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.
Not Just for Amateurs
The ratio of walking to running depends on your own fitness level, but the basic principles at work are the same whatever level you're at.
"You need to start taking breaks at the beginning of the race," says Galloway. "This way you can erase fatigue progression before it's too late."
For newcomers to running, walk breaks have shown dramatic benefits. At the request of a Los Angeles radio station, Galloway spent six months getting some 250 couch potatoes ready for their first marathon.
"Only one didn't finish," he says.
But Galloway says that even highly conditioned athletes can benefit. Like their out-of-shape counterparts, elite runners can take walk breaks to ultimately run faster.
"I've had guys come up to me and say 'I hate to admit this, but the breaks worked,'" he recalls.
But What About Winning?
Despite Galloway's success stories with beginning marathoners, don't expect the lead finishing group to walk in tandem anytime soon.
"I think it's a great way to start training," say Jonathan Cane, who puts athletes through their paces at City Coach in New York. "But I'm not as convinced that accomplished runners will see faster times with walk breaks."
Adds Anderson: "When you're walking, you're obviously moving more slowly than running or jogging, and therefore it broadens your overall time."
A problem with walk breaks, some say, is that the rest your muscles get from walking will be cancelled out by the extra amount of energy you have to burn trying to catch up to those who passed you. This extra effort can quickly drain your body's store of glycogen -- the fuel it needs to keep running.
"Walking may give your muscles a chance to regroup a little bit, but the reason your muscles are becoming fatigued is because they are running out of glycogen," Anderson says. And taking a break, he adds, isn't going to change the fact that you still need to finish the race.
Galloway is undeterred. "You can speculate all you want, but this works big time," he says.
One convert is Vernon Walther, who handles circulation for Runners World magazine. As someone who typically runs marathons in just over 3 hours, Walther was looking for a way to break into the club of 2-hour finishers. Three years ago at a marathon in Philadelphia, he took a series of 30-second walk breaks during the race and ran full tilt at the end. His finishing time: 2 hours and 57 minutes.
"It was my best race," he says.