About 35 minutes into the London Marathon, I found myself in a good running groove. My legs felt strong, my stride relaxed, and my breathing easy. I can do this! I told myself. I was relieved to find a solid rhythm after the first few tough miles.
Soon after, I spotted the marker for the fourth mile. As I strode past it, I slowed my cadence. Within seconds, I stopped running altogether. I started to walk as hundreds of racers whizzed by.
With over 22 miles still left in the race, I wasn’t bowing out early. My slowdown was intentional: I was taking a planned break as part of the run-walk-run method, an increasingly popular marathon strategy. Several hours and more than a dozen additional walk breaks later, I crossed the finish line feeling strong, elated, and less exhausted than one might expect after tackling 26.2 miles. To boot, I ended up clocking a faster time than my only other marathon, which I ran continuously.
I once prided myself on being able to run nonstop in a race; I bought into the misconception that walking was a sign of weakness. But my experience in London really underscored just how much you can gain if you allow your body—and your brain—regular breaks. More importantly, it emphasized the fact that no matter how you make it to the finish line, getting there is an accomplishment worth celebrating. Curious to try run-walk-run yourself? It just might open up the sport to you in a way you never thought possible.
Hold up: What even is the run-walk-run method?
Popularized by Olympic marathoner and famed running coach Jeff Galloway, the strategy—often called the Galloway method—is simple: Instead of continuously running for a given distance, you alternate it with periods of walking.
While Galloway offers an online tool to help you determine your “ideal” intervals, the real beauty of this method is there’s no set rule for their duration and timing. Some folks take walk breaks when they feel like they can’t catch their breath, and then start running again when they’re ready; others follow a more structured format. For instance, someone who’s new to distance running may toggle between equally short bursts of running and walking (think: 20-to-30 seconds of each) while a seasoned marathoner may run continuously for longer durations—like 10 minutes or more—and then walk for a short period (say, a minute) before repeating. You can stick with one interval the entire time, or switch it up during your workout or race.
Simply put, run-walk-run makes the distance more accessible to a wide range of folks, which is why I’d long been intrigued by it—and what prompted me to try it myself. The impetus? Back in late January, Westin Hotels, which recently partnered with the Abbott World Marathon Majors, invited me to participate in the London Marathon. Once all the logistics got settled, I had only 11 weeks to prepare, well short of the typical 16-to-20-week program. So despite my initial resistance to the idea of walk breaks, I ultimately embraced them as a way for me to safely, effectively, and comfortably attempt the distance.
What are the benefits of run-walking?
Walk breaks can help a long-distance event like a half or full marathon feel less daunting, since they divide the race into smaller pieces, Janet Hamilton, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and running coach with Running Strong in Atlanta, tells SELF. That was huge for me on race day: By reminding myself I’d get to take regular breathers, I felt slightly calmer and less intimidated when I arrived at the starting line.
To that end, the method makes running more approachable and inclusive, Ashley V. Austin, MD, primary sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery, tells SELF. It’s a gentler, more welcoming form of training and racing that allows a wider range of people to participate.
There are a bunch of physical benefits of the run-walk method too: For one, it can reduce your injury risk, especially if you’re just getting started with the sport, says Dr. Austin. Running is one of the highest impact forces you can put your joints through, Dr. Austin explains, and because of that, people can experience pain and overuse injuries if they ramp up too quickly. The run-walk method allows for a slower, safer progression. Same principle applies for people with arthritis: Inserting walk breaks into runs can help give your joints a breather while still promoting blood flow, which is important for reducing feelings of stiffness. Ultimately, this approach can allow them to tackle longer distances than nonstop running, says Dr. Austin.
Regular walk breaks can also help reduce muscle fatigue for runners of any level, Galloway tells SELF, since it stresses your muscles less than running. Additionally, by alternating movement patterns, you may be able to refresh your mind, helping you feel more energized when it’s time to quicken your pace again, says Hamilton.
On a similar note, walk breaks can help keep your running form in check during long-distance running, which can help reduce the risk of injuries that arise when your form starts to slip.
“Your form throughout 26.2 miles can start to get sloppy,” Chris Heuisler, a run coach, personal trainer, and global run concierge at Westin who created my run-walk training program, tells SELF. “Your gait will naturally change, you’re going to start to drag your feet, your cadence starts to slow down, your feet [feel] heavier,” he explains. But with regular walk breaks, “you’re basically rebooting your system,” Heuisler explains, which can allow you to resume your normal gait and cadence.
Then there’s the aftereffects: Running a marathon can hurt in the days that follow. But because the run-walk method is less taxing on your body than nonstop running, people who use this approach will likely feel better afterward. According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, recreational athletes who used the run-walk-run method in a marathon finished with less muscle pain and fatigue than people who ran the entire time. In my case, I found the method left me with enough energy to attend a happy hour celebration at my hotel just a few hours after I crossed the finish line. While after my first marathon, I canceled post-race lunch plans with friends because once the high of completion subsided, I felt utterly exhausted.
Will walk-running tank your time?
Surprisingly, no. According to that Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport study, both the run-walkers and the continual runners finished their marathons in similar times.
But it’s also possible that the method can help you better your time too. Galloway himself clocked his best time of two hours and 16 minutes in the event at the 1980 Houston Marathon when he took a 15-to-20-second walk break every two miles. As for me, this method helped me shave 11 minutes off my previous marathon time.
What are the downsides of the walk-run method?
Though there are tons of amazing benefits of the run-walk method, it also comes with some drawbacks. For one, folks—like me—who are used to nonstop running may struggle at first to find their rhythm, though Galloway believes that eases the more you do it. I found the switch between running and walking a little distracting during some training runs, though it didn’t bother me during the race.
What’s more, the plan can be psychologically tough to stick to early in the race, when you’re feeling fresh and raring to go, and everyone around you is still running. That’s something I dealt with in London, when literally everyone was passing me during my first handful of walk breaks and I had to reign in an urge to keep up with the pack.
How can you put the walk-run method into action?
Like we mentioned above, there’s no one set way to break up your run-walk intervals—the best pattern is the one that works for you, says Hamilton. The key, though, is testing it out during your runs before you try it during a race.
That came in clutch for me: During an 18-mile training run, I tried a ratio of three and a half minutes of running to 30 seconds of walking, and found that the high frequency of walk breaks made me feel like I needed to sprint when I finally started picking up the pace again. That ended up seriously fatiguing my muscles, and I finished the run in a slow, painful shuffle. If I had tried that specific run-walk ratio in the race for the first time, my experience in London could have been drastically less fun. (Instead, I chose to go with a 30-to-60 second walk after each mile, which felt really doable.)
In order to be successful, says Hamilton, “You have to embrace the fact that you’re not trying to ‘make up’ for the walk break in the run segments.” I reminded myself of this several times on race-day morning, as I knew that left to my own competitive devices, I would most certainly push the pace during the run intervals and leave myself exhausted.
Relatedly, don’t worry about speed-walking during your breaks, either. The goal isn’t to do a “power walk,” says Galloway, as an elongated stride, especially one that isn’t natural to you, can cause more fatigue and even more injuries, he says. Just walk normally and comfortably.
If you’re using the walk-run method in a race, start out with a more conservative ratio so you can preserve muscle power, says Galloway. Then, if you’re feeling good after about a third or halfway through you can adjust your game plan then. During the last third to fourth of the race, you can make further adjustments and, in some cases, cease your walk breaks altogether—that’s what I did after mile 21.
On the etiquette front, if you’re running in a crowded race, signal to the people around you that you’re about to take a walk break by waving your hand as you move over to one side of the road, says Galloway. This will reduce the chances of you catching the runners directly behind you off guard by suddenly slowing your pace. Then before you start running again, look around to make sure you’re not going to be cutting across or starting right in front of someone, he adds. “It’s all courtesy.”
Lastly, if you’re worried about the stigma of walking during a running race–which I for sure was, until I realized how much it was actually helping me—know that “there’s no shame” in slowing down, says Hamilton. Just remember this: However you choose to complete a distance doesn’t change the fact that you made it to that finish line.