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  • Walk for Fitness (Article Series)

    By: Joann Bally CSCS

    Some walking is better than none and more is better than some as far as fitness goes. Moderate walking is a great contributor to health, but for fitness you have to do more. Most people donít have the time to walk long distances, but you can get fit by adding intensity to your walking workout.

    One way to do this is to walk up hills, at a pace that will cause you to get a little out of breath. Hiking on uneven or mountainous terrain will get you in shape quickly. If there are no hills where you live, you can add some stair climbing to your workout to build strength, or spend some time on a treadmill set on incline. Iím not in favor of carrying weights while walking. This may burn some extra calories, but can also throw off your natural stride and strain your joints. Better to walk farther, and lift weights to get your upper body stronger. Walking with poles, called Nordic walking, can add intensity and is a good option if that appeals to you. Get some poles that are made for the purpose and learn the technique.

    For most of us, the best way to add intensity to a walking workout is to walk faster. There are a variety of techniques roughly classed as ďpower walking,Ē but racewalking is a specific sport. If you want to compete without the impact of running, racewalking is for you. In fact, you will find that many racewalkers are former runners whose knees donít allow them to run any more. If you want to try racewalking, look for a club in your area that will offer some instruction plus companionship, and competition if you want it.

    Even if you donít want to be a racewalker, you can use racewalking techniques to add intensity, interest, and speed to your walking workout. There are two rules for racewalking: (1) one foot must be on the ground at all times, (2) the knee of your forward leg must be straight when your foot hits the ground. As a fitness walker, you donít have to be strict with these rules, but the resulting technique can be helpful.

    The Stride. Two things determine how fast you walk: stride length and turnover. There is a practical limit to stride length for each individual, so itís best to concentrate on turnover, i.e., how fast you move your legs. The most common error when people try to walk faster is overstriding. If your foot comes down too far in front, it can set up a braking action as your momentum is checked by your heel hitting the ground ahead. Your foot should come down under or just ahead of your torso. Raise your toes high so you land on your heel, not midfoot, then just roll forward on your foot so you can push off with your toes when your foot is behind you, as the heel of the opposite foot comes down. Keeping your knee straight when your heel hits the ground will help you do this. This technique is tough to maintain on a steep hill, so if youíre not competing as a racewalker, walk the hills briskly but with any comfortable technique.

    Arm Swing. You can usually just let your arms swing normally, with only a slight elbow bend, when you walk. If you want to go faster, though, bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle. Shortening the arc of your arm swing in this way lets you swing your arms faster, which in turn drives your legs faster. Hold your hand in a loose fist and bring it forward in front of the middle of your chest and backward to your hip. Right hand goes forward when left leg goes forward. Do not swing your hand over your head or across your body. You are moving forward, and you donít want to waste energy by creating momentum in another direction.

    Posture. Walk in an upright posture. Be sure not to lean forward at the waist or to look at your feet. Pretend there is a string attached to the top of your head, pulling you upright. Look a few yards ahead, so you donít trip over anything. Maintain the normal curve in your lower back. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed. Your hips should swivel back and forth, not from side to side. You can practice walking on a straight line, so each foot comes down in front of the other. This will lengthen your stride. You need flexibility in your upper body and hips, so do some stretching after your workout.

    Choose any or all of these techniques to incorporate into your workouts. Start with a short workout and work into being able to walk fast for a longer time. You can go a block fast, a block slow, etc. If youíre lifting your toe higher on landing, make sure to work into this slowly as it will make your shins sore at first. When you straighten your knee, do not lock it out or hyperextend. If you want to do a long walk at a slower pace and enjoy the scenery or visit with your friends, you will get a lot from that too. Just do some fast walking every week, and practice to increase your speed. In this way, you can improve your cardio fitness by walking.

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