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In Defense of Walking More and Running Less (Just Hear Me Out)

Increasing time on your feet can still support your running goals but dramatically decrease your risk of injury.

walking new york city
Calla Kessler

As someone who runs almost every day, I love the exhilaration and freedom of running. I crave the heart-pumping feeling of charging up a hill or those rare, wonderful moments where the effort doesn’t feel like effort at all. Even now, in the midst of a pandemic and political uncertainty, running helps me manage—albeit briefly—the ambient anxiety.

It’s amazing, the range of emotions you can experience over the course of one run. On one particular Sunday back in March, I went from feeling the highest of highs to wanting to break down and cry just 6 miles later. After a few months of tending to a dull, sporadic pain in my piriformis, it was now throbbing to the point that I couldn’t push forward for one more step. Once home, I put myself on a rotation of ibuprofen, Powerdot electromagnetic therapy sessions, and ice baths, before I finally decided it was time to give my body a proper rest.

I later called up a friend who is also an orthopedist in New York, and walked her through my symptoms via Zoom. The prognosis: It was either bursitis of the hip, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, or piriformis syndrome. She agreed with my plan to rest, and gave me the OK to do whatever light movement didn’t feel as though it was aggravating the area.

My rest plan lasted one whole week. After being stuck inside, I had to get out—not for a run, though...for a walk.

I dreaded that walk, but I had to let my body heal. Needing in-person medical attention at that time wasn’t on the top of my priority list. My mental health, on the other hand, was so I knew that just getting outside for fresh air and gentle movement, even if it wasn’t running, would help.

I won’t sugarcoat it: Walking sucked at first. I felt like a slug. I envied every runner that passed me as I sauntered slowly down the street.

But after a few days, I started to look forward to my new, slower routine. Every morning, it became something I craved, like running. I’d wake up, journal, make some coffee, mask up, and hit the road. Before this point, I was running 30- to 40-mile weeks, prepping for the postponed (if only for now) 2020 London Marathon. These days, I’m peaking at around 15 miles.

Calla Kessler

But here’s the thing about these 16:30-minute miles: I never thought I’d be so thankful just to move my body. And right now, it’s better that I’m doing it in a way that makes me feel less stressed, even if it’s not my normal routine.

From a physical perspective, research shows that bouts of exercise under 60 minutes can be great for your immune system, and that now more than ever, it’s important that we don’t overtrain. And according to Polly de Mille, RN, CSCS, and director of Tisch Sports Performance Center at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), these morning walks are doing some good for my running stride, too.

“As a woman, it’s important to work on bone density, which can be done with a walk or any weight-bearing exercise,” says de Mille. “And depending on your speed or if you’re walking up a hill, it can still be a great workout. You’re also still working a lot of the same musculature [of running] without the high-impact forces, that same gait pattern without excessive eccentric stress to your muscles. Although it’s different, it’s still helpful.”

While running is often heralded for its accessibility, walking is available to even more people, and you don’t need any special gear or money to do it. For me, walking became an opportunity to focus on my form, something that commonly gets lost when I’m performing intervals or running to beat red lights. Where was my pelvis shifting? Was I standing tall? Was I engaging my glutes? Slowing down allowed me to be more present in my physical body and proud of myself for letting go—for no longer being mad about my injury, a circumstance that I couldn’t change. There’s so much freedom in that.

After some time, I began to notice a feeling of accomplishment with each stroll. My walks may not have brought about a new personal record (there was that one day I went sub-15:30/mile with a fanny pack in tow), but they gave me the opportunity to really move again. An opportunity that made me feel productive and less stressed as the day carried on. According to research, walking can have that effect: In a recent study, experts found that older adults who started their days with a morning walk improved their cognitive function, compared to those who skipped out and remained sedentary, instead.

The author on her morning walk in New York’s Central Park.
Calla Kessler

But the highlight for me, without a doubt, was the feeling of peace on each walk. I felt calm in a way that perhaps I’ve never felt before. I live in New York City, so up until this point, walking was different. It involved navigating overcrowded subways and a walking pace that could be deemed competitive for some. But my walks now are lingering, reminiscent of the ones I’d take when I was young, sauntering along with no worries at all. I can’t remember the last time I felt as calm as I did on my post-dinner stroll the other night. Just me, a podcast, and the certainty that eventually, everything is going to be alright. Eventually.

“There is no book for this, it’s all unprecedented,” says Deborah Roche, Ph.D., and sports psychologist at HSS. “It’s important to have some grace with yourself and do the best you can. Right now, the goal with movement should be to get away from the fight or flight. You want to breathe and shift that arousal level. And a walk is a great place to start.”

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