Everyone is talking about run-walk intervals now, and with good reason. Taking this approach to your training and races can be the perfect solution if you’ve been struggling to increase your distance or speed, or if you tend to get injured a lot. It’s great for new runners, because this is not just a couch-to-5K training plan, where you end up quitting after 3 weeks because suddenly it’s too hard and you can’t keep up. But more experienced runners can also benefit, because it allows them to add distance safely. It’s a proven training method that gets results.

“So what exactly are run-walk intervals? Let’s start by describing what they are not: running as far and fast as you can and then walking to recover.”

Instead, the run/walk ratio is planned ahead of time to maximize your speed and distance so you can finish your run feeling good and ready for the next one.

The thing is, there’s a bit of an art to figuring out what ratio works best for you. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t exist. It’s kind of like asking what’s the best running shoe. The answer is always “It depends.”

What I can give you here are some guidelines on how to put this method into practice for yourself. Let’s start with some do’s and don’ts:

DO: Use a timer to count off your intervals, instead of estimating the time or constantly looking at your watch.

This ensures you can focus on the job at hand – putting one foot in front of the other – instead of worrying about what’s next. It will allow you to fully enjoy your workout. Choose a timer that is designed to vibrate or beep when it’s time to switch. You can use a smartphone app such as RunKeeper or MapMyRun, a GPS watch such as the Garmin 220, or a clip-on timer like the GymBoss.

DON’T: Run as fast as you can until you’re exhausted, then walk until you feel ready to go again.

The key to effective intervals is to stop running before your legs are worn out. This allows them to recover quickly and instead of walking for a few minutes to get your energy back, you can get back to running in a minute or less.

Image: Not Your Average Runner

DO: Warm up for 5 minutes with a brisk walk before you start your intervals.

Walking mimics the movements and range of motion of running and gets your body prepared for the next phase by increasing blood flow to your muscles and increasing your heart rate and respiration. The benefits? Improved ability to breathe throughout your workout, and reduction in aches and pains while

you run such as shin splints and side stitches.

DON’T: Assume that taking walk breaks means you’re not a real runner.

The truth is, taking planned walk breaks is a normal, healthy part of a training program – especially if it means the difference between giving up and sticking with your training regime so you feel great crossing the finish line on race day.

If you’re a triathlete, you can think of it this way: when you’re on the bike, you’re not pedaling the entire course. You coast strategically, so your legs can recover. Run-walk intervals are the same thing.

Image: Not Your Average Runner

 Walk breaks are also a huge help for your mindset. Facing down a 3 mile uninterrupted slog can seem impossible, making it more likely you’ll quit. Knowing that you just have to get through a short period of running before your next break keeps you motivated and feeling positive. It feels attainable and manageable, which makes it more likely you’ll be consistent with your training program.

DO: Slow down on the run interval and speed up on the walk. You should be running at a pace that allows you to keep up a brief conversation. If you’re so out of breath that you can’t even get out one or two words, you’re running too fast. Conversely, if you’re going so slow on the walk portion that you can belt out your favorite Beyonce lyrics, you’re walking too slowly.

Why is this so important?  Because pushing your pace too much on the run wears you out quickly and doesn’t allow you to recover properly on the walk portion. Which causes you to walk slower, and lowers your overall minute-per-mile (or kilometer) speed.

So what RATIO should you choose?

Now we’re on to what you really want to know – what run/walk interval should you do? As I said above, it really depends. Everyone is different and what works for you might be totally wrong for someone else.

Absolute beginners should start out with a 15 second run and 45 second walk. If that feels too easy, increase to 30 seconds of running, and so on. Play with your walk breaks too – when you’re a new runner, you can take up to 90 seconds for your walk intervals to make sure you’re properly recovering.

For runners that have been training for a few months or more, try starting with a minute of running and 30 seconds of walking. If that feels too easy, increase the running interval by 30 seconds at a time until you get to a ratio that feels comfortable.

How do you know if when you’ve hit on the right ratio? Well, at the end of your running interval you should feel a bit tired, but easily able to continue if you wanted to. At the end of your walk interval, you should feel like you are ready and excited to start the next run interval. 

For more great training advice and programs head to Jill’s site Not Your Average Runner.