13 February 2008

Walk your way to fitness

It's easy to walk. You just put one foot in front of the other and there you go. But it is an effective way of getting some exercise - and there's a right way to do it.

Walking really is a painless and effective way of getting some good, daily exercise.

Don't dismiss walking. It can provide enormous health benefits such as improving your circulation and cardiovascular function, strengthening your bones, helping to build and maintain muscle mass, easing stress and anxiety, improving your sense of well-being and, if done regularly and at a high enough intensity, it can help to shed unwanted kilos.

To maximise the benefits you get from it, make sure that your walking technique is up to scratch. Perhaps get a friend to assess your body positioning and style.

Here's how to do it for maximum benefit

  1. Keep your head up, eyes looking forward and focused ahead.
  2. Ensure your back is straight, but relaxed.
  3. “Zip up” your abdominals and squeeze in your gluteal (butt) muscles - this will help you to maintain a straight back. The deepest layer of abdominals acts as an important stabiliser for your lower back, and is very important when walking.
  4. Keep your chest out, and your shoulders back, down and relaxed.
  5. Let your arms, which are bent at the elbows, swing naturally from the shoulders. As you speed up, you might find it easier to bend your arms at 90º and use a stronger arm movement.
  6. Your foot strike action is important. After you land on the outer side of your heel, your foot rolls inwards, which is essential for adequate shock absorption and the final phase is a push off with your toes.
  7. Beware of pounding your heels down when walking briskly; this generates unnecessary forces on your joints.
  8. Dorsiflex your foot (bend the top part of your foot back) adequately, rather than just shuffling along. The foot needs 10º to 15º of dorsiflexion in order to walk correctly. Otherwise, to compensate, your foot will roll inwards excessively, which might lead to problems such as shin splints and plantar fasciitis. Stretching your calf muscles daily should help you to achieve adequate dorsiflexion.
  9. Stride length is an individual feature of your walking technique. Most walkers take steps of the kind of length that promotes their walking efficiency.
  10. Breathe rhythmically. For example inhale for three steps and exhale for the next three, or at a rate that feels right.

Walking is not as simple as it looks. Different techniques must be used for walking uphill and for downhill.

Tips for walking uphill

  1. Since walking uphill is quite demanding, make sure you warm up by walking on the flat first for about 5 minutes.
  2. Shorten your steps.
  3. If you are fit, you can quicken your step rate with shorter steps, or if you are less fit, then at least try to maintain your step rate.
  4. Lean very slightly forward into the hill. Leaning backwards will unbalance you.
  5. Because hills are hard work, you should experience an increase in your heart rate and breathing rate. However, make sure that you can still conduct a conversation, even if it is somewhat breathless.

Tips for walking downhill

  1. Relax and let your steps flow.
  2. Going downhill, your stride will naturally lengthen. Whilst overstriding when walking on a flat surface is bad, when going downhill it will actually help you to brake slightly as gravity keeps you moving faster.
  3. If you feel like your pace is out of control, shorten your stride and slow down your step rate.
  4. Stay upright and don't lean back in an attempt to slow down.
  5. If it is a very steep downhill, then you might want to lean forward a little for greater stability; keep your knees slightly bent at all times.

Well done on a great exercise choice – enjoy the benefits!

(Kathleen Mc Quaide - Sports Scientist)

Choose a walking programme that suits you:
Beginner: 5km in 6 weeks
Beginner: 5km in 10 weeks
Intermediate: 5km in 6 weeks
Advanced: 10km in 11 weeks


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