How and When to Use Run-Walk Intervals

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. 

How and When to Use Run-Walk Intervals

The Benefits of Run-Walk Intervals

What are the benefits of run-walk intervals?

  •  Walk intervals reduce the musculoskeletal impact of running. 
  • They help maintain a low heart-rate and ventilatory rate, thus optimizing aerobic gains. 
  • Taking deliberate walk breaks helps conserve energy and can aid in running for longer without tiring. 
  • They aid in building endurance. 

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. 

For example, I have used run-walk intervals multiple times, including when building back from injury, in the final weeks of pregnancy, and in the first few weeks of postpartum running. Each time, they were the best tool for helping me safely build back my fitness. 

Runners from novice to those returning from time off to even ultra runners can benefit from run-walk intervals. 

Who Benefits from Run-Walk Intervals?

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. 

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 Women

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 get injured from mileage, tend to burn out easily, or are plateauing, you may be running your easy runs 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, strategic walk intervals can be used to control intensity while promoting good form. 

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

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 (versus running on the treadmill or not at all). 

Ultra and Trail Runners (especially road runners venturing into these events)

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, thus conserving energy and contributing to a faster overall average pace. Walk intervals may be less structured during a trail race, as terrain (vs time) will dictate when to walk and how long to walk. 

A Final Note on Run-Walk Intervals

The most important thing to remember with run-walk intervals? There is no shame in run-walk intervals. You are still a runner if you take walk breaks! 

Have you ever used run-walk intervals?

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9 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.

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