Amby Burfoot, author of Run Forever: Your Complete Guide to Healthy Lifetime Running, first competed in the Boston Marathon in 1965. He won that race in 1968, aged 21, and ran it again 50 years later in 2018. Run Forever is full of a lifetime’s wisdom, one of which is ‘Running is the simplest of sports. In the last twenty-five years, running has grown massively popular and increasingly complex. I’m here to say the opposite: Running is not complicated.’ Run Forever is an distillation of everything we need to know about running, with six chapters: Getting Started, Running Nutrition, Going Farther, Dealing with Injuries, Gaining Speed, and Running Forever.
Whether you’re a total beginner, coming back from injury, looking to up your distance or speed, or keeping running as you get older, an effective tactic for mind and body is to mix walking and running in a single workout. These walk-runs or run-walks or run-walk-runs are flexible, proven and safe – essential building-blocks for running forever. Read on for the rationale and some tips.
‘Run-Walk for Life’ from Run Forever by Amby Burfoot
ABOUT FIFTEEN YEARS ago, I was sharing a meal with South African physician, ultramarathoner, and prolific author Tim Noakes at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine. Noakes, an MD, had recently finished the most comprehensive running book of all time, The Lore of Running. I’m pleased to have an autographed, hard-copy version of the South African original in my personal library. It stretches to 1,277 pages, nearly 100 of which are footnotes.
At this ACSM meeting, Noakes was preparing to deliver a lecture on exercise hyponatraemia – excessive fluid consumption during marathons – and how it could prove dangerous, even fatal to runners. But Noakes is omni-curious, and this particular evening he wanted to show me something else. On his laptop, he found a YouTube video of South African bushmen hunting a springbok.
In the video, a trio of bushmen alternately track and chase a springbok for several broiling midday hours across a South African veldt. They hope to kill it for dinner. Meat contains a far greater calorie payload than their usual tubers.
However, there’s no way the bushmen can actually get close enough to use their spears. The springbok has an explosive sprint speed. Every time the men creep almost to spear-range the springbok bounds out of reach.
Until… Until it literally keels over from heatstroke. At that point, the men walk up to the helpless animal, and impale it with their weapons. David Attenborough, the narrator, points out that the bushmen have achieved success through ‘persistence hunting’. They refused to give up. They couldn’t run fast, but they could walk and jog seemingly forever, even under the relentless African sun.
The springbok’s physiology was well suited to a few impressive sprints, but not capable of continuous, endurance exercise. That’s an activity humans perform much better. For the bushmen, the pay-off was substantial – tens of thousands of juicy, protein-packed calories.
The bushmen in this video literally walked and ran for their lives – that is, to put food on the table. In an academic paper in 2006, South African Louis Liebenberg reported that he had been observing and taking notes on such hunts for two decades. The longest he had ever witnessed lasted four hours and 57 minutes. Others took from two hours to four hours. Liebenberg concludes: ‘Endurance running and persistence hunting may have been crucial factors in the evolution of humans.’
Follow your biology: A mix of running and walking appears to be the evolutionary exercise that homo sapiens pursued, and perfected, over several million years. Early humans rarely sprinted – not unless a lion, tiger, or rhino was close on their heels. And they certainly didn’t enter marathon races. They didn’t attempt to cover 26.2 miles in their best possible time.
But they did move camp slowly with the seasons, the rains, the vegetation, and the vast animal migrations. They did spend hours every day roaming from camp in search of roots, fruits, honey, and other foodstuffs. Occasionally they jogged and walked for several hours to exhaust the weakest antelope in the local herd.
Running and walking is our preferred, evolutionary endurance movement pattern. It also serves at every stage of life – for the eight-year-old and eighty-eight-year-old – and confers extraordinary health benefits to your skeleton, muscles, heart, brain, and more.
Go easy, go hard: A run-walk workout mixes the two essential ingredients of aerobic fitness: easy effort and hard effort. The easy walking segment allows you to stay on your feet for anything from 20 minutes to as long as you like. The harder running forces your heart to contract more often and more forcibly, increasing its strength. This gives you the boost in cardiovascular fitness that’s directly associated with a longer, healthier life.
Don’t fall into the either/or trap: I know too many runners who succumbed to faulty either/or thinking. An example: Someone decides to keep running as long as he can maintain an average pace of 10 minutes per mile. When he can no longer hit that target, he quits outright. ‘If I can’t run at a reasonable pace,’ he thinks, ‘what’s the point?’
Here’s what I would say to this person. ‘The point is that you can still move, and movement is life. Embrace the changes in your running. Don’t give up. Besides, 10 minutes per mile is a completely arbitrary and meaningless number. Don’t let it define or limit you. As long as you’re moving forward and covering distance, you’re still an endurance athlete.
‘Don’t be a quitter. Be a persist-er.’