Sunday, July 6, 2014

Born to Walk

Walking has always been a part of my running life. Frequent walk breaks on long runs have allowed me to keep going and to stay injury free. I really don't think my current knee pain is a result of overuse, as much as just the normal aches and pains of a geezer with my medical history. We'll see what the orthopedist has to say next week. In the meantime, I've resumed jogging a little, continued walking a lot, and noticed some meaningful differences between the two.

The most obvious difference is the amount of time you spend on the road. The miles take a lot longer to cover when you're walking. I might schedule an hour for a 4 mile trainer during the week. A four mile walk is liable to take half again as long. So a walker has to plan the day a little more carefully. On the other hand, going for a walk isn't as much of a production as going for a run. You don't need as many specialized clothes. You don't come home a sweaty, exhausted mess. And it is easy to break your miles up into several shorter sessions over the course of the day. 

Another difference is in the calorie burn: according to this calculator on, my hour long, brisk walks only burn about 60% of the calories that a light jog uses in the same amount of time. A runner who switches to walking will need to make some changes in the kitchen or risk adding pounds, in spite of the hours spent on the road. On the other hand, walking any length of time burns 100% more calories than sitting on the couch watching Netflix, so don't underestimate the power of this low-intensity exercise, especially if you're just getting started.

That lower intensity is important, because while a runner needs to build plenty of recovery time into a training schedule, a walker can be out there every day, several times a day. Vigorous exercise strengthens us, but it also beats up our bodies. Days off are crucial. Walking feels more like it is built into our engineering. Walking is the way we were designed to get from place to place. With apologies to Bruce Springteen, it seems to me, Baby, that we were Born to Walk.

It's in the mental experience of walking that I start to find more meaningful differences. The famous "Runner's High'" is a real thing, a kind of endorphin intoxication that is really quite transporting. But it also takes a long time to achieve. Grete Waitz, the legendary marathon champion said that she never felt it at all. I have experienced it myself maybe four times, and always somewhere out around mile 18 of a race or long slow training run. So the euphoria of the "Runner's High" really isn't something that comes along every day.

But I do experience a kind of trance-like state almost every time I run. The rhythm of foot fall and breath, the heightened heart rate, the passing pavement below, the rush of the air in my ears all work together to take me to a place beyond thought. 

That doesn't happen to me with walking. In the absence of the powerful physiological affects of running, my mind is much more active. Some days, my thoughts wander, drifting aimlessly from place to place, person to person. At other times, I focus on a particular issue or subject that might have been gnawing at me. Now, that can be dangerous: I can find myself latched onto some pretty negative self talk. It takes a certain amount of mental discipline to choose just where I want to turn my attention.

Running is spiritual meditation for me. My mind quiets, and if I am aware of anything, it is of my presence as a participant in creation. When I run, I feel God's companionship, as if we were training partners. I frequently sense God speaking to me when we run together, but our walks are more like conversations. I am more than just present, I am aware of the world. I notice and  acknowledge fragrances, colors, and sounds that can zip right past when I'm puffing along on a run.

Walkers see and greet neighbors differently, too. It's easy to jog right past the porch-loungers and stoop-smokers when you're running out in the street. But up on the sidewalk, even at a brisk pace, it feels odd not to smile and wave, to acknowledge the presence of another human. When runners meet, they almost always nod, but non-runners have more mixed reactions. A lot of folks think we're crazy. People are more likely to greet a walker. There's just something more normal about us. 

I am in love with running. I'm proud to be a runner. And I won't lie to you, there is a certain amount of ego gratification in trotting along a street or a country road as the cars speed by. The drivers might think I'm crazy, but they know I'm out there doing something that a lot of people don't have the will or the ability to do. I hope I'll always be able to run. 

But in the past few weeks, as I nurse my arthritic knee back to health, I'm learning the joys of walking, too. I think I may have a new sweetheart.

Which reminds me... I've got a date with four miles of sidewalk before dinner. Maybe I'll see you out there, huh?


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