says, is feeling good after he ran. And that was the goal of the run-walk-run method, to leave people feeling good so they kept running.
Sitting on the bench at Kelley’s Pace, it became clear to me that I never really knew Jeff or anything really about the run-walk-run method. To me, the approach was a ratio, the 2:1 (run for 2 minutes, walk for 1) or 4:1 information we printed in the magazine. The spirit and guiding force behind them never registered in my brain. Nor did this crucial fact: the ratios are not set in stone, they are guidelines. The morning before the talk, Jeff had done a 22:11 workout— running for 22 seconds and walking for 11 seconds. That’s right, seconds. The seemingly odd ratio is just what spoke to Jeff that morning. This story sold me. Run-walk-run wasn’t rigid, but fluid, it wasn’t prescriptive but individual. I needed only to be in touch with what my body and mind needed that day.
So a few days later, I went out for a four-mile tempo workout on River Road with walk breaks on my mind. My plan: run tempo pace until I cringed, walk until I stopped whining, run again. I had always pictured run-walk-run as an abrupt stop-and-go approach, one of the reasons I never tried it. But Jeff, in his soft, Southern twang, spoke of ease and rhythm. Gradually decelerate from running to walking, then slowly build back up to your running pace, he’d instructed.
And so I did. When my hard effort felt like too much, I slowed to a walk. When my breath was caught, I moved back into tempo pace as if I were accelerating into a stride. I took splits but didn’t let myself look at them until after. My ratio was not clear-cut. My run segment was about a mile; my walk varied from 30 seconds to 2 minutes (the longer breaks, not surprisingly, were near the end). Often I finish a hard effort feeling beat up. This time I felt invigorated. And while the Achilles pain and quad discomfort that was part of so many of my runs didn’t disappear, the flare up was less.
So I tried run-walk run again, this time during a long run. If there is a hard-and fast rule to run-walk-run it’s that the walking-breaks must start from the beginning of the workout. So I committed to taking a 15- to 30-second walking breaks every two miles. I started looking forward to those breaks. Then I started looking forward to running again. I looked around a little more often, noticing the sun on the Mystic River and the beauty of the ships at the Seaport. I was more in-tune with my body. Again, I finished refreshed, and wasn’t relegated to the couch all day.
I’ve kept this up. Not every run. I still love the rhythm and challenge of a steady effort. But I no longer see walking-breaks as giving in, or for beginners only. I see them for the training tool they are—a means of helping me enjoy, improve and relish my time on the road.