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 don't know whether it's OK to move forwards at a walking pace or not. My response to their question is initially simple; yes, it's quite 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 might force you to walk. It might be too steep to physically run up or down, or it might be unsafe to move forwards at a faster pace. If you look at the runners on pretty much any fell race and you will see some, if not all of them, walking up very 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; think freshly ploughed fields, stiles and ice. On a long-distance trail race I ran, a normally dry but rough footpath was flooded for a couple of hundred metres, with no way around. Nearly everyone chose to walk through the calf-deep, murky sludge/water as the holes and tree roots underneath could not be seen. Twisting an ankle with another 29 miles to go was something few people chose to risk.
Walking uses different muscles to running and draws less from your energy systems, so taking a walk break can help your body to keep going for longer; it's a mini-recovery session mid-run. The longer the run, the more helpful this can be to your endurance. That's why, in ultra-distance races, you'll often see just as much walking going on as there is running. Most people have to take walk breaks if they want to keep going.
The longer the run, the more important nutrition and hydration become. Walk breaks not only allow you to eat and drink more easily, they can also help with your digestion. It’s hard for your stomach to work efficiently if your 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've ever had was caused by trying to eat and drink whilst running to reach a checkpoint time in a race by a certain time. 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 sometimes requires you to walk. Crossing an icy bridge or deep, boggy patch may be safer at a walking pace, or as might 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, especially if you are out on your own or there is no phone signal.
Trail running and racing can be a very social sport, one where we 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.