For many, a half-marathon is a major goal — and for good reason. The popular distance (2.1 million people participated in one in 2018) is a challenging feat that garners a sense of accomplishment. It can also come with pressure to run the entire foot race sans walking breaks. But should you?
First, let's just clarify that, yes, you are allowed to walk during a half-marathon. Your only duty when logging those 13.1 miles is to finish in the allotted time. (Course time limits vary, so be sure to research your specific one, but 3 hours and 30 minutes or 16:02 minute per mile is a safe, general guideline.) Your half completion isn't any less valid because you walked part of the way.
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Now, whether or not you should take walking breaks "is entirely dependent on the runner, their history of injury, where they are in their training program, their running experience, medical history and what their goals are," Natalie Niemczyk, CSCS, certified strength and conditioning specialist, certified run coach and founder of Revolution Running in New York, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Wondering if slowing down your stride is the right move? Here, our experts weigh in.
The Run-Walk Method for Half-Marathons
The run-walk method is a tried and true training plan for experienced beginner runners alike. (Here's everything you need to know about training your first half-marathon.) That's because taking walking breaks can benefit you both physically and mentally.
Downshifting from running to walking during a half-marathon causes some physiological changes. "Walking breaks decrease the intensity of effort, allowing your body to metabolize and remove the by-products of more intense running," Michele Olson, PhD, CSCS, senior clinical professor of sport science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, says. "The lactate you accumulate when running can be oxidized and used to replenish your muscle glycogen stores. Your muscles rely on [those] to finish a half-marathon race and power through to the end."
Walking breaks allow you to exhale any built up carbon dioxide (another by-product of more intense exercise) which, in turn, makes it easier on your body to replenish much needed oxygen levels in your lungs, blood, and muscles, according to Olson.
What's more, slowing down to a stroll lessens the stress on the body, "decreasing the impact on your spine and other joints such as your hips, knees, and ankles," she says. Research backs this up: According to a January 2016 Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport study, runners who took walking breaks during an endurance event experienced less muscle pain and fatigue post-race than those who didn't.
Should You Take Walk Breaks?
For someone who is not physically prepared to run a steady pace for 13.1 continuous miles, taking preemptive walking breaks can be a good strategy. "It's better than running until you absolutely can't," Jonathan Cane, exercise physiologist, running and triathlon coach and author tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It gives an opportunity for physical and mental recovery." Another good candidate: a runner who is not concerned with their time. If you aren't racing the clock, then time is definitely on your side.
Olson also says that there is a chance that walking breaks may actually improve your race time, similar to the effect you get during HIIT training. "Every time you engage in a recovery period, such as a 30 second walking break between 3 minutes of more explosive exercise, you tend to accomplish more overall intense exercise, have more speed and power and effectively burn more calories than maintaining an even pace," she says. "You get more done in a shorter, faster period of time."
However, Olson notes that you will have to experiment with the length of your walking breaks and the increased pace at which you have to run to hone in on the right mix. If you're capable of running 13.1 miles continuously and are looking to run your fastest times, walking breaks that aren't carefully paced out can slow you down.
"It is a less efficient use of your physical resources as it requires more energy to walk and then compensate by running at a faster pace, than to run at a steady, moderate pace," Cane says. Though Cane does admit that there are "micro" breaks in even the fastest of races, such as when a runner slows at a water station, he says these fall into the "necessary evil" category rather than a strategy to set a PR.
How to Take Walk Breaks During a Half-Marathon
If you're going to take walking breaks, Cane prefers they come before they are necessary, which allows them to be short and brisk. "If you wait until you have no choice, the walking segments will typically be longer and slower," he says. His suggestion: Go into your race with planned breaks.
Hilly course? Use the climbs for a walk. Cane says you sacrifice less time walking up than walking down. You'll also preserve energy and reduce exertion, according to Niemczyk. Water stations are also a good time to engage in walking because you have to slow down to grab and gulp, adds Olson. Or you may just want to walked based on feel.
"I usually tell runners to use a scale of 1–10 regarding pain or discomfort," Niemczyk says. "If you rate it as a 5 or lower, you can keep running, but if you rate it as higher than a 5, you should stop and walk." Niemczyk notes that sometimes walking allows for a temporary time period to alleviate discomfort, to check in with your body and see if you should keep going at a particular speed or pace.
While your walking breaks should be dictated by how much running you are capable of, Cane says a 1–2 mile run coupled with a 30–120 second walking break is a good starting point. And as "your heart rate and breathing begin to slow as the energy in those organs is replenished, this is a sign that your body can speed up and push hard, if not harder, as you begin increase your speed to a running pace," Olson says.
Ultimately, you have to do what's best for your body and the half-marathon outcome you wish to achieve. If that includes running and walking, then walk on!