“We must learn to walk before we can run.” It’s a famous phrase that highlights the importance of mastering a more basic skill before moving on to the next level. While these sentiments are often correct, many coaches take issue when it comes to literally walking and running. It’s not always necessary to avoid light jogging when you’re starting a new workout regimen; in fact, a combination of a run/walk program can be the ticket to increased health and fitness.
“A run/walk program is the perfect accompaniment to a weight-loss program,” says Deb Voiles, a Road Runners Club of America certified coach and the brains behind the Beginner Runner Village Podcast and the Mojo for Running Podcast. “An important consideration is that getting fit will make you feel better and, with improved mood, sticking to a weight-loss program will be easier.”
Recent research also supports the act of combining running and walking. One study shows a combination of walking and running reduced fatigue and muscle pain compared to running alone. This is yet another factor to help you adhere to your workout plan.
“Because it’s low-intensity, a walk/run program will feel doable from day 1, improving confidence and providing motivation,” adds Voiles. “You feel good during and after each workout, and that’s key to returning for the next workout.”
The key to implementing a run/walk program is to exercise restraint. While we are often highly motivated as we start a new workout program, doing too much too soon is a recipe for burnout.
Voiles generally starts her clients off the first week alternating between 30 seconds of walking and 1–2 minutes of running for 1 mile. If that feels like too much, try the reverse formula, walking for 1–2 minutes and running for 30 seconds. The running segments should be done at “conversation pace,” meaning you shouldn’t be breathing so hard that you couldn’t easily chat with someone running next to you.
“I have my clients begin with doing the walk/run intervals three days a week and never on back-to-back days,” says Voiles. “They just walk on the other days because, just like experienced runners, their bodies need to rest and recover after hard days.”
Each week, Voiles suggests increasing the running segments by 25%, while gradually increasing distance by a 1/4 mile. This means if you start with 1-minute running intervals, the second week, you should try for 1-minute-and-15-second intervals and increase your total distance to 1.25 miles.
Over time, you will increase the amount of running you’re doing and the total distance itself, as well as add running intervals on your walk-only days. This will eventually have you doing a run/walk five days a week. Voiles emphasizes this progression may not be seamless, however, and that listening to your body is key to your success with this type of workout plan.
“If at any time it feels hard, you should drop back and repeat the prior week — you can repeat any week as many times as necessary until it stops feeling hard,” she says. “This, in effect, customizes the training to the individual, which is ideal.”
In addition to paying attention to your perceived exertion during run/walk workouts, you should also heed any aches or pains you’re feeling. “We know the ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra is foolish and will lead to injury,” says Voiles. “I tell my clients to never try to ‘run through it.’”
This means if your knee is aching or your hip is killing you, it may be time to back off. You don’t need to cease exercise completely, but it might call for a few days of walking without running intervals. If you have access to a gym, a couple of days on an elliptical or swimming in a pool might also help take care of the problem.
If you are experiencing a persistent ache or are just overall fatigued, you may not be bouncing back from the run/walk sessions properly. This may mean you simply need an additional rest day to let your body recover. “It’s always better to rest an extra day if there are any signals of physical stress, whether you’re tired or feeling a specific discomfort other than just a little muscle soreness,” adds Voiles.
When you learn to balance not just the walking and running intervals but also the rest days, you’ll begin to see incremental improvements that represent major jumps in fitness over time. Not only will this help you eventually become a bona fide runner, but it’ll also prompt weight loss and other important health outcomes.
Originally published April 2016, updated with additional reporting.
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