Life After 50: Walk Breaks During Marathons: Wimpy or Brilliant?

On November 6th I'll be one of over 45,000 people from around the world running in the 2011 ING New York City Marathon. Many people choose to run marathons to meet a specific goal. I have two:

  1. To raise money for pancreatic cancer research in memory of a much-loved mother from my daughters' school who succumbed to this dreadful disease last year
  • To celebrate my 55th birthday by showing the world -- and myself -- that I can run 26.2 miles in under 5 1/2 hours (without killing myself in the process), and still have ample energy to have fun after the marathon is over
  • How? By including scheduled and liberal walk breaks into my running. (This is the point where running "purists" turn up their noses and roll their eyes, but I'm always comforted by the thought that they will be the ones will bad knees and torn ligaments down the road.)

    Before deciding to take up running as a form of fitness and weight control after I turned 50, I had never willingly run in my life, except during the dreaded annual "Field Day" at P.S. 203, when I had no choice. A few years ago, I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about Jeff Galloway, the former Olympian and marathoner. He talked about how anyone who could walk could run a marathon, no matter how old, just by following his simple program. I bought Jeff's best-selling book Marathon: You Can Do It! that day, and scheduled a phone meeting with Jeff later that week.

    Galloway's run/walk program, which has been followed by hundreds of thousands of runners of all ages and abilities since 1978, and has a 98 percent marathon-completion success rate, lets you alternate between gentle running with regular walk breaks -- and plenty of them. Purists snicker at the idea of taking walk breaks, but based on Jeff's research and experience, they'll be the ones looking for the orthopedic surgeons.

    Like many people over 50, I was worried about running, because I assumed that running, or even strenuous walking, can hurt our joints. Research shows, however, that it won't, if done right. After 30 years of following his own program, Jeff has never had an injury.

    Running, at any age, offers so many positive benefits: reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, and dementia. Contrary to what many people believe, running does not predispose joints to arthritis. In fact, walking and running can help even chronic health problems. And, by adding walk breaks to your running, you will allow your body to recover faster. You can do it anywhere, anytime, and it's free (a big plus in this economy).

    It's a great program for health and fitness, but what about taking walk breaks during a marathon or some other long-distance race?

    One would assume that if you take walk breaks while running your pace would slow down. But, the amazing thing about this program is that by taking walk breaks -- even very short ones -- a runner's time can actually improve. When I interviewed Jeff for my book, he told me:

    Most runners will record significantly faster times when they take walk breaks because they don't slow down at the end of a long run. Thousands of veterans whose goal is to run faster have improved by 10, 20, 30 minutes and more in marathons by taking walk breaks early and often in the race. You can easily spot these folks: they're the ones who are picking up speed during the last 2 - 6 miles when everyone else is slowing down.

    When Tara Parker-Pope, health editor of the New York Times decided to run in the 2009 NYC Marathon, she, too turned to Galloway's program, and wrote a series of articles about her experience. In her opening article, she wrote:

    To train for my first marathon, I'm using the "run-walk" method, popularized by the distance coach Jeff Galloway, a member of the 1972 Olympic team. When I mentioned this to a colleague who runs, she snickered -- a common reaction among purists.

    But after interviewing several people who have used the method, I'm convinced that those of us run-walking the marathon will have the last laugh.

    Before I could even think about training for the marathon, Jeff encouraged me to ease into a regular "running for exercise" program, which I started a few years ago. But, first, Jeff shared his basic rules:

    Leave your ego at the front door. You will run slowly and gently, with walk breaks. Get used to the idea of other people running past you. It's okay. They will get the injuries. You will not.

    Run with walk breaks. There is no cardiovascular benefit to running without walk breaks, no matter what the purists say.

    Run/walk at least three times a week. You need one day of rest in between. It is not good for your body to run every day, or two consecutive days.

    Do not huff and puff. While running, you should be able to talk comfortably. If you're huffing and puffing, you're running too fast.

    Eat something an hour or so before running. Don't eat a heavy meal, but fuel up with something healthy. Always have water with you on your runs.

    Focus on your stride. Jeff recommends a "shuffle": keep your feet low to the ground, lightly touching, without lifting your knees too high. Slow and gentle running will help you steer clear of aches, pains and injuries.

    Walk breaks are forever. The goal is not to build up your running to a point where you no longer need walk breaks. You will always take walk breaks, no matter how many years you run, because walk breaks will allow you to keep on running, regardless of age.

    Now, I run every other day, between 5 - 6 miles each time, with walk breaks every 2 - 3 minutes (or whenever I feel the need) while Tom Petty croons into my ears. My post-menopausal 15 lbs. are long gone and my health checks have never been better.

    Based on how my training has been going so far, including a 25-mile "long run" I did this week (wimpy?), I believe that by taking walk breaks throughout the marathon, I will enjoy the experience, run a strong race, and cross the finish line with a big smile on my face, feeling good, ready to celebrate ... and knowing that if I -- an "almost 55 year old" -- can do it ... so can just about anybody.

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    2011 New York City Marathon Weekly Training Countdown (8 weeks to go!)

    I'm running in the NYC Marathon in November to celebrate my 55th birthday and raise money for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network in memory of a friend who succumbed to the disease last year. Here's an update on my training schedule for this week:

    • Monday: 6 miles using a run/walk ratio of 3 minutes/30 seconds
    • Wednesday: 6 miles using a run/walk ratio of 3 minutes/30 seconds
    • Friday: 25 miles with using a run/walk ratio of 60 seconds/30 seconds
    Every other week, I'll be adding another mile or so to the long run (keeping the two short runs the same distance), and I will be adding "speed work" to my training. Stay tuned!