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Run/Walk Strategies During Ultramarathons: Do They Work? Is THIS a Better Solution?

Posted by on Apr 25, 2011 | 13 Comments

It’s been awhile since I posted an ultrarunning article.  This one was inspired by a 34 mile training run with Jesse Scott.  We’re training for the Mind the Ducks 12 12 Hour ultra in Rochester, NY on May 14th.  To help prepare us trail runners prepare for half a day on asphalt, we did this run on a paved bike path.

At about mile 20, Jesse decided to mix things up a bit by adding the occasional “speed up.”  At a specific landmark, we’d essentially start sprinting until we reached another landmark.  The distances varied from about 50 meters to 100 meters or so.  Our pace throughout the run was in the ballpark of 9-9:45 minute miles; the sprint pace was probably about 5:15 for Jesse and 6:40 for me.  It was a good method to add interest to an otherwise torturous run.

I noticed something else, too.  Even though it was tough to initiate the sprint, the sprint itself felt shockingly good.  After we slowed down, my muscles felt loose and free.  I was able to cruise at a faster pace.  My mood improved.  I was shocked that I felt great, even after 20+ miles on roads.  We ended up doing seven or eight of these “speed ups” in fairly rapids succession.

Between speed ups, we talked about the typical walking strategy used in ultras.  Many runners will begin walking at a very early pace to conserve energy to perform better later in the race.  I tried this strategy in my early ultra days but found it didn’t work for me.  I slowed my overall pace to the point where cut-offs became an issue.  It also didn’t seem to delay the point of extreme fatigue.

I found a more effective strategy was to run as long as I could, then add walk breaks when necessary.  Note- I walk uphills the entire course for anything over a 50k.  This resulted in a pretty good improvement in finish times.

I still had a problem, though.  Once I started walking, the transition from running to walking and back would be painful.  I didn’t get much relief from walking, and it killed my pace once I started running again.  In essence, walking made me feel worse.

After this last experiment with speed ups, I think I may try implementing this in my races.  Instead of walking, I will try speeding up instead of taking walk breaks. I have to find the ideal ratio of speed ups.  Jesse and I did one about every half mile, which was far too often.  I may start at every 2-3 miles and observe the results.  It defies conventional wisdom, but I’ve had a great deal of success doing the opposite of everybody else.

Logic seems to predict this idea will be an abysmal failure.  It would seem as though the strategy would be excessively taxing on your body.  Or would it?  From a physiological standpoint, I can’t hypothesize what effects this has.  Would the net effects be better or worse?

My optimism toward this strategy stems from seeing it in action.  The strategy has worked very well for Jesse.  During the Woodstock 50 miler, he dramatically sped up whenever he hit gravel roads.  He won the race by about an hour. I also cannot deny the effect it had on our run.  I felt MUCH better after our speedup than after stopping to eat.

Two questions to you:

1. Do you use a run/walk strategy in races and what are the results?

2. What do you think of the “speed up” idea?

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  1. Blaine Moore
    April 28, 2011

    I’ve had mixed results with implementing a run/walk in my marathons – I ran a 2:50 using a run/walk for the first 20 miles last year, but this year wasn’t in very good shape and suffered through a 3:33.

    For my ultras, I tend to let the terrain dictate my pace. Downhills I fly, uphills I walk, flats I run. At least until things start to get tough, heheh, then I play it by ear.

    Changing up the pace, whether faster or slower, almost always helps, especially if you’ve trained that way.

  2. Ben S
    April 25, 2011

    Ryan Hall (2:04:58 Boston Marathon 2011) has been experimenting with sprinting during easy runs. Here is the article:

    I didn’t feel ready for long intervals in my training though I need to develop my speed so I’ve been doing sprint workouts every week. I’ve noticed improvements all around in my running and it has had no adverse effects on my now 115 day running streak. I started with short 8 second bursts from a standstill and now do 5 x 100m. I have not yet tried them in the middle of a long run.

  3. Brandon Mulnix
    April 25, 2011

    Against the flow…
    I have been training for the 5:1 Run walk stratagy and it worked well for my first 50 miler. I had a lot more energy when I was finished and believe I could have ran another 10 miles without any issue. The problem is in training. If you don’t train to do it, then on race day you are not used to it. Since I know I can’t run 50 miles without hurting myself, I know mentally I can do it with walking breaks. I trained hard this last week and traind 5:1 on one of my 15 mile days. I only lost 20 seconds per mile do to walking every 5 minuts. Learning to speed walk is important. I find it harder to do in minimalist shoes because I feel it more. Having to concentrate on my walking pace is harder than I thought, but it got better the longer I went.

    Walking breaks reminds me to drink and eat. If I eat a GU every 3rd or 4th walk, I get a lot more calories in. Also reminding me to drink and take s-caps.

    We will compare stratagies at Mind the Ducks.

  4. Allan
    April 25, 2011

    I read the “speed up” strategy and tried it in my PR marathon. It worked miraculously well. Except in that case I just sped up a few seconds a mile. More of a small surge. While the heart rate rose my stride smoothed out and I caught a different gear. I kind of shifted back and forth between speeds being careful not to get so fast as to get into oxygen debt. It seemed to work pretty well as a strategy.

    I’ve given up on walk breaks. For me, I tighten up badly, especially late in the run and find it very, very difficult to recover back onto pace. I simply won’t do them.

    I’m going to try the pickups you describe. What I imagine you are experiencing is a type of dynamic stretching. If you keep them short enough then they shouldn’t have much if any effect on your aerobic performance but I can see how they could really loosen up tight, overused muscles and connective tissues and perhaps provide a quick flush of blood. Seems pretty sound, actually.

  5. Angie Bee
    April 25, 2011

    walk breaks hurt and I don’t like to do them and haven’t in training. I could see how speed ups would be rejuvenating.

    Like Shel said, I too like to stay with my comfy pace and slower throws everything off.

  6. Nathan Matthews
    April 25, 2011

    Basically it’s like you’re playing soccer. Walking, slow run, quick run, sprint: repeat. Some people play all day long.

  7. Deacon Patrick
    April 25, 2011

    Here are my thoughts, not just about distance running and sprinting, but also about sprinting and healing over time:

  8. Tyro
    April 25, 2011

    I added walk breaks into my long runs back when I was training for a marathon. Perhaps this could be like how to increase your running tempo – it initially feels awkward and hurts efficiency but your body adapts.

    That said, if doing little speed-ups is also something your body can adapt to and provides a similar benefit then there’s no question which I’d rather be doing! I’m sceptical but I’ll give it a whirl.

    How do these little speed-ups differ from fartleks?

    • ZoeB
      April 25, 2011

      Fartlek is actually Norwegian, meaning ‘speed game’, but I think the main difference is that that they are used as a specific training strategy, rather than to keep your legs alive while running an ultra.

    • Jason
      April 28, 2011

      When I run Fartleks, I vary the speed with little regard for sustained distances. The speeding up in ultras would be much more conservative.

  9. NickB
    April 25, 2011

    I regularly run/walk marathons with 30-60 seconds of walking each mile. I find this brief switch to using different muscles does help me to still be running in the last few miles. If I’m feeling good I’ll drop the walk breaks in the last 10 miles.

    It doesn’t affect pace much. As a four hour marathoner, my marathon running pace is about 6.5 miles per hour compared to 4 miles per hour walking.

    I always walk the steep uphills and then overtake the people who ran up on my way down.

    I’ll give the “speed breaks” idea a try next time.


  10. shel
    April 25, 2011

    oddly, i always feel better during a race when i run closer to y normal pace, even if it is supposedly more fatiguing. the slower i run as compared to my usual pace, the worse i feel and harder it is to make my legs move. i can’t say what it will or won’t do to your energy over the long haul. it is worth a try.

    • Jason
      April 28, 2011

      I have the same problem, Shel, hence the idea. It may be a complete failure, but what the Hell? 🙂