Why We Walk … and Run … And Walk Again to Get Where We're Going

You have to get to a bus stop to catch the once-an-hour express ... or to a restaurant to meet a friend ... or to a doctor's office. You've got maybe a half a mile to cover and you're worried you'll be late. You run, then you stop and walk, then run some more.

But wait. Wouldn't it be better to run the whole way?

Not necessarily.

A new study by an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State University tests the theory that people subconsciously mix walking and running so they get where they need to. The idea is that "people move in a manner that minimizes energy consumption," said the professor, Manoj Srinivasan.

Srinivasan asked 36 subjects to cover 400 feet (122 meters), a bit more than the length of a football field. He gave them a time to arrive at the finish line and a stopwatch. If the deadline was supertight, they ran. If they had two minutes, they walked. And if the deadline was neither too short nor too far off, they toggled between walking and running.

The takeaway: Humans successfully make the walk-run adjustment as they go along, based on their sense of how far they have to go. "It's not like they decide beforehand," Srinivasan said. (Get tips, gear recommendations, and more in our Running Guide.)

The Best Technique for "the Twilight Zone"

"The mixture of walking and running is good when you have an intermediate amount of time," he explained. "I like to call it 'the Twilight Zone,' where you have neither infinite time nor do you have to be there now."

That ability to shift modes served ancient humans well. "It's basically an evolutionary argument," Srinivasan said. A prehistoric human seeking food would want to move in a way that conserves some energy so that if food is hard to find, the hunter won't run out of gas—and will still be able to rev it up to escape predators.

The study, published on January 30 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, doesn't answer that question of how we make such adjustments.

Runners: Take a Break if You Need It

The mix of walking and running is also something that nonelite marathoners are familiar with. Covering 26.2 miles might take less of a toll if the runner stops running from time to time, walks a bit, then resumes a jogging pace. "You use less energy overall and also give yourself a bit of a break," Srinivasan noted. (Watch: An elite marathoner on her passion for running.)

One take-home lesson is: Runners, don't push it all the time. A walk-run mix will minimize the energy you expend.

Lesson two: If you're a parent walking with your kid, and the kid lags behind, then runs to catch up, then lags again, the child isn't necessarily trying to annoy you. Rather, the child is perhaps exhibiting an innate ability to do the walk-run transition.

Potential lesson three: The knowledge that humans naturally move in a manner that minimizes energy consumption might be helpful in designing artificial limbs that feel more natural and will help the user reduce energy consumption.

The big question for Manoj Srinivasan: Now that he has his walk-run theory, does he consciously switch between running and walking when he's trying to get somewhere? "I must admit, no," he said. "When I want to get somewhere, I just let the body do its thing." But if he's in a rush, he'll make a mad dash.

"Talk to you tomorrow," he signed off in an email to National Geographic News. "Running to get to teaching now!"

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