An experienced runner who I look up to a lot recently posted on Instagram about a training program called the “Galloway Method”—a “Run Walk Run” system that encourages runners to alternate between planned run and walk intervals, that boasts reduced muscle strain and joint stress, faster recovery time, and more control over fatigue than simple non-stop running.
But if you’re running, you’re getting there faster, right?
Run / walk / run
By walking at regular intervals instead of pushing their bodies up to and past their limits, the theory is that Galloway runners won’t wear out as fast as nonstop runners, leading to a more refreshing and enjoyable running experience rather than dread and exhaustion.
All of that sounded believable enough when I read up on the system, but then I came to a claim that gave me pause – that the Galloway Method can actually help runners to improve their run times even while slowing down from time to time for these active walk breaks—according to the Galloway site, “an average of 7 minutes faster in a 13.1 mile race when non-stop runners shift to the correct Run Walk Run ratio — and more than 13 minutes faster in the marathon.”
It seems counterintuitive, right? Obviously, someone who keeps up a running pace will be faster than someone who slows down to walk, even once; you’d think that even a crawling jog would be quicker than a brisk walk.
But according to the evidence gathered by Galloway and proponents of his system—including my distance-running mentor—walk breaks can lead to stronger, more productive running intervals. It turns out that running in spurts with built-in recovery time can be faster than just running nonstop.
I remain somewhat skeptical, but I have to admit to noticing times in my own running routine where I “wake up” from being zoned out and realize that, though I am technically still “running,” I am probably moving more slowly than if I was just walking. My body is exhausted, the lactic acid has built up to the point where my legs no longer want to respond to my brain. Obviously what I’m doing at the moment—pushing more and more through the same motions over and over—isn’t working. I feel stuck—like I’m slogging through a swamp—so what’s stopping me from trying something different? Pride? Stubbornness? Some strange idea I got growing up that walking doesn’t “count”?
Give your brain a break
Here’s the thing. I also have noticed this pattern of pounding away but ultimately getting nowhere when I’m sitting at my desk trying to get writing work done. Even when I feel most exhausted and stuck—on an idea, a sentence, a plot point—I feel compelled to “keep at it,” though often that means just sitting there frustrated while the same old words and images try to rearrange themselves impossibly into something new. In those times, I’m not actually getting anything done, but I’m still “working,” right? I’d rather be almost anywhere else at that moment, thinking about anything else for a while, but the work must get done, so I plug away.
Well, it turns out, I would likely be much better, and do much better work in the long run, if I actually would get up and walk away, walk around, and let my brain think about something else for a while. In the same excitingly paradoxical way that the Galloway method ultimately helps runners to run faster, slowing down and stepping away from work—what Meg Stelig calls taking “strategic breaks”—can help workers to work more productively and efficiently.
Such breaks, Stelig writes, can bring the obvious “fun, relaxation, conversation, and entertainment,” but they can also contribute to increased productivity and creativity and “help you keep your goals in the spotlight” by sharpening focus and motivation.
Again, it’s counterintuitive. The best way to get more work done would seem to be to work more and to keep working, no matter what. Saying that breaks make you work harder seems like magical nonsense.
Mindset or magic?
But it’s not magic. There is actually a psychological principle behind all of this, the delightfully-German-named “Einstellung Effect.”
One English translation for “Einstellung” is “mindset;” taking that in its most literal sense—something like “thought-petrification”—describes the phenomenon well: established thought patterns and habits can lead to stilted, mechanical thinking that interferes with or discourages innovation. If, through repetitive experience, education, expertise, or simple stubbornness, you’re stuck thinking like you always have, you’ll have a hard time coming up with anything new.
We all have these stuck moments when working feels like bumping headfirst over and over into the same brick wall. We know, intellectually, perhaps, that if we took a step back, we might see a way to go over or under or around; in the moment, though, all we can think is “through,” and “through” is the most difficult way to go, in terms of both brick walls and work.
Of course, we all also have times when we are in a rhythm or flow and everything is clicking—we’re parkouring like crazy, and those walls don’t stand a chance at stopping us. In those times, by all means, we should continue in focus mode for as long as we need to.
But especially when things are not flowing, are no longer working, it may help to take a step outside and away. That might be reading a magazine for a little while, listening to a podcast, pacing around the room, even perhaps taking a quick nap (an attractive/dangerous option for the large current work-from-home crowd?).
For me, it helps to change my environment, open up myself by opening up the space around me, and change my perspective—unsetting/resetting my mind?—by changing my setting, literally resettling my body. In times when I feel most stuck, I find that peeling myself away from my screen and ignoring the bossy urge to “keep working no matter what,” contributes to more productive thinking and work in the long term.
Here’s a recent personal example. As a part of an online class, I was revising a creative piece, a poem, with an excellent editor who pushed me and my ideas, gently but relentlessly, past their limits. Every time I thought I had it—the best version of my work—she would raise another question or idea that would zoom in to reveal more and more cracks and gaps. It was frustrating, for sure; I had a strong vision for the poem I set out to write, and it was difficult to move away from that. I spent a lot of time, especially early on, banging my head against my desk, butting up against the solid-enough language and ideas that I started out with, struggling to get past them to something more alive and evocative.
Eventually, instead of sitting there, I just got up and went for a run. A guilty part of my brain still thought that walking or running felt like playing hooky—I could have continued working, after all, and I might have cracked through using sheer willpower.
But, it turns out, my workouts were never actually wasted time: my body was getting stronger, for sure, but even more, as the steps accumulated, my mind would hit on some spark of an image or idea, often when I wasn’t even actively thinking about writing. I could turn this new idea over and over as I ran, polished, and shape it until I landed in front of my computer again. After resettling myself and giving my mind freer-reign to think more broadly, away from focus mode, I was usually able to tackle my work with renewed energy and perspective when I returned.
In the end, I found that, though my “old thinking” had produced a solid-enough poem, when I stepped outside my door, I was able to effectively step outside of my overly-set mind, and the new ideas really brought the poem to life.
Slowing down to get ahead
I know, I know. It all still seems counterintuitive, and it won’t work for everyone in all situations. For sure, if work is flowing well for you, feel free to stay at that desk, pounding away fruitfully. But, when work is no longer working so well, next time you’re feeling stuck and frustrated, try to step outside your mindset and give your thinking machine a little breath of fresh air—literal or metaphorical, your choice. You may just find that slowing down now actually can help in the long run.