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Distance Running Made Easy

Posted by: on February, 28 2012

By by Todd Kenyon at www.xtri.com:  What if I were to tell you that there is something out there that could make it easier to run farther and faster with less recovery and less mental drudgery? Even better, what if this “something” is free, doesn’t come in a bottle (or syringe!) and requires no learning curve or practice? Finally, what if I could almost guarantee that if you use this technique you won’t experience the dreaded FADE at the end of your long races? If you aren’t thinking this is too good to be true yet, you surely will when I tell you that this “magic bullet” is….walking.

Before you hit the “back” button, give me a few more sentences. The protocol I am referring to requires you to do your long training runs using a run/walk sequence, typically 10 minutes of running followed by 1 minute of walking. The apparent progenitor of this method is famed South African running coach Bobby McGee, and it has been adopted by long course triathlete and coach extraordinaire Gordo Byrn. If you don’t know Gordo, his race resume is thick with top five finishes in big Ironman races worldwide, including 2nd overalls in Ironman Canada and New Zealand, and an overall win at the Ultraman Hawaii. Lest anyone accuse him of being a swim/bike specialist, he ran sub 2:50 off the bike twice at IM Canada. The guy can run, and he is a great coach. Visit his website, GordoWorld, and I guarantee you will learn something. So if you have an athlete of this caliber promoting and personally using a training method that might be associated with beginning marathoners, I think it’s worthy of notice.

But wait – it gets stranger. Not only should you train this way, you should also race this way according to Gordo and Bobby. Blasphemy you say – walking is for wimps and weekend warriors! You may be right if you qualified for the Olympic marathon trials, otherwise listen up. Bobby claims that sub 2:30 marathons have been run/walked, and Gordo reports that he recently ripped off a 1:16 half marathon (Napa) run/walking. I can personally vouch for the fact that many marathons OVER 3:30 have been run/walked, but that typically involves a lot of running followed by way too much stiff-legged walking, which is exactly what this technique aims to avoid.

The basic idea is that the one minute walk allows a physiological “reset.” Instead of your muscles accumulating fatigue and tightening/shortening over the course of a long effort, they get reset every 10 minutes. One of the keys is that the walks should be done at quick cadence with arms held high in run posture. If you drop your arms and relax, your body will go into rest mode and it will get tougher and tougher to restart.

The second key is that the run efforts for a long run should be around your Aerobic Threshold (AeT). I will refer you to Gordo’s website for detailed methods of determining AeT, but for well-trained athletes it is typically around the top of Friel “Zone 1,” or about 25-30 beats below AT, or approximately 80% of maximum heart rate. It is a fairly easy effort. Another key benefit of the run/walk technique is that it will greatly reduce or prevent cardiac drift, allowing you to hold a higher pace at AeT for a longer time than during a continuous workout.

I am someone who has spent 15 years trying to figure out how to get my run times more on par with my bike/swim splits. Too, I am not exactly built for distance running so I am always on the lookout for something that might prevent the soccer mom with the twin baby jogger from cruising by me at mile 22 of the next marathon. So I was eager to give this a try, and I got several of my fellow Fuel Belt Triathlon Team members to give it a try too. It’s early in our experiment, but we will provide more updates on our results using this program over the course of the season.

For a first test, my wife and I went out for a 15 miler, 2.5 miles farther than our recent long runs. First thing we noticed is that you do indeed feel refreshed at the start of each running interval. I also noticed that cardiac drift did not occur until about 12 miles in, much later than normal for me on a warm day. It was relatively easy to hold form throughout the run, and it was no problem covering the distance – we felt like we could easily have gone 20 miles. We averaged only a bit slower than a straight run, even when including the walk intervals. Hence, the running portions were completed at a pace a good bit faster than achieved during a pure run (as confirmed by GPS). At one point we hooked up with a running group who was running continuously. It was interesting to see how little distance we lost to the runners while walking, and we were easily able to catch back on each time without going over AeT. The next day we both felt great on our long bike ride, and then we banged out an 11 mile run two days later. I can say without reservation that I wouldn’t have had a pleasant second run if not using this technique.
It’s hard to find a downside with this method, unless it provides less of a training effect. I tend to think it provides for better conditioning since you can run faster and longer with better form and better recovery.

What about racing? We all know what the 2nd half of an IM run course looks like about 10 hours in: night of the living dead. If this technique in fact staves off the catastrophic fade, any reduction in overall pace would be more than compensated for. If we assume the walks are completed at 4mph, and you run at 7:30/mile pace, you will average 7:52 per mile, a 3:26 marathon using a 10/1 walk/run ratio. Not too shabby. Speedier types could run at 7:00 pace and split 3:13. As a final example, let’s assume you run between the aid stations in Kona and walk 30 seconds through each. This plan will give you a 3:10 split at 7:00 pace, or 3:23 at 7:30 pace, or 3:36 at an 8:00 pace. Clearly the amount of time lost walking is small compared to that lost during a massive fade. And let’s not forget another major benefit: the walking intervals allow for efficient hydration and refueling.

There is a dark side here, however, which I have saved for last. You really have to swallow your pride when you stop for “no reason” and start walking funny, sort of like a race walker. You definitely get some looks, but I think you’ll find it’s worth it.

For more info on using walking for faster runs, check out Gordo Byrn’s website at www.coachgordo.com.

Todd Kenyon is a man of many talents – mechanical engineer, PhD in Marine Biology and president of Nobadeer Capital Management, LLC. In his spare time, he blends his love of triathlon with his expertise as a mechanical engineer and has started ttbikefit.com, in which he uses digital analysis to help people find their optimum position on the bike. While Todd’s athletic prowess is none too shabby, his wife Lisbeth is an elite age grouper who regularly kicks all of the guys’ (and girls!) butts on local rides and track workouts.