By Coach Janet Hamilton, MA, RCEP, CSCS

Walking is perhaps the most natural form of exercise. It requires only a minimum of equipment, and no particular skills. It is gentle on the joints of the lower extremities and provides a good stimulus to strengthen the cardiorespiratory system. However, it is not without some risk for injury if you don’t give your body time to adapt to the activity. Many people inherently realize that running is “stressful” and approach that activity with a bit of caution; on the other hand people tend to think about walking as “just walking”. Walking, though natural, still has the potential to cause injuries if the basic tenants of smart training aren’t adhered to. Smart training means covering your bases with proper attention to the details of stretching, strengthening, and varying your training routine so that you don’t over stress your body. We’ll cover these things one at a time.

Flexibility –
Perhaps one of the key causes of many runner and walker injuries is lack of adequate muscle flexibility in the muscles of the legs. Left to their own devices, muscles will get weaker and shorter with the passage of time. If you exercise, they’ll get stronger but not necessarily more flexible. Improving flexibility takes a bit of focus. How and when you stretch is important. Muscles stretch more easily when they are warmed up – so it is a good idea to walk a bit, or perhaps take a warm shower or bath before starting your stretching program. You can stretch a cold muscle, but you need to be a bit more gentle about it as you will be at a greater risk for injury when you stretch a muscle that is not warmed up. Stretch only to the point of a gentle pulling sensation, not to the point of discomfort. Hold your stretches long enough to get some benefit – 30 seconds is good. Stretch every day – consistency pays off!

What to stretch?
First and foremost – stretch your calf muscles. This is perhaps the most important one you’ll do. To stretch this one, stand about an arms length back from the wall and place both hands on the wall. Place one foot forward, and put all your weight on the other foot (the one that is back). Make sure your toes are pointing straight ahead. Press the heel of your back foot down, and lift the big toe slightly to lock your arch. Then bend the knee of the leg that is in the front (remember it doesn’t have much weight on it) and let your hips shift toward the wall until you feel a stretch in the muscle on the back of your lower leg. Hold the stretch 30 seconds and repeat it at least twice each leg. Second – stretch your hamstrings. These muscles span the length from your buttocks to the back of your knee. They play a role in nearly all knee problems and are also key in back injuries. To stretch these, stand squarely facing a chair and place one heel up on the seat of the chair. Keep that knee very slightly bent and focus on keeping your back very erect and straight. Then pull the hips BACK but don’t let your shoulders round down. No need to reach for your toes here… just pull the buttocks back. Third – stretch your quadriceps muscles. These muscles span the area on the front of your thigh from your hip to your knee. Stand facing a wall and rest your hand on the wall for balance. Lift one foot as if you were going to kick yourself in the buttocks and grasp the ankle with the same side hand. You should feel a stretch in the front of the thigh. There are many more muscles in your lower body to stretch, but this is a good start. (For more detailed information, check out "Running Strong & Injury-Free")

Strength –
For most people, strength training isn’t an absolute necessity before starting a walking program. However focusing a little time on maximizing your hip strength can be time well spent in terms of injury prevention. Your knee’s best friend is your hip. Good hip strength goes a long way toward preventing knee problems. You don’t need a gym membership to strengthen your hips – simple exercises that utilize gravity and your own body weight are usually enough for most people. With all strength exercises it is important to monitor your form so that you don’t “cheat” or put yourself at risk from using poor body mechanics. Work only in a range of motion that is pain-free. If you feel muscles “working” as you exercise that’s fine, if you feel joint pain, that’s not fine. Perhaps one of the most functional strength training exercises you ever learn is the squat. This exercise forms the foundation for nearly every lifting movement so it’s a great exercise. Start by standing in front of a chair, positioned so that you are poised to sit in the chair. Your feet should be a shoulder’s width apart. Sit down slowly. Now return to a standing position. Next try to barely brush your buttocks to the chair without actually sitting down. If your knees complain about this, place two large telephone books on the seat of the chair to make a “booster seat”. Try brushing your buttocks to the telephone books without actually sitting all the way down. Repeat this movement 10-15 times. After doing this successfully for a week or so, try removing one of the telephone books and continue to perform the exercise, now squatting to a lower depth. As your strength improves, you may well be able to remove the other telephone book. Listen to your body though; if it hurts you’re doing too much. Throughout the movement it is important to monitor your form. Don’t let your knees come toward each other, and don’t let your heels come up off the floor – stick your buttocks BACK as you aim for the chair!

Training –

The variables here are distance (or duration), hills, speed, and terrain. The trick to smart training is to not do the same thing every day. Variability is a good thing. Use a hard/easy pattern, where you walk relatively longer one day and relatively shorter the next. Vary your terrain by walking flat one day and hilly the next. Build your distance slowly (this is a common mistake beginners make – they build too quickly). Add no more than 10% to your weekly mileage per week. Most people also try to walk too fast when they first start out, feeling that a 15 min mile is necessary for fitness improvements. Walking slowly will garner the benefits and will put you at less risk of injury. As your body gets used to the new exercise you can try speeding up a little but you’ll do best to build distance (or duration) before you try to speed up. The following is a reasonable beginner’s program, considering average fitness level when starting. You'll notice that the first several weeks you only add mileage to one of the walks every week. If you’ve not done any form of exercise for a while you may want to cut the distances by a third.

Week one - total distance 7 miles

Sunday – OFF
Monday – EASY – 1 mile
Tuesday – MEDIUM – 1.5 miles
Wednesday – EASY – 1 mile
Thursday – MEDIUM – 1.5 miles
Friday – OFF
Saturday – LONG – 2 miles

Week two - total distance 7.25

Repeat all of week one but lengthen long walk on Saturday to 2.25.

Week three - total distance 7.5

Repeat all of week one but lengthen long walk on Saturday to 2.5

Week four - total distance 8

Repeat all of week one but lengthen long walk on Saturday to 3

Week five - total distance 9

Sunday – OFF
Monday – EASY – 1 mile
Tuesday – MEDIUM – 2 miles
Wednesday – EASY – 1 miles
Thursday – MEDIUM – 2 miles
Friday – OFF
Saturday – LONG – 3 miles

Week six - 11 miles

Sunday – EASY 1 mile
Monday – EASY 1 mile
Tuesday – MEDIUM – 2 miles
Wednesday – EASY – 1 mile
Thursday – MEDIUM – 2 miles
Friday – OFF
Saturday – LONG – 4

Week seven - 12.5 miles

Sunday – EASY 1 mile
Monday – EASY 1.5 mile
Tuesday – MEDIUM – 2.5 miles
Wednesday – EASY – 1 mile
Thursday – MEDIUM – 2.5 miles
Friday – OFF
Saturday – LONG – 4

Week eight and beyond

Easy walks now 1.5 miles

Medium walks now 2.5

Long walk – 5

Following this simple pattern of alternating distances and keeping your speed moderate will usually help you to successfully avoid injury. Cover your bases with attention to flexibility exercises, strength training for the hips and good common sense as you build your training. Remember – keep it fun and make it a lifelong pursuit.

To your success! - Coach Janet Hamilton, MA, RCEP, CSCS


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