Last spring, Ian Sharman, a running coach and an Altra-sponsored ultrarunner, injured his calf muscle and couldn’t run for a month. But he could still walk. That led him to put in 60 to 70 miles a week at a pedestrian pace; he even walked the full Los Angeles Marathon. The next year, at only a month back into his sport, he PRed his marathon time and came in at a stunning 2:21.
Sharman credits his success to walking, which he still uses to supplement his running (even when he’s not injured). He encourages other runners to embrace the slower stride and the benefits it offers. “Walking provides an amazing stimulus that can make you fitter and leave you less likely to get injured,” he says.
Add Exercise, Without the Risk
One of the most obvious reasons to add walking to your routine is for active recovery. “It’s a low-impact way to help your muscles rebuild,” says Sharman. “It keeps you moving and aids in recovery from the harder exercises that put wear and tear on your body. Plus, walking helps you burn a few extra calories to keep you in better shape overall.” Walking also helps build flexibility and strength while reinforcing proper movement patterns, especially as you age. Not a bad way to add some recovery time to your training schedule.
Keep Things Easy
For some, walking might be a better primary activity than running—at least initially. If you’re recovering from an injury or relatively new to the sport, you might benefit from easing into it with a slower pace. “Walking helps create a sustainable base for running, and gets your legs used to the motion without the risks,” says Sharman. “It’s obviously at a lower intensity, but it’s useful at any stage of training.”
That lower intensity, in fact, may be beneficial. Studies with endurance athletes have shown that one of the most effective ways to train if you are trying to increase your endurance is to keep 80 percent of your exercise time below your aerobic threshold, or the low end of your cardio zone. For many, it is easier to stay in this zone by walking vigorously than it is by trying to run slowly. And, being easier, it may help athletes log more miles that add up to a larger net calorie burn. The extended time on your feet when you’re walking will build the strength in your muscles and joints, so that you will be able to run easier and longer down the road. Not to mention, according to Sharman, the slow pace of walking will likely be more fun than grinding out running miles during the early stages of training.
Another reason to get serious about walking, it keeps you from sitting. Regardless of how hard you workout for a short period of time (or how seriously you embrace the term “weekend warrior”), studies show that prolonged sitting leads to negative health effects. Not only can too much sitting shorten your lifespan, but physical therapists like Jay Dicharry, author of Anatomy for Runners, report that sitting creates inflexibilities and strength imbalances that reduce the effectiveness of your running stride by compromising your hip extension.
The best solution is to move regularly throughout the day, and walking is far more convenient than getting changed to run. Sharman also points out that walking is a great group activity. “I’ll walk with my wife, and that gives me an additional bit of training without eating into family time,” he says.
Set a Goal
Sharman’s general rule is simple: “Walk as much as you can.” He does agree, however, that having a goal helps with prioritization. He suggest aiming to add about 1/4th the amount of time you spend running to your walking routine. For athletes running 30 to 40 miles per week, for example, another 10 miles of walking is ideal.
“The realistic limit is time,” he says, noting that you’re not likely to overtrain simply because few are able to spend many hours in the day doing extra walking.
Fitbit makes setting both running and walking goals easy. You can aim for a certain numbers of active minutes in your cardio and peak zones during your workouts, and then make sure you get in a total number of miles and steps per day. Hitting two goals every day is satisfying, and it will make you a stronger, better runner.
“There’s only so much running you can do, but you can add more everyday movement and get benefits from it,” says Sharman. “That’s where low-impact walking comes in. It’s not damaging the muscle fibers more, and it allows you to get in recovery and more training in a sustainable way.”
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