In theory, the fastest way to get from the start of a road race to the finish is to run the whole way. In practice, you may not yet be ready for this, but still want to test yourself and earn a finisher's medal. Mixing in running with pre-planned walking breaks has gotten many a woman through a race in one piece, in this is particularly true of the ever-more-popular half-marathon and marathon-distances.
Is This Method for You?
The most widely recognized advocate taking walk breaks in training runs and races is probably 1972 Olympian Jeff Galloway, who has authored a number of popular books on distance running and as of 2012 had established official training groups in dozens of American cities. (Ref. 2) Speedier and more experienced runners -- those who can comfortably run a about eight minutes a mile for at least 5K, say -- are better served by running the whole distance, and if you're aiming for a 5K or a 10K, you can probably train to run the entire way. But if you're just getting going, you may find mixing in walk breaks is just what you need both the get to the starting line of your race injury-free and get to the finish without bombing.
Breaks as a Function of Fitness
You should plan to take walk breaks in training rather than wait until you're so tired that you have no choice. The advantage of planned breaks, other than keeping yourself in a physiological comfort zone, is that you can grow accustomed to the same run-walk schedule you'll use in your goal race, be it 10K, a half-marathon or a marathon.
Galloway (Ref. 1) incorporates a loose sliding scale that has you using a run-walk ratio of about 8:1 if you train at close to eight minutes a mile, 4:1 for nine-minute-per mile types and so on. The walk breaks themselves can last from 30 to 60 seconds, and if you're training for a marathon, if you get to 18 miles feeling great, you can bag the walk breaks altogether from that point on if you so choose.
Picking and Training for your Event
With few zany exceptions, elite runners and newbies alike want the same things in a race, especially a long one: a fast, flat course, favorable weather, enough other entrants so that you'll have company but not so many that claustrophobia knocks you flat in the early going, and plenty of water and carbohydrate-replacement drinks along the route. You should give yourself a good three to four months of lead time and make sure you do three or more workouts a week; shoot for a 30-minute minimum, and do one walk-run each week that is significantly longer than the others and ultimately equals or exceeds the length of your goal race in distance, if not in speed or intensity. (Ref. 3)
On one hand, your long training runs should serve as hi-fi dress rehearsals for the race. On the other, you need to account for some variables that arise only in a race environment: extra adrenaline, loads of people around you, maybe some crowd noise, and -- in really large events -- getting to your all-important fluid stations. Try to time your walking breaks so that you take your drinks at these times. Be careful not to slow abruptly from run to a walk when there may be people right on your tail, as this is a fine way to not make friends on the course. Monitor your split times at every mile to make sure you are within your established ability range. Most of all, have an enjoyable experience so that you can start planning for the next one right away.
L.T. Davidson has been a professional writer and editor since 1994. He has been published in "Triathlete," "Men's Fitness" and "Competitor." A former elite cyclist with a Master of Science in exercise physiology from the University of Miami, Davidson is now in the broadcast news business.