Combining running and walking intelligently can melt off the pounds.
Originally published 2004
I used to run. A lot. I loved to run. At my peak, I ran half an hour during the week, an hour on Fridays, and one and a half to two days on the weekend. I was thin as a rail.
But, as they say, “life happens”. The way things turned out, I was out of running for quite a bit more than a decade. It was difficult to get back to it. Several things helped in that process, but by far the largest help was the concept of running for 8 minutes and walking for two.
This article describes my personal journey, and the benefits I’ve experienced on the “8 and 2” program.
Out of It
Life, in this case, came in the form of doctors who convinced me to have some of my knee cartilage removed, “to make things better”. What they didn’t tell me was that it never grows back. So they successfully converted a small problem into a big problem.
Knee pain kept me from running for a long time. For a while there, bird watching was about the only activity I could do — if I sat a lot. Over time, I found activities I could participate in, and I managed to stay in reasonable shape. But I was never again as skinny as when I was younger, and running.
After a while, I discovered weight training. More importantly, I discovered how the right kind of weight training (described in 2-3-5 Builds Strength to Thrive) can boost growth hormone levels — and that is the one and only thing that can make cartilage grow again. (But you dare not take it as supplement, for a variety of reasons — not the least of which is that, if you do, your body will stop making its own!)
So I became much stronger. But also heavier. I could slim down by restricting calories, of course. But the combination of a lowered metabolism, reduced muscle mass, and the body’s adaptation to guard against future periods of “famine”, meant the pounds always came charging back. With a vengeance.
After a while, I decided I didn’t care if my knee hurt when I ran. I had to get out and run a little bit, at least once a week, or maybe twice if things were going well. Otherwise, I’d just keep getting fatter and fatter.
So I went out and hobbled around the trails for a while. Calling it a “survival shuffle” would have been insult to the concept of survival. But I found that the knee didn’t hurt too badly! Either the weight training had made my leg muscles strong enough, or it had regrown enough cartilage to make a difference, or both.
My stride got slightly better each time I ran, lengthening out by something like a fraction of an inch each time. I still wasn’t quite up to the survival shuffle category, but I was moving.
I was delighted.
It was time to invest in some new shoes, and some great wick-away-the-sweat, keep-you-dry-clothing. Lovely stuff, that. Keeps you warmer in the winter because you’re not wet, and keeps you cooler in the summer, too. Hard to beat.
But it was the shoes that really made a difference. I invested in a top of the line pair of Brooks Dyad shoes, with the Linear Platform inserts. The sales lady said they were like strapping pillows to your feet. She wasn’t kidding. It felt like I was running on clouds. Believe it or not, my stride lengthed 2 or 3 inches in the first 10 yards. Now I really was doing a survival shuffle. And for a couple of minutes here and there during the run, I actually felt like I had a stride again! Wunderbar.
Then I read an article that changed the nature of my running completely.
The article was in a running magazine, but I’m sorry to say that I don’t have any idea who wrote it. It’s just something I read and set aside. I thought it might be worth a try, the next time I ran. But that would be months away.
The article described the advantages of alternating running and walking in each training session. It recommended several ways to do it, but the one that stuck in my head was 8 minutes walking and 2 minutes running — and how the author finished a marathon in great style using that pace.
That motivated me. I’ve never run a marathon. Can’t say I particularly want to, either. I once spent four and half hours running 22 miles. Thought I was going to die. Rather wished I would, in fact. In the final stages, I remember using the crosswalk as a car was approaching the stop sign. The car was going pretty fast, and I wondered if it would stop in time. I wondered if I should slow down. But I was so tired that I plunged on. I figured that if it hit me, it would put me out of my misery! Oddly enough, my legs felt fine the next day — but the sunburn didn’t go away for week.
So it wasn’t the marathon idea that got me excited — but the idea of being able to go out for the long, slow, lazy runs I used to do was very exciting.
I had always liked to explore during my runs. I’m naturally curious, and like to see where paths and roads go. Of course, that meant stopping occasionally either because I was at a dead end, or because I wasn’t sure which way to go next. It occurred to me that it was the breaks I took while exploring that made it so much more pleasurable than a start-to-finish run.
Trying it Out
All in all, adding a bit of walking to the run seemed like a good idea, and I wanted to try it.
But cold weather set in. And at work, my list of action items exploded. And it took a couple of months before I made a trip to the store to get the IronMan watch that has dual, alternating count time timers that would do count down for 8 minutes, beep, count down for 2 minutes, beep again, and repeat. (Another great investment.)
Setting the IronMan Watch
The IronMan is pretty easy to set, with clear labels on the buttons, so you can tell what they’re supposed to do. You press the Mode button until you get to the interval timer, and press Set to start changing it. There were a few things about the directions that took forever to figure out, though, so I’ll mention them here:
When you go to the “Int Timer” display press Set, it says “setting”, but there is a pretty long pause before the interval timer actually appears, so you can change it.
(That screen says “Int 1”. Take note of it. You’ll be coming back to it in a moment.)
When you finish setting the timer for 8 minutes, you need to use the +/- keys to change the last setting from “Stop” to “Repeat”.
When you’re at the “Int 1” display, you press the +/- keys to change it to “Int 2” — the second interval timer. You set that one to two minutes.
When you’re all done, you press the Start/Done button again, the screen shows “Int 1”. That display looks for all the world like it means “interval timer #1”. You expect it to show “2” when the second timer is running, and then go back to number 1 again. Thinking that (if you’re like me) you go crazy trying to figure out how to set the number of repeats to 99, which is the maximum the watch can do, according to the directions.
In actual fact, “Int” is telling you that you’re interval timer mode, and “1” is telling you that you are on the first repeat! That counter counts up, from 1 to 99. Then it starts over again at 1. Once you figure that out, the watch is a breeze!
And at $50 or so, it’s not too expensive. In fact, I plan to get another one for stretching, so I can stretch for 30 seconds, and take 3 seconds to change positions, so I can concentrate on stretching and relaxing instead of counting to 30. (Hey, it’s easy to set, but it’s still a chore!)
In all, it was a good 3 months before I got for another run. In the meantime, I had picked up the IronMan, but it wasn’t clear how much running I would be able to do. But I figured if I all I did was two repeats, that would be something like 20 minutes, and that would be something.
Was I in for a surprise.
Basically, I owe that author a big, fat “thank you”. On the first time out, I ran and walked for a total of 70 minutes — and it didn’t feel much harder than running for 20.
I spent 40 minutes going out, exploring to my hearts content. Then I spent 10 minutes climbing the steep ridge I was on and walking along it, and spend 20 minutes coming back.
In that time, I did 6*8 minutes of actual running — 48 minutes, more than twice my usual distance. And when you figure in an additional 8 minutes of steep hill climbing, the total is more like 56 minutes of active effort — nearly 3 times as much as my normal run — plus an additional 14 minutes of sunshine, fresh air, and prime fat-burning time. (More on that in a moment.)
Experiencing the Benefits
And the difference can’t be counted in exercise minutes, alone. Being out for a longer amount of time makes a big difference in other ways, as well:
When I run, it’s at least as much for the solitude and the silence, as for the fresh air and exercise. It’s an antidote to stress that makes me feel more happy to be alive. So I generally run on trails, rather than roads — not only to keep from pounding my body, but for the lack of traffic noise and other sounds of civilization, and the sight of the fields, forests, clouds, and sky. It’s a meditation. And when I can get out for an hour or so at a time, it’s a darn good one. And the ability to spend more time lets me get out farther than I ever could in a 20 or 30 minute run, to see the wonderful sights.
If I hike, I take a lunch — but I’m rarely hungry until an hour or two after I stop. There is something about continuous exercise that turns off hunger — and that’s a wonderful thing, when you’re trying to lose weight!
When I had been running every day for a couple of months, my diet underwent a drastic change — all on its own. I remember the day I walked into a steak house and salivated when I saw the salad bar. I had no desire at all for my previous favorites — the steaks on the grill, and the baked potatoes with butter melting all over them. That’s when I found out that the body is smart. It wanted to make me lighter, so it wouldn’t be working so hard. So somewhere in there, it flicked a switch on my taste buds.
Those are some the benefits I experienced from regular, long runs in the past. The 8 and 2 system opens up the prospect that I’ll be able to enjoy them once again.
But there were several other benefits, as well — some expected, and some surprising.
Rest and Recovery
That two minutes of walking gives the breathing time to subside. And the muscles get to recover their strength for the next running effort, so you can keep going and going — and going.
The original author recommended doing a race walk during the walking interval, to keep the heart rate up. That probably makes sense for maximum cardiovascular fitness, but straight-leg activitites are a problem for me, due to the bits of cartilage that are missing in my knees. So I opted for more of a stroll. Ok, a little faster than that. But not much. To my surprise, the walking interval gave me a chance to “stretch out my legs” — literally. I could feel the tightness in the hamstrings and backside, and I could feel those muscles loosen up and lengthen as I walked. So I was less tight than usual when I finished the run.
When I was running a lot, I only really felt comfortable when I was running. When I walked, my metabolism kept wanting to shift up into high gear, so it felt like I was revving a race car engine — I had the anxious feeling that I wanted to go. The 8 and 2 system gives me permission to walk, and practice doing it, so I feel comfortable no matter what speed I’m traveling.
Exercise promotes fat burning in two ways — during the activity, and afterwards. The requirements for burning fat are water, oxygen, and exercise.
During the activity, the body has to replenish the muscular energy that is being exerted. For the first 20 or 30 minutes, the body uses sugar stored in the liver. After that, it has to draw on fat. Most cardiovascular sessions only last 20 to 30 minutes — mostly because the body’s sugar stores are gone, and you’re too fatigued to do any more. So most people stop exercising just when they’re ready to burn fat. So the 8 and 2 program promotes fat burning, if only because you exercise longer.
In other words, the body burns fat during the recovery interval in order to restore muscle energy. So as you walk along, you can feel good that you’re achieving your goal!
You also burn fat better because you’re getting the oxygen you need to do it. During the walking interval, as your breathing recovers, the extra oxygen lets you burn fat more easily. The walking also prevents the body from going into “oxygen debt”, which reduces the muscle soreness that comes from anaerobic activity.
Of course, you need to be well-hydrated, too. But that’s generally not a problem when exercising for an hour or two, unless it’s really hot.
The standard wisdom, recently, has that you don’t get thirsty until it’s too late, so you should drink even when you’re not thirsty. But my experience suggests that the body is a heck of a lot smarter than that. So I like the “instinctive” plan — drink when you’re thirsty.
For example, after I had been running for a while, I noticed that I needed to go the bathroom before starting — which was really convenient, because it saved having to go to the bathroom while running. Years later, I find that same desire to lighten the load whenever I’m about to exercise. There is something about the anticipation of upcoming exercise that triggers a “go to the bathroom” response.
Similarly, if you’re running in hot enough weather that you need the extra water, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found yourself feeling thirsty before a run. The body is smart enough to do that.
Fat is also burned after the activity, when the body is recovering and growing. In fact, that’s when most fat is burned, because fat is the preferred energy source for recovering and building. Growth hormone triggers the fat burning, which builds muscle at the same time that it burns fat. The result is a change in the body’s composition, resulting in a more favorable strength-to-weight ratio (which is pretty much the measure of athletic ability).
That’s the reason that the best way to burn fat is with activities that require short bursts of intense effort — activities like volleyball, basketball, soccer, boxing, and sprinting. The short bursts are like weight training, in that they release growth hormone and build muscle, while the duration of the effort promotes fat-burning during the activity, as well as after.
But we’ve seen that long-term exercise like running is meditative, and that it can change what you want to eat, which has a big effect on weight. So steady exercise like running is a great complement to exercises that use short bursts of intensive effort.
I’ve observed several people who have gone from overweight to very fit. By and large, they did it by alternating weight training one day and running the next, or by using a similar combination of explosive effort and cardiovascular work, like gymnastics and badminton.
With the 8 and 2 program, you get some of the same fat-burning effect as that experienced by a soccer player, for example, who runs for a while and then walks for a bit. And the total number of exercise minutes increases dramatically, which helps as well.
Of course, a soccer player does a lot of sprinting, while basketball and volleyball players do a lot of jumping. Since such intensive efforts maximize fat burning, it would make sense to do a little sprinting, occasionally. But another way to achieve the same effect is by running hills.
When you run a hill, you’re performing an anaeorbic activity that builds the muscle you need to burn fat. So if the additional running time you can do with an 8 and 2 program is spent in the hills, there is a tremendous capacity for fat burning!
Permission to Walk
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of the 8 and 2 program is that it gave me permission to walk. So when I was faced with a super-steep climb to the ridge, I didn’t feel compelled to grit my way up it. I spent the next 10 minutes hiking to the top, and then walking along the ridge, enjoying the view.
Somehow, I always used to feel guilty if I “stopped and walked” during a run. Maybe that’s why exploring was so much fun. In addition to satisfying my intellectual curiosity (no small thing), trying to figure out which way to go next gave me an accetable excuse to take a break.
But at any other time, I could never bring myself to walk, as long as I was “running”. But with the 8 and 2 program, walking is built in. I’m already spending time walking, so why not spend a little more to enjoy the view, or the deer, or whatever, instead of sprinting by?
Suddenly, it made a lot of sense to walk at times like that.
If your goal is to maximize your athletic capabilities, you probably want to run hard, continuously. But if your goal is to burn fat, get outdoors, and feel the weather on your skin, then the 8 and 2 program is hard to beat
The 8 and 2 program isn’t carved in stone, either. There are many variations on it, so you can tailor one to suit yourself. (The original article described some variations other than the ones I mention here. They would be worth exploring if I can ever find the article again!)
Right now, 8 and 2 is working great for me. Bt I figure I may be able to move up 8-1/2 and 1-1/2 some day. Or maybe even 9 and 1. That would be cool.
Or you may find that 6 and 2 works better for you, or even 4 and 2. Hey, whatever gets you out there and moving, do it!
As for me, I’ll be out there loafing along with my relaxed 8 minute stride, and my 2 minute stroll. Hey, it works for me.
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