Running vs walking (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

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.

19 thoughts on “Running vs walking (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. Whatever works is ever so much better than neither.

    I’ll bite – who/what/where are “CT readers”? (closing sentence)

  2. I was sure agnotology was a neologism you’d coined for the purpose until I looked it up (and discovered it was invented in 1995). Congratulations, you showed me a new word.

    At the risk of being on topic, I periodically go through a phase of riding to work on soft tyres to increase the amount of exercise I get. Similarly, but much more sensibly, I ride a nice upright bike with a comfortable seating position. It’s slightly slower and noticeably less efficient than a racing bike, but I’m riding partly for exercise. But then, have you looked at the time it takes to not ride? By a time value of money metric I suspect even an expensive electric bike has a negative cost for many workers. Add in the time taken for other exercise, or the pleasure from being able to eat more junk food, and cycling comes out way ahead. (yes, I have discussed this with an employer in the context of how much extra I’d want to be paid to accept a company car).

  3. @QuentinR

    CT=Crooked Timber.

    Beautiful surfing weather here on the Gold Coast lately. Couldn’t care less whether it is energy efficient or better than running, walking, hang gliding or digging holes! It’s fun and seems to make everyone doing it happy.

  4. Running vs walking?

    Running will eventully be viewed as an entirely unnecessary activity, in terms of health benefits, with some entirely pointless side-effects, like ruined knee cartliages.

    Do it if you must….just not for your health.

  5. I’m going to be out walking considerable distances in the autumn weather in south-east Queensland and northern NSW over the next couple of days. Hopefully this will lead to a resumption of the very desirable trend that has seen me lose 13 kilograms so far this year.

    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.

    Yes, I’ve noticed that people tend to get het up about Lebanon.

  6. I hypothesise that walking is more energy efficient than running for overweight plodders like me. My reasons are as follows. Walking involves less rise and fall of the centre of gravity than running does or at least than do most standard, “natural” running gaits. The rise and fall of the centre of gravity costs energy to generate the rise and a heavy plodder stores relatively little of the energy of the return fall in his or her tendons as elastic energy. With a plodder, the energy of the fall will be mostly dissipated and wasted as deformation of ground on soft surfaces, noise of plodding and deceleration work of the muscles to prevent jarring.

    On the other hand, an elite running athlete (young, light and with springy muscles and tendons) will store a considerably higher percentage of the energy of the fall of C.O.G. in his/her tendons and muscles as stored elastic (potential) energy. This energy can be re-released to assist the rise in C.O.G. generated by the next stride. Thus an elite runner who is running will be as energy efficient per distance covered or even more energy efficient than when walking. The glide time of a stride when both feet are off the ground is a very energy efficient part of the cycle with only air resistance to contend with.

    Thus the results of experiments are likely to differ according to whether subjects are 59 y.o. plodders like me or elite young athletes like Olympian distance runners.

    More important, IMO, is the issue of which exercise, running or walking, is better for average contemporary westerners of various ages, many of whom are overweight. The answer is walking is better (safer, less jarring, less injuring) if you are old-ish and overweight, like me. However, if you can comfortably sustain say a half of maximum speed run on soft surfaces like grass for even a few hundred yards then you could incorporate several such brief runs in a 30 or 40 minute walk. In training or exercising variation of effort is important. The worst thing you can do is walk or run at a mono pace on a single surface. It’s much better to include pace variations, surface variatons (like hard surface, grass, sand, gravel, stony but watch ankle stability) and to include up hill and down dale as well as the flats.

    Variations in pace, surface and incline force variations in effort (useful for cardiovascular fitness.) Variations in pace, surface and incline also change the relative effort required from various muscles and can even force muscles little used in a standard gait to do some more work. This variation tones the entire musculature better than a mono pace exercise session.

    Just think about it. Walking over rocky ground (provided you are careful not to sprain an ankle) is beneficial for all the muscles and tendons related to ankle stability. They will get a better workout. That is just one example. And try walking or jogging in soft sand (and make it a hard-ish session relative to your current fitness) when you have been exclusively training on firm surfaces. The muscles and tendons which are a bit sore the next day are the ones that are under-worked by exclusive firm surface training.

  7. I have been bushwalking for about 43 years – on Sunday I walked for over 9 hours. I indulged in jogging for about 20 years but it is too hard on the hips, knees and feet. Walking on hard pavement is also damaging – one of the hardest walks I have done is across the centre of Paris from Les Halles to the Eiffel Tower – won’t do that again. Running is for the time poor and not so rich. There is also canoeing, cycling, rock climbing, surfing, swimming. They are all great. Get out there!

  8. Moz. Cycling with soft tyres increases the risk of a puncture, with major consequences for energy efficiency, getting to work on time, and mental health. Not recommended. Just use higher gears.

  9. @John Street

    I wouldn’t be too doctrinaire about rejecting running and jogging for any age group. If you can get your weight into a good range for jogging (the light end of normal) and if you ensure you have properly cushioned runners and do little or no pavement and road running then jogging should be fine. This is especially so if you can train yourself to be a toe-landing runner. Toe-landing first is the most technically (and practically) correct way to run and minimises impact injuries. In addition, in training push the pace uphill and coast slowly downhill to minimise jolting. Obviously, in cross country when actually racing you have to push it up hill and down hill.

    If I can get my weight back to the light end of normal I will certainly be running long distances again but not on roads and not anywhere where people will see much of me. I prefer large parks, creek and bush walks / runs where i can add in extra silly looking exercises away from prying eyes; windmilling arms, jogging like a boxer throwing blows and so on. Even pausing to spin around, do rolling somersaults on the ground and walk along the tops of knee-high log fences to exercise my balance system. Many older, sedentry adults don’t do enough things that challenge their balance system. Surfing sound like a good idea for that reason (and others).

  10. If avoiding injury is the goal, I would suggest not wearing shoes while running. Or if you don’t have Queensland feet (which many Queenslanders don’t these days) just a pair of running socks to protect your delicate, soft as a pig’s ear, feet. The softer one’s shoes the harder one can pound the pavement and this can lead to injury.

    What are running socks? Socks plus tape. Or you can just put tape on your feet, but that seems a bit inconvenient for casual running. Or you can buy minimalist running shoes, but paying money to replicate the experience of running bare foot just seems kind of dumb to me.

    Note that barefoot running is a really bad idea if you have diabetes or Hanson’s disease or something like that. And it might be a bad idea anyway. I mean, what do I know about running? About the only only time I ever run is if I see a big spider. Of course, I’d be running towards it. Ever since I left Queensland I’ve missed big spiders.

  11. @Ikonoclast
    I started jogging again a couple of months ago in conjunction with a JC (not him, the female one) weight loss program. I lost 14 kg in 12 weeks which I put down mainly to the diet change, but the 5km I do every second day has a good effect on my general fitness and mental alertness. This is different to 7 years ago when I did long walks as part of another diet/exercise program and lost similar weight, but post-walking just felt tired. As I raise my fitness, the balletic variations you mention sound worth including. I strained a hamstring early in the piece, but a couple of physio sessions helped and spending time on warmups/downs certainly has helped me avoid subsequent strains and stiffness.

    Doing 5km around an oval seems boring but it is “safe”, meaning comfortable and predictable compared to roads. It also removes distractions giving time out to think and reflect which has been useful for me.

  12. I reckon this recent article in the Slate sums up the situation. URL:

    To quote the introduction:

    ‘If you’re a runner, you might have noticed this surprising headline from the April 5 edition of the Guardian: “Brisk walk healthier than running—scientists.” Or maybe you saw this one, which ran in Health magazine the very same day: “Want to lose weight? Then run, don’t walk: Study.”

    Dueling research from rival academic camps? Not exactly. Both articles described the work of a herpetologist-turned-statistician at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory named Paul T. Williams, who, this month, achieved a feat that’s exceedingly rare in mainstream science: He used exactly the same dataset to publish two opposing findings.’

  13. “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”

    I don’t think that’s a controversial assumption (at least if you substitute “weight” for “fat”) – the question is whether, or for how long, you can manipulate weight via total caloric intake (irrespective of compoosition) and exercise, without natural feedback mechanisms (appetite and resting metabolic rate) offsetting.

    The analogy with economics is quite close – MV=PY and Y=C+I+G+NX are uncontroversial accounting identities, which do not imply anything about the truth of the quantity theory of money or Keynesianism.

  14. As a pedaler of circular theories, this discussion offers a good chance for me to plug cycling and my club – Audax Australia – which is googleable. We did the 600km ‘Riverina Romp’ over the weekend – yep, 600km, seriously – and it was a hoot. Cycling is such a gentle sport that even extreme ‘endurance’ rides like the Romp are within the capabilities of most people, with a bit of training and adaption Of course, you don’t need to go to such lengths to enjoy the simple pleasure of riding a bike. Allezlujah!

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