The place of walking in ultramarathons | Why running isn’t always faster

Kerry Sutton   November 29, 2019

You’ve just finished your first ultra, or maybe ticked off that big event you’ve been training for months, and the first thing you’re asked is: ‘Did you really run the whole way!?

As trail or ultrarunners we’ve all been there and there’s nothing more frustrating than having your efforts belittled by those who know no better simply because you walked some of it.

The reality is that walking is not just a valid strategy in running trail and ultra-distances, but rather an essential part of the racing toolkit. Go watch any technical trail or extreme long-distance race, and you’ll find that even the elites rely heavily on hiking over the course of the day. So much so in fact, that taking the sport of ultrarunning as a whole, it wouldn’t be inconceivable to propose a name change to ultra-walking. Although perhaps that doesn’t sound quite so impressive…

Hopefully this post can help to dispel some of the stigma surrounding walking in races, and encourage a shift in perspective to instead view the walking gait as a valuable tool in tackling long-distance events.

Walking | An essential tool in ultrarunning

THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB – WHEN TO WALK

So, preamble aside, when should you walk in a race?

It’s an important decision to make, and can literally be the difference between finishing or the dreaded DNF. But it’s also a tough one. No-one wants to see competitors fly by, regardless of whether you’re looking to podium or not.

There are a huge number of factors that go into the decision, and external influences such as elevation profile, distance, trail technicality, pack weight, heat and humidity, altitude, and so on all play their part.

But ultimately, as with most things in long distance running, much of it comes down to you. It’s extremely important to know yourself: your strengths, weaknesses and how your body responds to both walking and running in different circumstances. As always, experience is king.

As such it’s difficult to offer hard and fast rules on when to walk, but remember that in ultras the tortoise is often the victor, and banking self-care early on can pay dividends later in the race. So rather than give set guidelines, this article sets out a general thought process to be considered when making decisions of when to walk or run.

QUESTION 1: WHEN IS WALKING A BETTER OPTION?

When it is my only option!
This is the easy one. If the terrain or gradient is particularly extreme, or you’re carrying a massive pack, running may simply be impossible.

When walking is faster anyway.
Walking may well be faster than running if the trail is particularly steep or technical. Again, a heavy pack will also make this more likely.

When I am walking at the same pace as I’m currently running and it is more energy efficient and/or less damaging/muscularly exhausting.
Even on flat, easy terrain, as we slow there comes a pace where it is more energetically efficient to walk than run. Unless you’re an elite competitor, and to be honest even if you are, as distances get longer you’ll find yourself in this pace bracket more and more. Equally, it may be that walking is significantly less damaging to your body than running at the same pace. In both situations, running is only detrimental: you’d be a fool not to walk.

Essentially, when terrain or distance slows us enough, it becomes more efficient to walk. Overall you’ll save energy and/or structural integrity, allowing you to go faster later on.

QUESTION 2: IS SLOWING TO WALK NOW GOING TO BE BETTER IN THE LONG TERM?

And then we come to the key question. When should you actually slow down in order to walk?

Is walking now (at a slower pace than I’m currently running) going to provide speed gains later on that outweigh the initial loss of pace?
Essentially it comes down to a trade-off: speed now versus speed later. There are a few factors to consider:
– Energy and metabolic conservation
– Mitigation of tissue damage and muscular exhaustion
– Other factors: e.g. ability to fuel and hydrate effectively

Energy and metabolic conservation
The idea here is that the conservation of energy as a result of walking at a slower pace (typically one at which walking is the more efficient gait) will more than make up for itself with speed later in the day.

This isn’t a linear phenomenon, and it’s often the case that slowing down early can produce speed gains later on that are much greater than those lost in the initial slowing. One reason is due to metabolic state: remaining in the aerobic zone prevents unsustainable (and critically, unrecoverable) energy expenditure and the muscularly-inhibiting build-up of metabolic waste. As an added benefit, running below our anaerobic threshold shifts our body further into fat metabolism, meaning we need less food intake to fuel the effort. By remaining aerobic we ensure that our work output is sustainable in the long run.

Muscular fatigue and damage mitigation
Similarly, preserving structural integrity by slowing down early on can easily be the difference between finishing or not. Walking has a different damage and muscular exhaustion profile to running, and often it can be useful to actually alternate walking and running periodically, thus allowing different muscles to rest and slowing the overall rate of tissue damage.

Effective fuelling and hydration
In longer, and especially hotter, ultras, fuelling and hydration can often become a big issue, and cause more than their fair share of DNFs. Put simply, at higher rates of exertion, it becomes more and more difficult to consume and digest enough food and water.

In such situations the lower pace and exertion of a walking break (even just temporarily) can allow the body to process the food and water it needs. And as any ultra-athlete will tell you, this will more than pay for itself in the later stages of the race.

THE DECIDING FACTOR – HERE DISTANCE COMES INTO PLAY

Of course, you’re not going to walk in an 800m track race, however much damage you cause yourself. And I can sure as tell you aren’t going to run the entire Montane Spine Race, however slow you start out.

Distance is what the entire trade-off is measured against. For example, if you’re running a 5km or road marathon, the race is short enough that it can be feasible, and indeed advisable, to go anaerobic, run hard and ignore the build-up of tissue damage in your legs.

However, if do the same on a marathon sky-race or a 12hr track loop, you’ll be flat out before you’re even half done. The cumulative muscle fatigue, metabolic exhaustion and structural damage requires careful management to ensure our body is capable of performing for the full duration of the event or course.

In all cases, we must approach the questions above in the context of the race we’re looking at, and most importantly, how that distance sits relative to you. Only then can you make informed decisions concerning speed loss now versus speed gain later.

Once again, it all comes down to knowing your own abilities and how your body reacts to the workload you’re giving it!

Making the decision | When to walk and when to run

SHARPENING YOUR TOOLS – A NOTE ON TRAINING

This article isn’t about training but it would be incomplete without a quick warning:

To be able to use walking effectively in races, you need to train it!

There’s walking and there’s walking. The sort that can be used to ruthless effect in ultra-racing is far removed from a casual stroll in the hills. For one thing, it’s not likely to feel like a rest! It takes training to realise that potential—to get the most out of walking as a racing tool.

Most importantly, as mentioned earlier, walking of any sort uses a different set of muscles and movements to running (and hence a different impact and damage profile—blisters anyone?). As such, walking well for long distances requires training and conditioning in much the same way we build endurance in running. And if you’re using poles, well then that’s another gait to train altogether!

As always, the key is specificity. Consider the walking-running needs of your goal race, and tailor your training accordingly.

A SHIFT IN PERSPECTIVE – THE MISNOMER OF ‘ULTRARUNNING’

At the very least I hope this post has put forward an argument for training and using walking in longer distance running races. It’s time we go beyond the walking stigma, and instead begin to see it for the powerful tool that it is.

On a fundamental level, ultrarunning is all about covering A to B as fast as possible, and how you do that is unimportant. If walking is going to get you there faster, then do it! Ignore the misleading name of ‘ultra-running’!

Ultimately, walking and running are only two tools in the repertoire of human locomotion, and if we extend this idea further, we soon see the same argument cropping up again and again—the use of poles, scrambling, climbing and even swimming in covering ground as fast and efficiently as possible. And that’s before we even get to cross-country skiing, snowshoes and packrafting!

So consider the use of walking in your own ultrarunning. Who knows, going slower may just be the key to finishing faster…