Turning walking into a fitness activity requires a sense of challenge. Taking stock of how you move with the technique tips that follow, will turn your daily stride into a powerful, fitness-producing, calorie-burning strut.
When it comes to walking, the bottom half of your body is more important. Large major muscles in your lower body power you along. Take advantage of that strength, from hits to heels. Compared to runners, who normally land more on the middle part of their feet, walkers should hit squarely on the heels with toes lifted high. That allows your ankle to move through its complete range of motion, from the heel landing in font of you at the beginning of the stride to the big toe pushing off behind you at the end of it. The toes and foot of the leg behind you and the end of the stride offer major propulsion as you pick up speed.
Feet: Over-striding can turn your walk into a bouncing gallop, which wastes energy that could be propelling you forward. Avoid the natural tendency to take longer strides to go faster, which is part of what runners do. Walkers need to move their feet more quickly by taking more steps "per minute-turnover" while maintaining a natural stride length. Proper stride length prevents strains. Common complaints from over-striding include pain in the arch, knee, hip and heel.
Legs: Feel as if your leg starts at your waist. With each step, extend the leg slightly from above the hip-bone. That frees your pelvis to rotate forward with each leg so you can cover more ground without bouncing. Avoid excessive side-to-side motion, which keeps your center of gravity from moving forward, which of course, is the direction you want to go.
Chest: Now that you understand the technique for your bottom half, it's time to move to the top. Your posture should be tall and erect no matter what your walking speed or level. Keep your chin tucked in, your ears over your shoulders, your eyes cast about 10 feet in front of you, your shoulders relaxed and pulled back and your abdominals tightened.
Elbows: Your elbows should bend in right angles. This position serves two useful purposes. First, as you try to increase speed you'll find you can't swing the long lever of an extended arm as quickly as you can a shorter lever. Second, if your hands swell, bending your elbows helps keep blood and fluids from being pulled into your hands by gravity.
Shoulders: The pendulum action should happen at your shoulder. If you use a bent arm, the angle of your elbow joint shouldn't change during the swing. The swing should be strong but the arm should remain close to your body. During the front portion of the movement, swing the hands not higher than the chest, tuck the elbows in a the waist and don't allow the fingertips to cross the midline of your body or reach in front of you more than 10 to 12 inches. At the back portion of the movement, the elbow remains in its bent position. Power your arm swing with your back muscles, not your small shoulder-joint muscles.
Hands: Imagine you're holding a fragile raw egg in each cupped palm. Clenching can cause pain in the forearm and wrist.
Everybody moves differently, but walkers of all levels make three common walking errors:
1. Angle of Waist lean: If you have an ache in your low back after a walk, you may be tilting forward and letting your buttocks stick out. Stand with your back against a wall. Now, tighten your abdominal muscles and lean forward only slightly from your ankles. That's the proper forward lean.
2. Over-striding: Does your hair, hat or scarf flop up and down when you walk? That may be an indication that you are bouncing as you walk because you are over-striding. Slightly shortening your stride will usually eliminate the bounce and let you skim the ground. Every time your heel hits the ground in a stride that's too long, you're breaking your forward motion and forcing your body to move up and over into the next step, causing the bounce-along stride. Experiment with different stride lengths. Try a really long one, then a teeny, short one, then somewhere in between. Then find the equilibrium where you don't bounce.
3. Elbow whipping. The arm swing comes from the shoulder, not the elbow. Imagine punching something in front of you with one hand after the other as they alternatively swing forward. If you're actually "beating a drum" with up and down motions that come from your elbow bending and unbending, then you're doing it wrong.
No matter where you start, learning to walk smoothly and more efficiently will help make your first steps fun and motivating. With the basics in hand, you're ready to move to on to specific walking programs.
Adapted and edited from "Fitness Walking" by Therese Iknoian, MS. Iknoian is an exercise physiologist, former nationally ranked race walker, and internationally published health and fitness writer. For more information on the specific walking programs available in this book, visit www.HumanKinetics.com.