John in the Media

The Wall Street Journal
Friday, December 21, 2001

This Jogging Method Turns Out-of-Shape Into Runners


A NEW POPULARITY in running is being fueled by a surprisingly antithetical notion—that average runners will have more success if they take regular walk breaks.

The strategy is unusual in that it doesn't involve simply walking when you are tired. Walk-break runners force themselves to stop even at the beginning of a run when they are fresh.

The walk-break method gives older, less fit and overweight people a way to take part in a sport that can seem too grueling for them. And oddly, seasoned runners report that incorporating walk breaks has helped them post faster times than they had ever imagined.

Cathy Troisi, of Seneca Falls, N.Y., qualified for the Boston Marathon by running four minutes then walking one minute throughout a marathon, which she finished in four hours. The 55-year-old preschool owner last year ran 16 marathons, among other races, using the walk-break method.

Jeff Galloway, the 1972 Olympian and marathon runner who has spearheaded the walk-break phenomenon, says that by using walk breaks early and often during a run, anyone can finish a marathon after only six months of training.

"We really weren't designed as human beings to run continuously," says Mr. Galloway, who hosts running clinics and dispenses walk-break wisdom on his Web site, "The way around this is to save your legs, to fool them so they're not accumulating that steady fatigue."

PARTICIPATION IN road races has jumped 18% over the past five years, according to Runner's World magazine, and walk-break runners take much of the credit. Today, an estimated 5.4 million Americans run at least three days a week. Women, in particular, have taken up the sport, with their numbers surging 23%.

The current running boom differs dramatically from the running surge in the 1980s, which, with its emphasis on speed and mileage, fell out of favor amid a slew of aches, pains and injuries. Walk-break runners avoid the heavy muscle fatigue that can lead to injury. They are also able to drink more water during a run, helping avoid dehydration and heat illness.

Allowing walk time also helps runners avoid lactic acidosis. When the body isn't getting enough oxygen, it starts producing lactic acid, which accumulates in the bloodstream and contributes to fatigue. The walk break allows the body to return to normal.

"There's a lot of homespun common sense in it," says David Martin, exercise physiology professor at Georgia State University, and chairman of sports science for USA Track and Field, the governing body for the sport. "A marathon should not be a tragic experience."

Shari Hayden, a 38-year-old Akron, N.Y., special-education teacher, last fall started running for one minute then walking for one minute. She has lost 35 pounds and plans to run her first marathon in January. "I know this is going to be my way of life," she says.

WRITER JOHN BINGHAM helped spur the running boom among the overweight with a popular Runner's World column in which he dubbed himself "the penguin." His book, "The Courage to Start," as well as his Web site,, document his 80-pound weight loss by using walk-breaks.

Although running purists don't like the walk-break concept, Mr. Bingham, whose best marathon time is five hours and 20 minutes, notes that most "mortals" who finish a marathon by running the whole way feel terrible for days afterward. "The paradigm has completely shifted," says Mr. Bingham. "Running has embraced people who aren't buying the arbitrary standard that speed is the only criterion."

Although the strategy varies, new runners typically are advised to start training by walking for five minutes and running one minute. Over time, they taper down until they are walking one minute and running one minute, and then slowly ratchet up until they are running for five or six minutes, followed by a one-minute walk break. Proponents always use the strategy at the beginning of a run, but sometimes abandon the walk break during the last third of the race.

Jan Seeley, publisher of Marathon & Beyond, says walk-break runners, dubbed "Gallo-walkers" and "Penguins," have changed the running culture. "Now it's more about participation and finishing than it is about qualifying for Boston," she says.

Even so, the notion of taking walk breaks can be a tough sell, particularly among former athletes who view running the entire race as a badge of honor.

Grace Lim, a vice president for GeoSpatial Technologies in Santa Ana, Calif., ran among the walk-breakers during her first half-marathon in Key Biscayne, Fla., last week. She refused to take the walk breaks, and ran just under two hours and eight minutes. But she was humbled by a walk-breaker she saw throughout the race who bested Ms. Lim's time by a full three minutes.

"She didn't look like a runner," says the 37-year-old Ms. Lim. "But I was in awe—she beat me and some other very fit-looking people behind me. I was groaning and she looked fresh as a daisy."

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