Walking breaks for marathoners

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I notice that a recent article about walking breaks during marathon running by New York Times reporter Tara Parker-Pope has been lingering at the top of the “Most Popular” list for several days now. She is preparing for the New York Marathon in November, her first marathon, following the teachings of 1972 Olympic marathoner Jeff Galloway. The principle is simple — stop and walk for a minute after running anywhere from one to 10 minutes — and it has been very effective in helping people to begin and stick with running programs.

That being said, I do feel the need to bring up one longstanding criticism of Galloway’s approach: he oversells it. He has frequently been quoted claiming that even elite runners can benefit from stopping to walk periodically. He claimed that the man who set the marathon world record in 1998 used walking breaks; when that claim was debunked, he said he meant to refer to the man who won the Rotterdam marathon that year (who had suffered severe calf cramps late in the race that forced him to hobble in — hardly the same as a walking break).

In other words, he’s saying that walking breaks will not only allow you to complete a marathon, but will actually make you complete it faster. This is undoubtedly true if you’re unprepared for the marathon, such that trying to run the whole distance will completely wipe you out. In that case, prudence wins and walking will likely make your overall time faster. But it’s hard to believe that it’s true for people who have trained sufficiently to run the whole distance. Parker-Pope ventures briefly into this territory:

Walk breaks are a way for older, less fit and overweight people to take part in a sport that would otherwise be off limits. But most surprising are the stories from veteran runners who say run-walk training has helped them post faster race times than ever.

One of the most amusing debunkings of some of Galloway’s more spurious claims was posted by Scott Douglas, the former editor of Running Times, back in about 2003. It’s no longer up on his site, but you can see an archived copy here.

2 Replies to “Walking breaks for marathoners”

  1. While I offer kudos to anyone who can inspire hundreds of thousands of people to get off the couch and get moving – and Jeff Galloway is master at that – I have to agree with Scott Douglas who bridles at Galloway’s intellectual dishonesty.

    Alex, I’d be interested if you have ever discovered a peer-reviewed research article that supports the Galloway theory. I have never seen such a thing.

    As a power walking marathoner and coach of power walkers I can tell you that we pass many, many people who “Gallowalk”, or “Stantonwalk” as the Running Room would have it! And, we get very frustrated when, as we keep a steady pace throughout an entire race, groups of run-walkers call out a walk break just in front of us. We are faced with a wall of people to pass.

    Finally, Galloway recently published a book on walking in which he advocates a walk-shuffle program for people who want to walk distance events – a preposterous notion. The day when shuffling becomes a legitimate fitness activity is the day I quit!

    Keep up the great research and writing!

  2. Lee, I’ve certainly never seen any peer-reviewed literature on the topic! And that’s a good point about the risks of impeding other participants by suddenly stopping, if you’re not careful.

    The bottom line for me is that walking breaks are a great way of introducing people to running, and that should be enough of a selling point on its own — there’s no need to make inflated claims about how walking is actually faster than running. That sort of hyperbole is more worthy of a late-night infomercial than a serious fitness program.

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