Run Walk Intervals: When and How to Use Them

How and When to Use Run-Walk Intervals

When runners think of walk intervals, they may view them as something to be avoided or something only for novices. However, run walk intervals can be a valuable training tool in a variety of situations, because of their explicit benefits in injury prevention and building endurance. 

Is It Good to Use Run Walk Intervals?

Many runners fear that walk breaks will hinder their progress or make them “not a real runner.” That is simply not true. If a majority of the workout is still running, then you still get the benefits of running. A 30-60 second walk every few minutes does not undo all the running you have done.

There are many scenarios where walk run intervals are more beneficial than running without walk breaks. For example, new runners find it easier (and safer) to start with run-walk intervals rather than trying to run without breaks. Even experienced runners will have scenarios where walk breaks benefit them.

The Benefits of Run Walk Intervals

Run walk intervals offer numerous physical benefits. Walk intervals can lower the impact and intensity of a run – which can help new runners, those returning from injury, or pregnant/postpartum runners.

Walk intervals reduce the impact of running

Running places a significant load on the muscles, tendons, and bones. Running is one of the highest-impact forms of exercise. An experienced runner’s body is adapted to this impact loading. However, the same cannot be said for a new runner or a runner returning from a break of six weeks or more. If you are new to running or returning after time off, your musculoskeletal system needs to adapt to the impact of running again.

The biomechanical loading of running is why runners can get injured when they start running, rebuild after time off, or quickly increase their training volume. Walking has a lower biomechanical loading rate than running. So, interspersing walk breaks into a run reduces the overall impact load of the session. The run walk method reduces impact – and therefore injury rate – as the musculoskeletal system adapts again.

Run walk intervals can keep heart rate lower

New or rebuilding runners do not just need to strengthen their musculoskeletal system – they need their cardiovascular system to rebuild. A novice runner simply does not have the cardiovascular adaptations (such as increased stroke volume) to run for too long without a high heart rate. Runners who took eight or more weeks off will have lost some of their cardiac adaptations (more detail in this article on detraining) and so they may notice that work rate feels higher than it used to.

Walking has lower metabolic requirements than running. Your body relies more on fat oxidation during walking, since walking is so low intensity. Heart rate and RPE are lower during walking compared to running. By incorporating walk intervals into a run, you can keep your overall RPE and heart rate lower than you would in a continuous run.

Related: Understanding Heart Rate Training for Runners

Walk breaks can help you run longer

By reducing metabolic demands (and therefore the production of fatigue-inducing metabolites) and musculoskeletal loading, walk intervals allow you to extend your run further. A new or rebuilding runner may be only able to run for 20 minutes continuously but cover 30-45 minutes with the inclusion of deliberate walk breaks. The longer session helps build endurance, since time on feet is a driver of adaption.

How to use Run Walk Intervals

Run walk intervals can be applied in two ways: structured or unstructured. The approach you employ may be based on why you are using walk intervals during a run.

Structured walk breaks are planned. A novice runner, runner returning from injury, or postpartum athlete will typically use timed walk breaks. This approach often starts with more frequent run walk intervals (such as 2 min run/1 min walk) and progress over weeks towards less frequent walk breaks (such as 8 min run/1 min walk). A structured walk run plan may even lead to the end goal of continuous running.

Unstructured walk breaks are taken based on when you feel you need them, rather than relying on a timer. This approach can be used in many scenarios, such as when running on steep trails that require power-hiking, using heart rate training, or when running in the heat.

Generally speaking, the newer to running you are (or the longer you took off from running), the more frequently you should talk your walk breaks.

Who Should Take Walk Breaks When Running?

Essentially, run walk intervals reduce injury risk while building up fitness in a sustainable manner. They are not reserved for Couch to 5K programs. Runners of various levels and in various circumstances can benefit from run-walk intervals. Even if you run continuously most of the time, you may benefit from run-walk intervals at certain points in your running career. 

Novice Runners 

Run walk intervals are a staple in beginner running plans, and for good reason. Novice runners need to build both endurance and musculoskeletal strength for running. The use of walk intervals provides the appropriate amount of loading to develop fitness without inappropriate overload. 

Adding walk intervals makes running less intimidating for novice runners. Running for 20-minutes can sound downright impossible when you are first starting out; running for 1-minute at a time is manageable. 

True beginners will want to start with shorter run intervals and longer walk intervals, such as 1 minute run, 2 minute walk. The goal is to allow your body to adapt to the musculoskeletal stress of running, so it is always better to be more conservative. 

Runners coming from a fitness background (strength training, swimming, etc) can use run walk intervals to adapt their bodies to the high impact of running. Even if you have a strong aerobic engine, your bones and muscles need to adapt to the movement patterns and impact of running. Many beginners experience issues like shin splints or injuries due to failure to allow for musculoskeletal adaptation. 

Some runners will progress to continuous running, while others will continue to use walk breaks as they advance in their running. Continuous running is not a litmus test for being a “real” runner. As a coach, I have worked with intermediate runners who use walk breaks often – and have ran PRs, marathons, and ultras with walk breaks. 

Runners Returning from Injury

Since run walk intervals reduce musculoskeletal stress, they are ideal for an athlete returning from a stress fracture or long-term soft tissue injury. Generally speaking, if you endured a bone injury and/or were off of running for more than six weeks, you want to ease back in with run walk intervals. (Read here for more on how to return from injury.)

Pregnant and Postpartum Runners

Running simply becomes harder during pregnancy, especially in the third trimester. Walk intervals can make the difference between being able to keep running during pregnancy or having to stop. As pregnancy progresses, your growing bump places more pressure on your pelvic floor and alters your gait more. Rapid weight gain and surging relaxin levels place more stress on joints and muscles. Walk intervals reduce this stress, thus reducing injury risk and making running feel more comfortable and enjoyable. 

Especially if you took more than four weeks off during pregnancy and postpartum, run walk intervals are the safest bet for returning to running postpartum. Run walk intervals place less stress on the pelvic floor. If you are recovering from a C-section (in which case you took a minimum of 6-8 weeks off of running), run-walk intervals will aid in safely resuming running after major surgery. 

Runners Who Struggle to Control Pace

Many runners fall into the trap of running their easy runs at a moderate effort, which is less physiologically beneficial. If you are injury-prone, burn out easily, or are plateauing, your easy runs may be too fast

As counterintuitive as it sounds, it is hard to slow down easy runs. Heart rate and pace goals can provide objective metrics, but even then some runners find themselves struggling. Deliberately spaced walk breaks (such as 4 minutes run, 30-60 seconds walk) can encourage an easy intensity by keeping heart rate under control.  

For some runners, a truly easy/low heart rate pace can cause form to deteriorate. If this is the case, you can use strategic walk intervals to control intensity while maintaining good form

If a run feels excessively hard, run-walk intervals can help you get through it without quitting!

Those Running Heat and Humidity

During the summer acclimation period, you may struggle to control your heart rate and prevent overheating. Walk breaks will control heart rate and regulate core temperature. Walk breaks can even aid in the acclimation process, especially if they encourage you to get outdoors to run. That’s not to mention that walk breaks can make summer running feel more tolerable!

Ultra and Trail Runners

For road runners venturing into trail running, it is all too easy to dismiss power hiking and walking. But if you reject walk intervals, you put yourself at disadvantage on the trails or in ultra distances. Walk intervals conserve energy across very long distances and on challenging terrain. They also minimize muscle damage during ultra racing, thus delaying a potential bonk. 

On very steep hills or long climbs, power hiking is more efficient. Power hiking conserves energy and may even contribute to a faster overall average pace for some runners. Walk intervals may be less structured during a trail race. Typically, the terrain will dictate when to walk and how long to walk. 

Is There An App for Run Walk Intervals?

It can feel tedious trying to track run-walk intervals – especially when focused on a run. There are run walk interval apps available for download. The Runkeeper app, Interval Timer app, and Jeff Galloway app all allow you to program the length of run and walk intervals.

Most running watches also have run-walk program functions. Garmin and Coros both allow you to easily program the length of run and walk intervals that repeat as many times as needed. On an Apple watch, you can program walk intervals by creating a custom workout under the Run activity. On any of these watches, you can set run intervals based on time or distance.

A Final Note on Run Walk Intervals

The most important thing to remember with run walk intervals? There is no shame in walking during your runs. You are still a runner if you take walk breaks! You can use walk intervals as a temporary training tool or as you preferred pacing method. There is no end date to using them.

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10 Responses

  1. Run/walk intervals have been a run saver for me since my diagnosis with RA. It took me a while to stop feeling ashamed of using them. After crushing my half marathon last fall as I came back from a prolonged flare, I got over that pretty quickly! Now with trail training, I don’t do scheduled walk intervals. I save them for rough terrain and when my HR gets too high.

  2. I never used run-walk intervals until this spring and I am amazed at how much they help when things get tough. I had a couple of runs that were just “bad” and I found that when I did 4 minute run:1 minute walk that I was able to finish the run and it didn’t slow down my overall pace very much. I will definitely be using run:walk for humid runs this summer. It’s a nice tool to add to the runner’s toolkit.

  3. I use run/walk intervals all the time. They have helped me come back from injury a few times. Currently using them to get back my mileage without getting injured. no shame in walking!

  4. Although I have not utilized consistent run/walk intervals, I’ve never had an issue using walk breaks to conserve energy or for a brief “recovery” while racing. I figured out (early on) that a quick 5-10 second walk through a water station not only afforded me a drink (without spilling the water all over myself), it also gave me an energy boost. I seriously don’t think that time spent walking was wasted because I probably more than made up for it when I resumed to running.

  5. Yes, yes, yes!

    I actually used the run-walk method prior to injury, and now I am coming back with Couch To 5K, which also promotes some run-walk.

    There is no shame at all.

  6. Run/walk intervals have been great for me while I recover from open-heart surgery.
    It has allowed me to slowly increase my heart rate, avoid overuse injuries, and build back confidence in my ability to exercise.

  7. I consider myself an experienced runner now and have completed 5 full marathons. Saying this I still use the structured run/walk method about once a week. I find this helps me to control my heart rate especially when i am doing a recovery run or a long (20 miles – 32 K’s) run during my marathon training block.
    I generally do 800m run 200 walk or 900/100

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