Is it OK to walk?

A question I am often asked by runners new to the trails regards walking; walking, that is, during a trail run. Those who have come from a road running background have sometimes become conditioned to seeing walking as some kind of failure, whilst those who are new to running altogether simply do not know whether they should be moving forwards at a walking pace or not. My response to their question is initially simple; yes, it acceptable to walk during a trail run. Sometimes you have to, sometimes you need to and sometimes you might choose to, and here are some of my reasons why.

The terrain you are on may force you to walk. Take a look at the runners on pretty much any fell race and you will see them walking up steep slopes. When the gradient reaches a certain angle, running either becomes so slow that walking is in fact just as quick and more physiologically efficient, or running becomes impossible altogether.  On a flat trail or path, obstacles in the way can necessitate walking. On a recent trail race, a normally dry but rough footpath was flooded for a couple of hundred metres, with no way around. We all had to walk through the calf-deep murky water as the holes and tree roots underneath could not be seen. Running another 29 miles with a twisted ankle was not an option for anyone.

Walking has less impact on your muscles and draws less from your energy systems than running, and so walk breaks can help your body to keep going for longer. The longer the run, the more vital this can be to your endurance. In ultra-distance races, this can clearly be seen; there is often just as much walking going on as there is running. It is a necessity for most people if they want to keep going.

The longer the run, the more important nutrition and hydration become. Walk breaks not only allow the easier consumption of food and drink, they can also aid with your digestion. It’s hard for many people’s stomachs to work efficiently if their blood supply is focused on enabling the muscles to run, and that can lead to intestinal issues. Some of the worst stomach pain and bloating I have ever had was caused by trying to eat and drink whilst running to reach a cut-off time in a race. Had I taken the time to walk and digest, I may well have got there quicker in the end, rather than ending up in such discomfort that I could barely move at all. 

Keeping yourself safe whilst out on the trails is important and sometimes this requires you to walk. Crossing an icy bridge may be safer at a walking pace, or dealing with a field full of cows. It’s better to be safe than sorry – the more remote the route, the more important this is.

Trail running and racing can be a very social sport, one where runners support and look out for each other. A few minutes of walking alongside another runner who is struggling can mean the world to them; your kind words and companionship may make the difference between them finishing or not. In the world of trail racing where times are not quite the be-and-end-all they can be on the roads, a couple of minutes added to your time does not really matter.

It’s beautiful out there in our countryside; after all, that’s why we to choose to run there. Take a minute or two to slow down and enjoy the view; take a picture if you like. Appreciating your surrounds is great for your mental well-being and soul.

Never forget that trail running is supposed to be fun and if having a walk as a part of it helps you keep going both physically and mentally, then do it! Walking is most definitely allowed.