Last Updated on November 10, 2020 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
A common misconception about ultramarathons is that runners cover the entire race distance at standard marathon speeds, without stopping. It’s the reason that most people finish a marathon and think “I could never run an ultra”. They’ve completely spent their physical and emotional energy on those 26.2 miles, and can’t fathom taking one step further – never mind running another 75 miles. So here’s a few fun facts that often surprise road runners when it comes to ultra distances: pizza is considered a legitimate fuel source, sometimes we take naps in the middle of the race, and we walk without shame. In fact, run/walk strategies for ultramarathon distances are not only common, they are often recommended.
At least for us mere mortals who can’t tick out a 100 miler at Jim Walmsley speeds.
When I tell ultramarathon hopefuls that frequent bouts of walking is actually encouraged as a race strategy, I’m often met with a smile. You see, in the standard running world, for whatever reason, walking is often “taboo”. No one will ever outright say “if you walk during a race, you’re not a real runner”, but the implication is commonly there. Hell, I remember clear as day feeling like I was “less than” because I had to stop and walk a few times during races. I remember saying to a fellow runner that my goal would be to “run an entire marathon without stopping once”.
Silly, isn’t it?
Run/Walk Strategies for Ultramarathon
But let’s get back to ultramarathons. 50, 62, 100 miles or more is a really, really long distance to cover on foot. Naturally, your body is going to break down on on the way. So how do slow down that fatigue, and ensure you make it to the finish line in one piece? Well, one method is to utilize a run/walk strategy. It’s not weakness – it’s science.
What does a Run/Walk Interval Strategy consist of?
A run walk interval strategy is exactly what it sounds like: regular, planned intervals of running and walking during a training run or a race. For the run/walk interval strategy to be successful, it is typical implemented from the very start of the race, before a runner is feeling any fatigue.
The run/walk method is often credited to Olympic Marathoner Jeff Galloway, who created the “Galloway Method” back in 1976. The Galloway Method, which includes – you guessed it – regular intervals of running and walking – is often promoted as a way to help brand new runners safely transition to running longer distances. It also allows new runners to build endurance by covering more distance than they could simply by running alone.
Why is a Run/Walk Strategy Beneficial During Ultramarathons?
The concept behind the run/walk strategy works exactly the same for experienced ultramarathoners as it does brand new runners off of the couch: it helps runners cover a greater distance with less fatigue than simply running non stop.
Running and walking, despite continuously moving you forward, rely on slightly different mechanisms and muscle recruitment, even at the exact same speed (Sasaki K, 2005). By alternating running with walking, you are giving your body a chance to take a break from one form of repetitive movement, and instead switching to another.
And almost every runner on earth can agree that walking almost always feels easier than running. But it requires less energy expenditure as well. One study out of the Human Performance Laboratory at California State University shows that participants required on average 98.49 kilojoules (approximately 23.5 calories) more to run 1600 meters than required to walk 1600 meters (Wilkin et al, 2012). 23 calories may not seem like much, but over the course of an ultramarathon, that certainly adds up.
Regular walk breaks during an ultramarathon can:
- Delay the onset of muscular fatigue
- Delay the onset of tissue damage
- Reduce the risk of injury from repetitive movement
- Reduce core temperature
- Maintain lower heart rate
Related post – Cardiovascular Drift and Running: What Runners Need to Know
Plus, I’ll be completely honest: walk breaks can help with your mental game during an ultra. Run walk intervals can also:
- Help you break a monstrous distance into smaller, more digestible intervals
- Help you time your nutrition / more easily consume nutrition
- Give you something to look forward to when you are struggling
- Help you feel more in control of your race
How Do I Decide on my Run/Walk Intervals?
There is no “one size fits all” run walk strategy for ultramarathon. I’ve seen people utilize everything from run 30 minutes/walk 5 minutes, to run 1 mile/walk 1 minute, to 3 minute run/2 minute walks. One interval is not necessarily better than the other, it all depends on the athlete who is using it.
The key is to find a run/walk interval that allows you to walk before you feel you NEED to walk, or before fatigue sets in. Of course, at the end of an ultra you’re likely going to feel fatigued no matter what. But the idea is that you are able to delay that fatigue as long as possible.
Further, it’s common to adjust your run/walk strategy as the race progresses. For example, early in a 100 mile ultra, I may have longer run intervals and shorter walk intervals. But once I pass the 100K mark, I will adjust my intervals so I’m running slightly less, and walking more. Again, adjusting the interval to allow walk breaks to happen before fatigue sets in.
How do I Implement a Run/Walk Strategy on a Hilly Course?
For my athletes, I encourage walking up any hills that are steep enough to dramatically increase heart rate. A small grade can absolutely be run up, but walking up a steep or very long hill will likely conserve more energy.
On a continuously rolling, hilly course, you can use the terrain as your run/walk guide: walk up the hills, run the downhill and flat sections. However, on a course with some hills, but long stretches of runnable sections, timed intervals make more sense.
This is where you need to learn to adjust your run walk intervals on the fly.
If it’s a climb? I walk. If it’s a downhill? I run. But if it’s a flat, personally I’ll let my timed intervals be the guide. If my watch says run, I run. If it says walk, I walk – even if I just finished walking up a hill. Your method may vary, but I’ve found that this strategy evens out pretty nicely on a course with little to few climbs.
When Should I Practice my Run/Walk Strategy?
For the run walk strategy to truly pay off, you have to practice. Yes, we all know how to walk – but do you know how to walk efficiently and effectively when you are utterly exhausted? How to maintain momentum and enough speed to keep your average pace where it needs to be to reach time goals or beat cutoffs?
I usually recommend that my athletes practice their run/walk method during one of their two weekly long runs. It’s not something that needs to be done during every single workout (unless run/walking is already your method of locomotion), but should be practiced enough times during a training cycle that it doesn’t feel foreign on race day.
For more information on how to train to walk efficiently, read:
A Guide to Ultramarathon Walking
How Do I Track My Intervals?
Most GPS models on the market today have a run/walk feature already built into them. You can set the time or distance of your run and walk intervals, and the watch will alert you. That said, if you would like a separate interval timer, you can invest in something such as the Gymboss Inerval timer or a basic chronograph watch with built in interval timer (amazon affiliate links). Many phones also have interval timers built into their clock apps, or you can download a third party app specifically for this purpose.
Is a run/walk strategy right for you?
Not every ultrarunner on earth needs run/walk intervals to complete ultramarathon distances. But for many runners, run/walk strategies are the key to successfully completing these distances. If you’re unsure if you need run/walk strategies for ultramarathon success, give it a try on your next long run! I think you’ll be shocked at how much easier the miles tick by.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.