September 10, 2022 7 min read 6 Comments
Photo: Jeff Galloway holds up the Converse shoe he ran in five decades ago. The "Chucks" carried a champion.
By Ray Glier
It has been almost 50 years since Jeff Galloway decided he was not going to listen to the hard-boiled runner in his head.
He was going to be less primitive, less forceful, and put a nice, not a nasty, four-letter word into a training routine.
It was January, 1974. Galloway was trying to convey some fitness tips to 22 people enrolled in an enrichment class at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla. They were not runners. Jeff took them to the local park and asked them, very casually, to walk a little, then try and run a little.
“I very quickly realized that if I wanted to keep them from getting injured and to keep the group together, I needed to put walking in there with the running,” said Galloway, who two years earlier had been on the 1972 U.S. Olympic track team. “And so I just listened for the huffing and puffing and as soon as one person was huffing and puffing, we stopped running and we walked.”
Galloway then met with them in sub-groups and mapped a plan for each. He wanted them to go a little further out in the water, so to speak, to that place where their toes were just touching the bottom, and prod something exciting.
After 10 weeks some of the students were competing in 5k races, others in 10k events.
It was the birthing of the iconic Run-Walk-Run.
Galloway, 77, has become one of the most influential running coaches in the U.S., even with that contradiction of “Walk” as part of his regimen. It has been estimated his eco-system has included at least a million people since the first group he prodded along at that public park. Many of his disciples are older and Run Walk Run has convinced them the sport is holding the door open for them.
“You never have to hurt. You never have to be exhausted,” Galloway said. “And you can have a mental attitude better than you've ever had in your life. The mental research shows that running turns on brain circuits for a better attitude, for more energy, and for personal empowerment.”
There are active Galloway running groups all over the U.S., 50 by the latest count. Running coaches, who first sneered at his methods, have adopted Run Walk Run as a training technique. In Great Britain there is a Facebook group—Girls That Jeff—and they number in the thousands. Galloway receives at least 80 emails a day, he said, from the tribe of Jeffers around the world. His Facebook and newsletter following is 150,000.
“Jeff-ing” reaches into the cosmos of fitness levels. Anybody can Jeff.
Try it. Run 10 seconds, walk five seconds. There, you did it. You are on your way. Marathoners do Run Walk Run and have life in their legs, even as they start the 26th mile. There are recommendations to follow because of years of Galloway's data collection, but the ratio of Run:Walk over a mile is mostly up to you.
You bet Galloway himself does Run-Walk-Run. In fact, in 1980, just past his prime as a world-class distance runner, Jeff entered a marathon in Houston. At the water stops, he didn’t slop the water into his mouth as he ran. He walked and drank. Over and over during the water breaks, he walked. Galloway had a finishing kick in that race and was third in a competitive field.
It was as if he nailed a thesis to the gym door.
“It was two minutes faster than I had ever run,” Galloway said. “I would walk 15 seconds every two miles and I would get the spring in my legs back. If you save your resources early in a run they will be available later in the run.”
Galloway actually started taking walk breaks in 1978 on jaunts through the Piedmont Park and Morningside area of Atlanta. He had noticed his performance lagging. He finally surrendered to the common sense of taking it easy on his body. His performance improved.
“I haven’t had one running injury since 1978,” Galloway said.
It took four years from the time he started teaching those students at FSU, but Galloway was now a disciple of his own interval training, Run Walk Run.
Galloway has given new life to so many, it is fitting he get new life in exchange.
The man died in April, 2021.
He was stone cold dead for 2½-3 minutes. Galloway’s heart stopped in the best place you can be if your heart stops: the cardiac unit at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta. He was there for some tests when he slumped in the chair and went to sleep, almost for good. The cavalry came rushing in the room and saved him.
“I woke up to a nurse smiling and dancing and raising her arms in the air celebrating,” Jeff said. “I’m thinking ‘Why are they having a party in my room’?”
Galloway had been an exercise maven for 60+ years, and had eaten healthy, but exposure to Agent Orange in Viet Nam as a combat Navy man, infected his heart. When he was 76, he had a heart attack and had five stents implanted. A few weeks later came the close call with death.
Galloway has a pacemaker now, which is appropriate collateral considering the man has convinced so many to make their own pace with exercise. You know, 30 seconds run, 10 seconds walk. You decide the mile pace.
Fifty years into this experiment and the man still leans forward to the edge of his seat, breathless and eyes wide with excitement, as he explains to Geezer Jock the founder’s principles of Run Walk Run. He remains vibrant, even with the death scare, and uses a rower and elliptical daily as part of his exercise regimen.
Galloway wasn’t always vibrant. He described himself as a loser for the first 13 years of his life. He was chubby, ate tubs of peanut butter, and was humdrum about his school work. He was bullied and deceitful and his stress release was eating.
Then came his reckoning. Jeff started at the Westminster School in Atlanta in 1958 for his eighth grade year and one of the requirements was that kids have “strenuous athletics” after school. What did chubby Jeff do? He jogged to the woods, hid out for a while, then popped out of the woods when others completed the course, acting as if he ran the whole thing.
An upperclassmen caught him. Now Galloway had to run. He nearly collapsed after a mile and slunk back to the start line with his head down.
And then an amazing thing happened. As runners came in they were back-slapping him for getting with the program and trying. “Hey new guy, you can do it,” they said.
If you listen to Galloway give a talk about Run Walk Run and hear the empathy in his voice for all of us who struggle with fitness, it is genuine. Now you know where it comes from, that 13-year old chubby kid.
“I started running with them and we would jab one another on the runs about various things going on in school and the world and I realized I wasn’t any dumber than they were and they were on the honor roll,” Galloway said. “I totally reset expectations for myself academically.
“And I discovered after the running workouts that I had energy, my brain was clicking. I really started improving my grades.”
Galloway didn’t immediately become a terrific runner, but he got there eventually. In his senior year at Westminster, the chubby kid was no longer chubby, and he won the state championship in the two-mile.
He ran track at Wesleyan College and made the 1972 U.S. Olympic team that competed in Munich. He finished 11th in the 10,000 meters in the Olympics, which was marred by Palestinian terrorists killing 11 Israelis.
Galloway still remembers the lax security at The Games and how he and his teammates woke up that morning without any idea a tragedy was unfolding. His teammate and fellow distance runner, Frank Shorter, made history 50 years ago today by winning the Marathon.
For several years after the Olympics, Jeff competed for the U.S. in international meets. It was an enlightening period in his life because Galloway said, "I was far from being a natural athlete."
Running had flipped a switch. It taught him to believe in himself and persevere.
Extracting the benefits of running became a superpower of Galloway's.
What happened with Jeff in the 8th grade is part of the foundation for Run Walk Run and why it caught fire. Brain circuits turn on with exercise, Galloway said, and scientists concurrently started to bear down in the 1990s on the mental health benefits of exercise. He already knew they could work on a desperate 13-year old. Could the rest of society benefit?
There was no doubt. Researchers started to call the hormone BDNF, which was stimulated by running, “Miracle Grow for the brain.”
“It wasn't discovered until the 1990s that you could actually grow new brain cells,” Galloway said. “It was assumed before the that what you had at birth was what you were going to have throughout your life only you would lose some things. Not true.”
It was on a flight back from Italy and an international track meet that Galloway decided running could be a lifestyle....for everyone. It is appropriate that he opened a chain of running stores called Phidippides for the Greek hero Pheidippides who ran back to Athens to tell of a great victory over the Persians at Marathon (490 BC). His role in the army was as a “soldier messenger.”
So, too, is Galloway a messenger.
Is Run Walk Run your airtight remedy for fitness? Yes. Maybe. It depends. It’s like the old joke of the man praying for help to win the lottery. A lordly voice comes back at him, “Hey, man, meet me halfway. Buy a lottery ticket!”
Meet Run Walk Run halfway. Get up and start moving more.
“Even as you get older, runners tend to have a better attitude about life,” Galloway said. “They tend to have more energy to do things. They stay more active as the years go by."
So run. And it’s ok if you Run Walk Run.
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