Can walking make you a better runner?

Author: Keri Wallace

Read Time:   |  July 12, 2022

Walking is an essential skill for endurance racing, and is also a great cross-training option for all runners. Mountain runner Keri Wallace tells us how walking can make us better runners...

Does walking help our running?

Yes! And here’s why. Walking is primarily a Zone 1-2 activity. This means it is a very low-intensity activity which can be maintained without fatigue for multiple hours. It trains the body to gradually endure more of the same, which makes it easier for us to go faster at a low intensity.

It’s recommended that runners spend a large amount of their training (up to 80% for endurance race runners) in this zone. But many of us find it difficult to run slowly enough to keep our heart rate low enough to train in these lower zones.

This is where walking or hiking come in. They’re ideal activities for building our aerobic base. Hiking in particular is great for helping us handle hills better in our runs, as it builds our aerobic capacity over elevation and strengthens relevant muscle groups at the same time.

Does walking reduce our risk of injury?

Yes – in two different ways. The first of these is that it is simply slower and easier on your body than running, so you’re less likely to get injured when you’re actually doing the activity.

“There is a much higher ground reaction force when running, which means there is less impact load through your joints, muscles and tendons when you’re walking,” says physiotherapist Mariam Kilpatrick of Physio Effect.

Secondly, injuries often happen during races due to missing mileage from a training plan. If you haven’t been able to do all your runs, but you’ve walked instead, you’ll have built up a lot of that endurance strength needed to keep your body safe along the way.

Does it matter what kind of walking?

To notice the benefits in our running, you need to be walking at a reasonable pace – no sauntering here. For flat road running, any terrain will be helpful. If you’re more focused on trail running or ultra running, it’s important to include some hill walking in your training. “Walking up hills can really help runners improve their endurance and lung capacity,” says Mariam. “You may not go further in distance over time, but you will become more conditioned to spend longer periods of time climbing.”

What about walking with poles?

Walking with poles can add upper-body strength to the list of benefits from walking. The Nordic Walking technique recruits muscles of the upper body as well as the legs. The poles help propel the walking along, meaning that, although you burn 46% more calories than normal walking, it’ll actually feel easier thanks to the support from the poles.

Poles can also reduce the impact on lower limb joints (especially knees and hips) by up to 40% if correct techniques are used. This is great again for reducing injury, or providing a safe way to return to exercise following injury.

Can hiking make it easier to run up hills?

Yes! If you want to improve your hill running, start by walking the uphills and jogging the flats and downhills. As your fitness improves, try power-walking the uphills as well, and maybe eventually jogging less steep uphill sections. Remember that even pro long-distance runners walk steep uphill sections – it’s all about strategy.

What shoes should I wear?

You’ll notice that many hill walkers wear hiking boots to support and protect the ankle but in reality, trail running shoes are just as suitable for most hills and trails. They’re also a great idea if you’re planning on doing some walk/run combinations.

Wear trail shoes with the right amount of grip for the terrain and enough cushioning to feel comfortable over the distance. Walking in trail shoes on uneven and mobile surfaces will help improve your ankle strength and proprioception, keeping you trail-ready.

Rigid walking boots are a better choice if you’re venturing into rocky scrambling terrain. Some running brands, like Merrell and On Running, even offer hiking boot versions of their trail running shoes.

What equipment do I need for hiking?

The equipment and skills required for hiking and trail running are essentially the same, so if you’re well-versed on the trails, you’ll be ready to hike. The benefit of hiking is that you’re less restricted by weight – you can usually carry more on your back. That means plenty of room to pack extra navigational aids, like maps and compasses.

Here’s our list of essential hiking kit:

  1. Map and compass
    Learning how to self-navigate can seem a daunting prospect but actually the basic principles are easy to grasp with the guidance of an experienced instructor. By practising these skills while out walking, you’ll soon be able to run away from the tarmac and get off the beaten track with confidence.
  2. Layers
    As a walker, your pace will be slower than when you’re out running and you’ll need to carry a few more layers to keep warm. If you’re hiking trails in the mountains, temperature and weather changes are often more severe. Make sure you have a few warm layers with you and carry a waterproof jacket and trousers. As runners, we often accept the idea of getting wet because we know we’ll keep warm by moving – but in the hills this is an unsafe approach and it’s best to try and keep as warm and dry as possible at all times.
  3. Real food
    When you’re travelling at a slower pace, it’s easier to eat real food on the go. You may be out hiking for a longer time than you would be running for, so you’re going to get hungry. If you’re happy carrying the weight, pack a picnic and enjoy the views!

Keri Wallace

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