Fitness Walking Technique

Put simply, walking  is a series of forward falls. Keep falling forward, one  foot after the other (without falling on your face, of course), and you’ll move along in a straight line. Simple. Learned to do it as a toddler. Do it every day. So what’s with this  treatise on technique?

Fitness Walking TechniqueYou’re not  walking  just  for transportation; you  have  goals.  And technique will help  you  reach them. Technique becomes vital  the  more efficiently you want  to move,  the  more quickly  you want  to go, the  more you want  to get fit by increasing intensity, and the  more you want  to avoid  strains and  pains.

Turning walking  into  a fitness activity demands a new  dimension. Taking stock of how you move and smoothing that movement with the technique tips that follow turns your  daily stride into  a powerful, fitness-producing, calorie- burning strut. You may  even  be  tempted to  apply it to  your  strolls up  and down  the  grocery aisles. However, this  is only  a primer on technique.

Before  you start overanalyzing your  fingers, toes, knees, and nose, let’s get basic and  think  back  to  when  you  were  little  and  your  mom  nagged you  to stand up straight. She was right; no matter how fast or how far you go, standing tall is key. Hunching your  shoulders tightens the chest and inhibits breathing. Dropping your  chin  to your  chest does the  same by closing off your  throat. Instead, tighten your  abdominal muscles, trying to bring  them toward your back.  Relax your  shoulders and  pull  backward and  then slightly downward with  your  shoulder blades. Avoid arching your  back;  this  could strain your low back.  One more thing:  Keep breathing, please. Be careful though; walking should be simple. If you  focus  too  intensely, you’ll end  up walking  and  looking like Frankenstein. Do the  best you  can,  and  if you  don’t  get one  point of technique, forget  about it and  try again later.

 Bottom Half

Normally, the  saying  goes,  “Take  it from  the  top,”  but  not  when  it comes to walking.  Your  bottom half is more important. So, maestro, let’s  take  it from the  bottom. Large  major muscles in your  lower  body  power you along.  Take advantage of that strength, from hips  to heels.

  • Heel to toe. Compared to runners, who normally land more on the middle part of their feet—or even on  their forefeet if moving faster or  up  or  down hills—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 front  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 at the end of the  stride offer major propulsion as you pick up speed. Think about trying to leave your heel on the ground behind you a split second longer than normal, and  feel as if you’re  trying to push the  ground away from you with the  ball of your  foot before your  foot leaves the  ground to let the  leg swing forward.

Here’s a simple way to experience the  correct motion: Sit in a chair and straighten your knee so that your foot is off the ground. Now flex your foot and lift the  toes toward you (this is the  heel  plant part of the  roll through), then slowly  move  your  foot  into  a pointed position (this is the  toe  push-off part of the  roll through). If you aren’t used to this  repetitive action while walking, you may feel a burning or tension in your  shins. Don’t worry. That’s only an underused lower-leg  muscle complaining, and it will get stronger as you walk more.

  • Stride. Overstriding can  turn your walk  into a bouncing gallop  reminiscent of Groucho Marx’s  comedy gait,  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, on the  other hand, need to move  their feet more quickly  by taking  more steps per  minute—turnover, as it’s called—while maintaining a natural stride length. Proper stride length prevents strains. Common complaints from  overstriding include pain  in the arch, knee,  hip, and  heel.

When  walking  at a slower pace of 17 or 18 minutes per  mile, you might take  115 to 120 steps per  minute, while a typical brisk  walk at 15-minute-mile pace might generate 135 steps per minute. A speedy 12-minute mile might mean 160 steps per minute. The number of times you turn over your feet per minute increases as your walking speed increases. This means you’ll feel smooth, like you’re  gliding. On the  other hand, don’t  overexaggerate and  turn your  stride into short, choppy steps that diminish your  natural power.

  • Hips. 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 is of course the direction you want to go. Swinging the hips  side to side also wastes energy; you want  your  energy to travel forward. Just  relax in your hips  and  low back  and  let your  body  do what  comes naturally. Tightening in your  hips  and  back  can also  create back  strain.

 Top Half

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. Dropping your chin or letting it protrude could produce tightness and strain in the back of your  neck and upper back.  Proper technique for your  top  half is important at any pace, but  becomes even  more so as you move  faster.

  • Elbow bend. Are you a bit intimidated or embarrassed by the idea of bend- ing your elbows in right  angles and pumping away like those way-too-serious- looking  walkers you  see  on  the  streets? Don’t be.  This  arm  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. And it feels awkward and  may actually hurt to pump your  arms while they’re straight. Straight arms will keep you from achieving your speed potential. Who wants to be limited by an arm for goodness sake? Second, if your  hands swell, bending your  elbows helps keep  blood and fluids from being  pulled into your hands by gravity.
  • Arm swing. Whether your arms are straight or bent, 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. This puts extra strain on the ligaments and muscles and,  again,  wastes energy.

Also, control the  bent-arm swing.  It should be  strong but  remain close to your  body. During  the  front  portion of the  movement, swing  the  hands no higher than the  chest, tuck  the  elbows in at  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. An added bonus is that the more you engage the back muscles in the  arm swing, the  more you’ll tone them. Try to swing your  arms faster, and  your  legs will likely mimic the  speed.

  • Hands. There’s no need to clench your fist, unless you  have  a walking companion you  want  to punch out! Imagine  you’re  holding a fragile  raw  egg in each cupped palm.  Squeeze too  hard and  you’ll break it; open too  far and you’ll drop it. Clenching can also  cause pain  in the  forearm and  wrist.

Technique Summary

Use this cheat sheet to remind yourself of the key points in good walking technique:

  1. Stand tall, with your shoulders back and chest open.
  2. As you step forward, lift your toes and plant the heel of your lead foot.
  3. Roll through the entire foot and push off with your toes, lifting your heel high.
  4. Avoid overstriding and bouncing.
  5. Bend your elbows in a right angle so you can swing your arms faster.
  6. Swing your arms from the shoulder and keep your elbows close to your sides.
  7. Avoid clenching your hands.

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