Is It OK To Walk During a Run? Maximizing Recovery for Every Workout

A man and a woman run laps on the track.

On any given afternoon at the track, you will see runners in the first few lanes finishing a fast interval, then casually chatting with each other as they slow to a jog before taking off again like gazelles. In the middle lanes, we notice others who, after completing a circuit, clasp their hands on their heads while easing into a short walk before gathering the motivation and fortitude to complete another lap. Then we watch others stagger uncomfortably to the side of the oval, grab the fence and gasp desperately for air, before finally raising their wild eyes, glaring at the track and dashing off again.

Speed workouts, or high-intensity interval sessions, performed on the road, track or trails, can result in performance-enhancing effects such as an improved lactate threshold, increased aerobic and anaerobic endurance and a higher VO2 max capacity. In other words, improved fitness to help you crush your next PR. Structured recovery during these workouts is crucial in order to ensure you are getting the desired results from each workout. But should you walk during these recoveries, or opt for an easy jog? Should you stop moving altogether?

Walking during a speed session or track workout is not a sign of weaknesses, and instead can help you nail your pacing for each interval. As long as you stay moving during the recovery period, how you choose to move isn’t too important. Jog if you can, walk when you want to and try to avoid collapsing on the side of the track.

A man rests with his hands on his knees during a run.

Structuring your recovery

Recovery periods between bouts of harder work can be either distance or time-based. If you are on a track, perhaps you complete one lap as your recovery and start the next interval once you have done so. If you opt for a time-based recovery period, you can choose a set length of time to recover or simply use the same amount of time as it took to complete the prior interval. For example, if you use a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio and your last 800 took four minutes then your recovery period would also be four minutes long. You’ll (typically) need less time to recover after a shorter interval distance.

Many runners believe once you start a speed workout, then you must constantly keep moving. They aren’t wrong. However, as long as the recovery period is active (movement-based), then a brisk walk might be just as effective as jogging. Knowing what the goal of a speed session is can help you determine which type of recovery to use. Some workouts might benefit more from a light jog, while others may require a brisk walk or even just hopping up and down to keep your legs loose during your rest periods.

Recovery for medium-hard efforts

A high percentage of speed workouts are designed to improve your lactate threshold, helping you maintain high efforts for longer periods of time. This is primarily the case when training for a distance event such as a half or full marathon, when you want to maintain a high level of output, but one that is still less than your all-out effort. For example, if you have five gears, you’ll typically remain in fourth gear for most of a distance event. When this is the case, recovery periods are primarily structured around heart rate to help you recover for the precise amount of time you need to in order to complete the next interval at the desired pace.

Conclusion: Because you don’t want your heart rate to drop too low in order to reap the benefits of the workout, for medium-hard efforts, most runners choose to jog through their breaks.

A man and woman get ready to start a lap around the track.

Recovery for negative splits

Other workouts focus on improving your ability to maintain a high effort over distance, and then develop finishing speed or a “kick.” Typically, these workouts aim to either match or better the pace of the preceding interval. The obvious inference is that, as the workout progresses, you will either need more time, less activity or a combination of the two during your recovery periods.

Conclusion: Because the goal is to increase the pace of the later intervals, you may need to jog your first few breaks, take a brisk walk for the next few and then relax for your final recovery periods to allow your heart rate to recover.

Recovery for HIIT sessions

High-intensity interval training is designed to improve your VO2 max, or your ability to consume oxygen. The higher your VO2 max, the bigger the performance gains. These workouts are periods of extremely high intensity for very short periods of time. In the case of these short, but tough, intervals, you will want to be fully recovered for each one. It takes about three minutes to reset body chemistry after these intense bursts, and sprinters can often take up to twice that long or more as their recovery periods.

Conclusion: For high-intensity interval training, a walking recovery is ideal so you can be fully recovered for each rep.

Although speed workouts and interval sessions are designed to stress and strain our systems in order for us to become fitter and faster, it doesn’t mean that they’re best approached with a “no pain, no gain” mentality. In fact, the hard portions of the workout should feel hard while the recovery periods should feel gentle and easy—whether that means you’re jogging, walking or simply shaking out your legs!

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