Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Pacing Yourself with Variable Length Walking Breaks

For the past six months, roughly half of my workouts have been a blend of running and walking.  I’m emphasizing these workouts because I’ve been training for a 48-hour race.  To run for that long, you have to slow the pace down to something you can do all day long without getting tired.  In my race, I’ll need to average 14:24 per mile for 48 hours.  I’ll start out a little faster than that, but it will still be a pace that’s too slow for me to comfortably run it.

What I’m doing in my training runs is similar to what I’ll do during the race.  I alternate running and walking, but I don’t have a fixed ratio.  I vary the length of my walking breaks to keep me on a consistent average pace.

In my race, I’ll be running a loop that’s roughly 1.05 miles.  I have a loop through my neighborhoods that’s 1.1 miles.  That’s close enough.  In training, my goal has been to maintain an average pace of 12 minutes per lap.  That’s a little faster than my race pace.  I like to train at a faster pace, so my pace on race day will feel easy.

Here’s how I pace myself.  I run the first lap at a pace that feels natural.  Let’s say I finish it in 9:45.  My target was 12:00, so I’m 2:15 ahead of schedule.  I start my second lap by walking until my watch reads 12 minutes.  That means my first walking break is 2:15.  When my walking break is over, I run the rest of the lap.

When I start running, I’m already part of the way through my next lap, so I don’t have to run as far to finish the lap.  As a result, I’ll be even farther ahead of schedule at the end of two laps.  Let’s say I finish the second lap in 20 minutes.  My target time for two laps was 24 minutes (2 times 12).  Now I get a walking break of four minutes to start the third lap.

I keep repeating this process.  At first, my walking breaks grow noticeably from one lap to the next.  Eventually, the difference becomes negligible.  I’m always finishing laps ahead of schedule, but the average trends toward my target of 12 minutes.

The beauty of this pacing method is that you don’t need to know what pace you’re running, and you don’t need to know what pace you’re walking.  By varying the length of your walking breaks, you automatically attain the correct overall pace.  That’s what really counts.  The goal is to run/walk at an overall pace that’s sustainable for whatever distance you’re racing.

This pacing method automatically adjusts to changes in either your running or walking gait.  Let’s say that as you get fatigued, your running pace slows down a little.  Let’s say your walking pace also slows down a little.  Does that mean your overall pace slows down?  No.  It means you do proportionally more running and less walking to maintain the same overall pace.

This method also automatically adjusts for downtime, if it’s not excessive.  Let’s say I stop for a minute to go to the bathroom.  That minute comes out of my next walking break.  I’ll still start running when I reach my target time, although I probably won’t get as far around my loop before I need to run again.

I run continuously in marathons, but take walking breaks in races that are significantly farther than a marathon.  If you normally take walking breaks in marathons, you can use this pacing method.  You only need to know what pace you’re trying to run, on average.

This isn’t suitable for races where the grade or terrain differs significantly from one mile to the next.  I don’t use it on technical trails or in point-to-point races with long or steep hills.  Most of the ultras I’ve done have been fixed time races on short road loops.  This is ideal for those types of races.

When I started doing these workouts last summer, I was doing them outdoors.  Lately, I’ve been doing them on a treadmill.  I continued to think in terms of 1.1 mile “laps” so I could keep using the same target for my “lap” times.  Instead of starting a walking break each time I finish a loop through my neighborhood, I start a walking break when my total distance is a multiple of 1.1 miles.  Now that it’s getting closer to my race, I’m adjusting my simulated lap to be 1.05 miles.  That’s the length of the laps I’ll be running in my race, so I need to make the mental adjustment.

This type of workout takes discipline.  When you’re walking you need to pay attention to your time, so you know when to walk.  In the treadmill version of the workout, you also need to pay attention to the distance when you’re running, so you know when to walk again.

Since moving to the treadmill, I’ve sometimes been tempted to change the routine.  Running on the treadmill can seem monotonous.  Switching between running and walking gives you some variety, but constantly watching the time and distance can accentuate the monotony.  Sometimes I tell myself, “You only have a few miles to go.  You could just run the rest and get done quicker.”  I resist the temptation.  Other times I’m tempted to run until the end of one song and then walk until the end of the next song.  Changes like that might make it feel easier, but there’s no guarantee I would stay on my target pace.  Again, I resist the temptation.

I’m training for a race that will take a great deal of mental discipline.  I need to keep my head in the game for 48 hours.  Compared to that, staying disciplined for two hours, even on the treadmill, should be easy.  I’m not just training my body.  I’m training my mind.

This workout isn’t for everyone, but it’s a great way to keep yourself from going out too fast in a long race.


  1. Is this your first 48 hour race? How will you plan meal and rest breaks (beyond just bathroom breaks) into your race? Do you anticipate taking naps, and how will that affect your goal?

    1. I attempted the same race last year, but had to stop after 28 1/2 hours because of an ankle injury. I don't plan rest breaks other than bathroom stops and changes of clothing. I won't nap the first night. I might have to the second night. Running through two nights will be a new experience for me. I won't eat any complete meals, but about once an hour I'll eat solid food in small amounts at the aid station.

    2. Sounds like you're doing everything right to prepare. Good luck!

  2. This is a really great system!