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Runners, On Your Mark, Get Set, Walk!

Walk for Your Life!

WebMD Feature

Thrilled by the chance to run 26 miles, Karen Brown says that her first marathon ended in the agony of defeat: At mile 21, the 30-year-old high school English teacher had given all she had to give. So she ended up walking the last 5.2 miles, crossing the finish line far behind the pack, at 5 hours and 20 minutes.

"I was so tired," she says. "I let myself down."

To most runners, walking is a sure sign of failure, especially in the middle of a big race. But the way champion marathoner Jeff Galloway sees it, the only problem with Karen Brown's disappointing finish is that she didn't start walking soon enough.

"Our bodies are better designed for walking than running," says Galloway, who was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic marathon team. "If you alternate, you can recover quicker and finish faster."

Galloway is one of the sport's biggest fans of "walk breaks," a system that splits long-distance jaunts into several miles of running and short walks in between. At its heart, the program sounds embarrassingly similar to those infomercials that promise rock-hard abs with only a few minutes of exercise each day, but Galloway insists that walk breaks are no joke.

"This is how they did the first marathons in Greece," he says. Even today, you can see some of the leading African runners slow down when they get water. This pause, Galloway says, is just a hurried version of the same idea.

Learning to Walk

"Beginners need to take longer breaks," says Galloway. "But world-class athletes can benefit as well."

From his running camp outside of Atlanta, Galloway has attracted a legion of followers who have used his advice to walk and run their way to impressive marathon finishes. And with more and more people getting bit by the marathon bug, running experts agree that his methods are a good way to boost involvement in the sport.

"Marathons are pretty daunting," says Owen Anderson, founder and editor of Running Research News. "It takes some of the pressure off if you don't have to run the whole way."

Galloway says he first started using walk breaks intuitively as a way to get poorly conditioned runners into marathon shape. He eventually developed a more sophisticated program after hearing how ultradistance runners would walk part of the time in races that go on for 50-odd miles.

When you take walk breaks, Galloway explains, your legs use different muscles, allowing them to recover and remain strong for a long race. He compares the effects to bending a wire: Keep twisting it, and the wire breaks. Just bend it from time to time and the wire holds up longer.

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