Running v walking

by John Q on April 24, 2013

With the exception of an unnameable region bordering on the Eastern Mediterranean, posts on diet and exercise seem to promote more bitter disputes than any others. So, in the spirit of adventure, I’m going to step away from my usual program of soft and fluffy topics like the bubbliness of bitcoins, the uselessness of navies and the agnotology of climate denial, and tackle the thorny question of running vs walking.

Happily, and unlike, say climate science, this is a question on which you can find a reputable scientific study to support just about any position you care to name, and even some that appear to support both sides, so I’m just going to pick the ones I like, draw the conclusions I want, and invite you all to have it out in the comments thread. I’m also going to attempt the classic move of representing the opposing positions as extremes, relative to which I occupy the sensible centre.

The first question is whether, distance for distance, running or walking is more energy-efficient. The answer, according to my preferred study, is that if you are not concerned about time the study reported here, is a mixture of walking and resting, averaging about 1.3 m/sec. To achieve moderate average speeds, say a 5-hour marathon, a mixture of running and walking is better than a consistent slow running pace.

Energy-efficiency is usually assumed to be good. But for first-world residents, access to food energy usually isn’t a constraint. If you buy the (highly controversial, as I found out last time I posted on this) view that fat burned is equal to the difference between energy consumed and energy used, then it’s good to seek out energy-inefficient activities.

In any case, it turns out that differences in the energy efficiency of running and walking aren’t really that large. Minute for minute, running burns about twice the energy of walking, and covers about twice the distance. As the CDC says “1 minute of vigorous-intensity activity is about the same as 2 minutes of moderate-intensity activity.” And, while running gets it done faster for me, I chew up a fair bit of that time dealing with the aftermath of sweaty clothes and long showers.

So, having promised controversy, I’m going to weasel out and say “Do whatever works for you”. But, do yourselves a favor and get outdoors – April and May are pleasant times of year in every part of the world I’ve encountered, so this advice seems to be applicable for the vast majority of CT readers.



washington irving 04.24.13 at 5:01 am

Have you been to India in April/May? It’s called summer over there.


minnesotaj 04.24.13 at 5:58 am

This strikes me, in that ‘Virgil and Beatrice guide me stage of life’ manner, as worth holding up for introspection. Though I will not be that, which in days of old, ran 5 minute miles and got hammered before the gun started on my marathons, that which I am, I am– one equal heart rate, made faint by beer and PowerPoint, not strong, not nil, short-thriving, ill-sought, but ne’er to yield: I suck, but do — even as I learn & you don’t, and, on balance, you suck worse still: to puke, to grovel, without shield. And as we all recognize we are all the participants in disfortune, the misled bastards of well-found words and ill-fate, inherited of Tennyson… only capable of 45s and shows and… one unequaled, unpromised standard,,, “I am: what will you..?”

Are you? What will you? I am.


Brett 04.24.13 at 6:56 am

I’m a total walker. I’ve tried jogging, but my stamina at it sucks and my ankles tend to hurt quickly. Whereas I can walk several miles a day without problems.


shah8 04.24.13 at 7:35 am

Running tends to need equipment if you don’t want to damage joints long term. Like proper shoes for the task, where any old sneaker still holding together works for most walkers without feet or other posture issues.

Swimming is probably the best, all around.


PlutoniumKun 04.24.13 at 7:48 am

As a friend of mine said ‘I’ll take up running the day I see a runner smile’. That was 20 years ago and she still happily walks only.

Personally, I think runners and walkers are mugs, bikes are best. Much faster and more fun and cycling gives you much sexier legs.


Reinder Dijkhuis 04.24.13 at 8:31 am

Does your friend realise that things like toy adverts in which children smile like maniacs are not real? Most people who do something they enjoy are too focused on it to smile.


derrida derider 04.24.13 at 9:02 am

Thank you, minnesotaj, your “Idylls of the Jogger” has made my day. Now I’ll have to dig up a couple of references I didn’t recognise …


John Quiggin 04.24.13 at 9:08 am

Since I go for triathlon/ironman and hiking, I’m happy to agree with everyone above. As regards smiling runners, this was the best I could manage this AM, after a new PB – hilly 10km course in 50:02


akatsuki 04.24.13 at 10:43 am

HIIT – that is all.


harry b 04.24.13 at 12:40 pm

I jog (or, as a friend past whose house I used to pass put it, “shuffle”), but only for time — I’d walk 8 miles or so a day if I had time and could avoid roads most of the time.
When she used to deign to run with me, my spouse would constantly criticize me for my inefficient habits (eg, moving my arms too much) — and I always countered that I was only doing this for fitness sake, so couldn’t care less about efficiency — but she could never get her head round it.
But the main reason I run is to be able to listen, uninterrupted, to Radio 4 broadcasts that I have taped. Its better than walking for that, because more boring.


Ben Alpers 04.24.13 at 1:10 pm

I briefly took up running about a decade ago, but it did a real number on my knees, which went from hurting when I ran, to hurting also after I ran, to just hurting constantly. Running felt very virtuous, but, for me, it was always unpleasant.

I now walk about five miles a day. Most days, my walks are my favorite part of the day.


SamChevre 04.24.13 at 1:24 pm

Running is definitely harder on the knees.

But for efficiency, it’s hard to beat a bike. (I commute about 8 miles each way by bike and am very much in favor of biking.)


Cahokia 04.24.13 at 2:01 pm

Ah good, a fitness-ish thread; I enjoyed the discussion in the late winter calorie thread immensely.
I jogged off the last 10 belt sizes last year. This will be the third or forth time in a dozen years that I have put the needed hours in to achieve similar results. Back then, I poured over online (web 1.0) texts and library magazines for advice; as well as enjoying the Fit or Fat guy and his advice on burning sugars, etc. What I came up with are plans to transitioning fitness into a non-fitness body. Speed walking is the most inefficient way of moving, plus it’s very low impact. I use speed walking to open up lungs and prep joints and heart for the hard work ahead. 3 to 4 times a week; smoothing into 5-6 when muscles learn to recover quickly, usually a month after starting. I also add short, in the beginning very short, bursts of jogging (shuffling is more accurate at this fitness level); this helps to stretch lungs and heart. Slowly (over 3-4 months) the balance between bursts of jogging and speed walking evens out, till one day it feels smoother just to jog. The obvious addition now are bursts of hard running, sprinting-ish; which continues the stretching of lungs and heart. At this transition point I often find I need to find a second activity to cross-train muscles and joints. But mostly it’s to find a sport or activity that brings more smiles more often. I enjoy adding tennis; lately I’ve been adding surfing. Mixing it up.
One thing on diet: I eat what I want when I want. The idea being not to mix up myself in the starting sessions with undue burdens of neurosis around life sustaining activities like eating. When I get a good groove into speed walking, I find I am consuming less and watching how much I eat more in regards to calories to be burned or calories needed to do activities.
Lastly, I never ever weigh myself. I feel I could never accurately determine what gaining muscles weighs compared to the weight of lost fat deposits. So I use my pants belt notches to gauge progress.
Life ebbs and flows allowing and hindering fitness in my life. Its such a joy to know that around one of life’s difficult corners I have a plan and am familiar with how to restore my waist size.


Jeffrey Davis 04.24.13 at 2:35 pm

Activity intense enough to produce inflammation of the heart, if pursued often enough, can provide that most ironic of corpses: the really fit ex-runner.


Cahokia 04.24.13 at 2:43 pm

J.D.: Typing with that much sarcasm can lead to brain aneurysms and a stroke; the most impish of non-corpses: the really smart ex-spouse.


js. 04.24.13 at 3:01 pm

With the exception of an unnameable region bordering on the Eastern Mediterranean, posts on diet and exercise seem to promote more bitter disputes than any others.

Mentions of a certain 19th Century Jewish intellectual also tend to turn pretty dire around these parts. Just sayin’.


Pat 04.24.13 at 5:54 pm

“With the exception of an unnameable region bordering on the Eastern Mediterranean, posts on diet and exercise seem to promote more bitter disputes than any others.”

Somebody obviously has never opined on the proper way to raise children….


mpowell 04.24.13 at 8:17 pm

Good point on saving time on showers by walking, but it won’t work in a lot of places. There are additional benefits to vigorous exercise besides just calories burned however. This is difficult to maintain as you get older and your joints give you trouble. My take is that you should just keep with the vigorous exercise until you can’t anymore. But I say that as a younger person. I also believe that long slow jogs are probably worse for your joints than intense, shorter sessions.


PlutoniumKun 04.24.13 at 8:23 pm

@JQ, good pic, almost a smile, I’ll pass it on to my friend, maybe she’ll try a run after all!

Seriously though, I’ve been following this issue in Sweat Science and other sports blogs, and it does seem that sports scientists have almost thrown up their hands in despair at the contradictory evidence. Sports Science is one of those fascinating areas where the more research is done, the more confusion there seems to be about even some of the superficially simplest questions. An example is the trend in performances between men and women – it was recently assumed women would converge with men in performances in endurance sports, while the differences would remain clear in sprints, but in fact the opposite seems to be happening, and there is no physiological explanation for this that I’m aware of.

My feeling (as a non specialist) is that running and walking are essentially very different types of exercise, with very different body impacts – as others have said above, the level of impact is very high with running (especially on hard ground), so its unsurprising the human body reacts in a different way. I wouldn’t mind betting that more refined studies would find all sorts of additional complications according to intensity of runs, type of terrain, build of the runner/walker, etc.


charles pooter 04.24.13 at 8:50 pm

Though it looks absurd, walking and, if things improve, gently jogging backwards up a slope does wonders for knee strength and stability, and in my experience takes the knee-pain out of (and puts the smile back into) running.


Anderson 04.24.13 at 9:10 pm

Then there’s my friend who insists on running (walking, shopping, living) barefoot. Not with those funky toe-shoes. Just barefoot. Works for her!


Hermenauta 04.24.13 at 10:14 pm

About the smiling running man, I can´t believe nobody came with this yet:


John Quiggin 04.24.13 at 10:22 pm

@Pat Yes, I forgot parent-blogging, almost as much vitriol than the Middle East, and far more than Marxism.

@mpowell I took up running late in life, and have been ultra-cautious about joint and bone injuries. I always stop if I have joint pain, and mix as many different exercise forms (run, swim, cycle, hike, weights) as I can. So far (about 5 years) so good.


Salient 04.24.13 at 11:05 pm

For some folks whose joints/pains are too much a problem to seriously consider jogging, consider water-walking (wading through chest-deep pool of warm water). Lots of midsize YWCA/YMCAs offer a place for it, since the warm water pool is pretty great for arthritis even without the walking. The need for a temperature-controlled pool really limits the usefulness of this suggestion, though; one of the appeals of walking/jogging is there’s no need for a facility or a membership somewhere.


a different chris 04.25.13 at 2:44 am

>Though it looks absurd, walking and, if things improve, gently jogging backwards

I’ve found that walking (don’t have the coordination for running) backwards is damned addictive for some reason. I have wooded roads behind my house, I might be too self-concious to enjoy it in public.


Harold 04.25.13 at 2:46 am

Walking downhill is also supposed to be very good for one’s metabolism and to use muscles that tend to go weak from disuse (I read that in the NYT).


anonymouse 04.25.13 at 3:31 am

If you want to see a smiling runner, watch Chrissie Wellington. She runs a 3 hour marathon at the end of an Ironman smiling the whole way.


John Quiggin 04.25.13 at 4:31 am

@Salient There’s also deepwater running, which I keep planning to try out, but not getting around to.


reason 04.25.13 at 1:02 pm

mpowell @18
“I also believe that long slow jogs are probably worse for your joints than intense, shorter sessions.”
a. Why do you believe that?
b. Even if true, it seems very likely to me that intense, shorter sessions are more likely to injure ligaments and muscles. And ligaments are hard to heal.

P.S. I am very reluctant to ride a bike at the moment because I damaged some groin ligaments on a training cycle and it always seems to recur if I ride a bike.


reason 04.25.13 at 1:06 pm

P.P.S. With regards to running and smiling at the same time – any regular runner will tell you the real joy from running comes from how you feel AFTERWARDS, although sometimes during a run you will reach a rhythm that is very relaxing (and it lets you get lots of good thinking done) – but not always.


Left Coast Bernard 04.26.13 at 1:29 am

” If you buy the (highly controversial, as I found out last time I posted on this) view that fat burned is equal to the difference between energy consumed and energy used,…”

Are you saying that some of your readers find the First Law of Thermodynamics controversial?


David J. Littleboy 04.26.13 at 1:48 am

“the real joy from running comes from how you feel AFTERWARDS”

Ah, yes. Like banging one’s head against a wall.

FWIW, “Which Comes First; Cardio or Weights*” has a good overview of current science on sports/fitness. The bad news is that the more and harder you work out, the more good it does you. There’s no “right amount”; there’s no place to stop and feel pleased with one’s efforts; more would always make you healthier.


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