Why walk if you can run? That tends to be the mindset held by most runners, who prefer powering through their miles over slowing their stride. But just like speed workouts and recovery runs offer different benefits, so do walking workouts.
Yes, workouts. Walking isn’t just a way to get from point A to point B; it can be a smart training strategy to help you reach your running goals.
And pure walking—not the run-walk method—is getting more popular. Strava users uploaded one-and-a-half to two times the number of running, cycling, and indoor workouts in 2020, but uploads of outdoor walks increased by three times, the social media platform reported.
How exactly can integrating more walks benefit regular runners? The experts break it down.
The Physiological Benefits of Walking
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Yes, running burns more calories than walking. But performance isn’t just about firing up your metabolism.
From a simple biomechanics standpoint, running and walking are similar. You are moving in the same linear, forward motion, but while running is essentially a series of jumps punctuated by brief moments where you’re flying free, “with walking, you’re always working,” says Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., owner of Running Strong in Atlanta. “You’re either pushing or pulling; your feet are always on the ground.”
You may not really notice that difference because your heart and lungs aren’t working as hard as they would during a run, but “that work can be quite challenging, especially for your hips, lower back, and core,” says Hamilton—all crucial players in your running gait.
Of course, if you’re walking at a brisk pace, your heart and lungs are still working, which makes walking a strategic way to help build your aerobic base, says Heather Milton, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist and clinical specialist at the NYU Langone Health Sports Performance Center. “When you have an aerobic base, it makes higher intensity training more manageable and easier to recover from because it trains your body to more easily replenish energy stores,” she explains.
That’s because sustained, low-intensity training increases your cell’s production of mitochondria and leads to adaptations that transport oxygen to the working muscles more efficiently—all of which will eventually help you run faster for longer using the same amount of energy.
On a musculoskeletal level, both running and walking are weight-bearing exercises that put stress on our bones, helping to make them stronger. But too much of the repetitive impact forces of running’s landing pattern can do a number on your joints, muscles, and bones, says Milton. “Walking can be a good way to get some of the aerobic benefits of running without subjecting your body to that same impact,” she explains.
Running produces ground reaction forces that are approximately two and a half times your body weight, according to a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, while walking generates ground reaction forces that are around 1.2 times your body weight. That’s about half the impact your body has to absorb.
Plus, walking offsets the dangerous repercussions of too much sitting, something even athletes aren’t immune to. Healthy individuals who walk less than 8,000 steps per day inhibit their body’s fat metabolism response, even if they perform an hour of moderate-intensity running, a February 2021 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found. This “exercise resistance,” as researchers call it, could keep you from optimizing your hard work in the short-term—and eventually sabotage your long-term running goals.
How to Incorporate Walking into Your Training
As a finisher: Walking is a form of active recovery, which makes it ideal after a long run. “The recovery process decreases your sympathetic nervous system (AKA fight or flight) response, and increases the parasympathetic nervous system (AKA rest and digest) response,” says Milton. “That’s when our hormone concentrations increase, and our bone, ligaments, tendons, and muscles are repaired. We literally have cells that break down the injured tissue and build back new, healthier, and stronger tissue in its place. This includes replacing red blood cells, building collagen, muscle protein and bone cells.”
After you wrap up a longer run, “try walking 30 to 60 seconds for every mile you logged,” says Hamilton—say, 10 to 20 minutes after a 20-mile long run. That’ll kickstart the recovery process so you head into your next workout feeling stronger. Bonus: That’s a great way to get fluid and fuel promptly post-workout, which will also aid your recovery process.
As a second workout: Most people don’t need to do two workouts a day, says Hamilton, but if you’re striving to increase your total mileage and perhaps don’t have the time (or capacity) to do it all in one workout, “the second one should be a workout of lower intensity than the first—especially if you’re just introducing two-a-days,” she says.
The benefit of walking for that second workout is that you’re still elevating your heart rate, but you’re reducing the impact loading on your bones, Hamilton explains. “That’s going to reduce the risk of overuse injuries and allow you a little bit more active recovery time.” That active recovery element is especially beneficial because, while you’re still logging time on your feet, you’re increasing blood flow to your working muscles, which “brings in nutrients and other things that are necessary for tissue repair and regeneration,” says Hamilton.
In lieu of easy runs: During easy runs, you’re mostly increasing the number of mitochondria and capillaries in your muscles, as well as the blood flow to those muscles, so they’re better able to utilize oxygen. Walking stimulates a lot of the same adaptations, says Hamilton—again, without adding extra shock and impact to your bones, muscles, and tendons.
There’s no magic distance as to how far you should walk, although 15 minutes of walking was shown to be as beneficial as five minutes of running in a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. You can use that as your formula (converting a 20-minute easy run into a 60-minute walk), or just think about it in terms of how long you would have run, says Hamilton. Does an easy three- to four-mile run take you about 25 to 35 minutes to complete? You won’t cover the same distance walking that long, but you’ll get the benefits of the same amount of time on your feet.
The Mental Aspect of Walking
Right now, runners have access to all kinds of futuristic recovery gadgets that used to be only reserved for the most elite athletes—we’ll encase our legs in puffy compression sleeves, freeze our entire bodies in cryo tanks, and jolt our muscles with electrical stimulation currents. But so often, we overlook even easier options, like actually taking a break or even just slowing down.
“In athletic culture, rest is not encouraged,” says Megan Cannon, Ph.D., a sports psychologist based in Allentown, PA. “It’s more about who’s doing the most than who’s doing it the healthiest.” (FWIW, that’s a pretty pervasive mentality throughout American culture.)
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What that’s done, though, is create this belief that walking is somehow lazy or less than—i.e., If you can’t run, what’s the point? Of course that kind of negativity is going to make you less likely to walk.
For many runners, viewing walking as a workout requires a total shift in perspective, says Cannon. “If we’re able to see the value of what a walk provides—whether that’s a break on your feet, the ability to then run longer in the future because you’re taking that break, or building up more weekly mileage without beating up your body—that’s what’s going to impact our mindset and behavior.”
For those who have a contentious relationship with walking, embracing a slower pace is all about baby steps. “If your goal is to eventually walk five extra miles a week, maybe you start by literally walking 100 feet, then 150 feet after a run,” says Cannon. It’s those small actions that will bridge that transition and ultimately build a new habit.
As you start integrating walking, focus on your feel versus how you felt (versus comparing your performance to that of the people you follow on run tracking apps). “Do your legs feel stronger? Are you feeling more energized in other parts of your day?” says Cannon. “Reflecting that comparison back on yourself instead of other runners is also going to help you see the value of a walk, which will help drive home that habit.”
How to Walk Well
Walking is one of the most natural things we do. But if you’re walking to work out, there are a few things to keep in mind to maximize the benefits.
- Set a brisk pace. It’s not power walking, rather, a conversational-but-“have somewhere to be” pace. Walking between 2.5 and 4 miles per hour (or 24 and 15 minutes per mile) counts as moderate-intensity activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Maintain your form: Don’t feel like you need to really pump it, taking big strides and swinging your arms. Stand tall, keep your eyes up, flex your elbows so your arm swing is natural and relaxed, and keep your feet under you, just like you do when you’re running.
- Squeeze your glutes: Running requires a powerful push-off generated mostly through glute activation and strength; practice this muscle activation while walking to reinforce good running biomechanics. (It can be easier to focus when you’re moving slower and with less impact.)
These popular apps offer audio-guided walks or walking workouts to make your steps more engaging.
- Time to Walk: Apple recently launched a series of 25- to 40-minute walks narrated by influential and interesting people from Dolly Parton to Shawn Mendez; episodes will automatically upload to your Apple Watch with a Fitness+ subscription. ($9.99/month)
- Headspace: Walking meditations as short as three minutes and as long as 40 minutes are designed to help you relax and focus on the move, using the rhythm of your feet and sounds, smells, and sensations around you. ($12.99/month)
- Peloton: A digital-only membership gives you access to 20-, 30-, and 45-minute walking classes led by Peloton trainers. Choose from walk/run routines, power walking sessions, and even incline-heavy hiking classes. ($12.99/month)
- Variis: This Equinox-powered app offers access to Precision Run classes, including guided indoor and outdoor walks that last from 15 minutes to an hour. ($39.99/month)