Real runners know that not every hill should be such a battle.
Anyone who claims that walk breaks don’t make you a “real” runner is not only a weird jerk, but simply incorrect. The walk/run combination is a legitimate strategy used by runners of all levels. Whether your goal is to gradually build distance, or to conserve energy to finish a race strong, or to convince yourself to get out the door in the first place: Plenty of runners allow themselves to walk. Here’s why you should incorporate walk breaks into your running regime, as well as the best time to do it.
Walking lets you recover without losing too much time
Walk breaks are not a sign of weakness, but of strategy. Incorporating walking breaks has been a popular practice amongst running coaches and trail runners for years now. On top of the mental relief that walking provides, it also gives your body a rest without drastically compromising your fitness or race times. In fact, research in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that a combined run/walk strategy allows non-elite runners to achieve similar finish times—with less discomfort compared to the strain of running the entire distance.
Even if you’re uncertain about incorporating walk breaks throughout your run, at least consider shifting gears during everyone’s favorite challenge: hills.
Hills are perfect for walk breaks
Not only does walking uphill take less overall aerobic effort, but in some cases, it can even be faster than trying to run up them.
Plus, even if your goal is simply to run for as long as possible, hills are a great chance to blur the lines between what counts as walking versus running. Look at it this way: The true difference between walking and running is whether you have one foot on the ground at all times or if you’re in the air during each stride; as the incline gets steeper and steeper, the difference between walking and running gets slimmer and slimmer. If you don’t buy it, check your heart rate and notice how you can still stay in your target range while walking briskly uphill.
Whether or not it’s “better” to walk or run uphill depends on your goals, your overall fitness levels, and the slope of the hill. If nothing else, hills are a lot less daunting mentally when you reframe them as walking breaks.
The run/walk strategy is a legitimate tool for runners of all levels. Of course, there’s a limit to the time and fitness benefits of walk breaks. You can’t walk more than you run and expect to finish faster than running the whole distance. You also shouldn’t incorporate your walk breaks every few minutes. One study demonstrated how the more you switch paces, the more energy you expend from all the transitions compared to if you had run one pace continuously.
If you want to constantly switch up your pace, you’re better off doing a good ol’ fartlek. And if you find yourself needing a walk break every five minutes, you should probably be running easier miles altogether.
Tips for walking uphill
Here are some reminders for proper form while you tackle that hill.
- Shorten your stride. Even more so than running on flat ground, it’s more efficient to take small, quick steps than large, loping ones.
- Lean slightly forward, but not too much. Leaning into a hill is your body’s natural instinct, but if you’re hunched over with your hands on your knees, try to straighten your back closer to upright posture.
- Whatever effort you’re using, make sure it’s sustainable for the whole hill so you don’t burn out on the way up.
There are no doubt benefits to incorporating hill repeats into your training, but that’s a workout for another day. Whether you’re saving up energy to finish strong in a race, or you’re trying to build fitness as a casual runner, walking up hills could be the right strategy for you.