Walk Well

The last few weeks in our Mamas Fitness class, we explored some concepts for improving walking mechanics in your body. Here are some key points, but first some…

Disclaimers, or grains of salt
  1. Not an issue of good and evil. As of right now, within the available research, there isn’t definitive consensus on the “best” stride/gait/striking pattern for humans.
    • What is best? Sometimes “best” is defined as using the smallest amount of energy; sometimes it’s measured by how many muscles are activated.
    • Study scope. Plus, I’ve seen studies that consider only, say 24 marathon runners, or 16 people in athletic condition all in their 20s and 30s. That’s some pretty limited data. Can their findings really be generalized from?
    • Purpose? Finally, people walk in different modes. Sometimes we’re trying to go fast. Sometimes we’re walking on uneven, hilly ground. Sometimes we’re trying not to slip on muddy or slick surfaces. Sometimes we’re trying to not aggravate our chronic knee injuries. So–and this goes for applying any research findings or anatomical principles to your life–
    • Let nothing be a sacred gospel. When it comes to your body, read and think critically. Okay, you knew that. But a lot of well-intentioned health and fitness sources take that authoritative, “this is the answer to your question” tone. It’s reassuring, but ultimately disingenuous, unhelpful, and sometimes even dangerous.In addition, everyone’s body works slightly differently. It’s trite, but it’s true: listen to your body.

With those things said, here are my troubleshooting tips.

Common mistake: Pulling yourself forward with your hip flexors
Many people overuse the muscles at the front of their hips to kind of kick their legs out in front of them as they initiate each step.

Visualize your steps as coming from the back of your leg, not the front. Picture the back of your upper and lower legs lighting up as you walk. Propel yourself forward with gentle squeezes of your powerful glutes. Hold your body a little more forward, with your weight over your legs, as you walk, instead of hanging your torso back and shooting your legs forward like probes.

The wind moves a sailboat from behind. It might help to picture your walking power coming from behind you, too.

“Sailing into the Harbour” by John Vetterli is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Common mistake: Taking bigger steps when you are in a hurry

You’re taking bigger steps because you want to increase your stride length. That’s a good idea, but a more body-sustainable way to get a longer stride is to follow your every kid’s softball coach’s advice: follow through. Once your foot touches down in its step sequence, the work isn’t over. The ground isn’t moving, right? It’s steady. Take advantage of this. Push off of it with your foot. Finishing each step more effectively will glide you forward while your other foot is in the air, making each step longer, maximizing, if you will, the wind pushing your sailboat from behind.

Common mistake: Ignoring your toes
If your shoes or your feet are very stiff, you won’t experience any flexion at the ball of the foot. Walking with a flat foot means you are wasting the length of your foot in each step, shortening your stride and wasting energy. You may end up walking like that even when you aren’t wearing shoes.

Roll through your foot. Push off with your toes. Your toes should be flexing at the ball of the foot as you finish each step. Think about how you would walk on slippery ice. You’d hold your foot stiffly, setting it down from above and not risking any push-off with the icy surface, right? And you’d go really slowly. So, don’t use the Ice Plod to walk on the solid, unslippery surfaces you probably walk on every day. Your foot is a wonderful, flexible thing, with lots of moving parts. So let them move.

This 2008 graphic from New York Magazine nicely illustrates three foot-centric improvements you can make to your walking.

  1. Land closer to mid-foot.
  2. Roll through your step.
  3. Use your toes to push off.

Here are some tips on how to practice and improve these techniques.

How to land at mid-foot
Aim to land at or slightly behind your mid-foot. Landing on the bottom surface of your heel is okay, too. What you want to avoid is striking the ground with the rounded back of your heel. The best remedy: take shorter steps.

To quote Dr. Kelly Starrett (Deskbound, Becoming a Supple Leopard), “one of the most common faults associated with walking is stepping too far out in front of the body, or over-striding. Taking too long of a stride is like putting on the brakes every time you step.” In other words, you’re killing your natural momentum and interrupting the cycle of your step by introducing an opposite force: the exaggerated heel strike you’ll end up with to compensate for your overly long step.

How to roll through your step
Train your feet, creating strong, supple arches and flexible ankles and feet. Walk around barefoot at home. Work on improving your angle of dorsiflexion by flexing and pointing your toes during the day. Circle your ankles. For more detailed instructions on these exercises, check out Ruth Williams Hennessy’s post on engaged feet. Your jaw may drop as you realize she’s writing about foot activation for opera singers. Yes, that’s right, proper foot engagement is critical for your voice. I’m telling you, the body really is all connected!

How to use your toes to push off
Awaken and engage your toes. Have contests at your house with you and your kids to see who can spread their toes apart the farthest. Practice widening the gaps between your toes whenever you can. Don’t put your feet to sleep with tight-toed or inflexible shoes for long periods.

Now let me address one of the main things that’s keeping you from walking better:

You’re always walking with your kids. It’s pretty easy to make small changes to your walking patterns. But what’s tricky is keeping those patterns up when you’re distracted: keeping someone from running into the street, answering questions about why that excavator didn’t have a grapple, carrying someone’s scooter, or rock, or stick…all while keeping the dog from eating that chicken wing someone left on the corner and making sure you get to the school on time.

1. Practice when they’re contained.
When the kids are engrossed at the playground, do some mindful walking up and down the side. 
2. Do mini-practice.
Pick a place in your home that you walk through often, and designate that as your mindful walking place. Maybe the hall to your bedroom, or where you wait for your elevator, or to and from the mailbox? Even three or four steps can be enough to practice with.
3. Phone away.
On those rare chances you get to take walks without any kids, what if you did it without your phone? Without returning any calls or texts, without scrolling through any feeds, without looking at the weather or the news. Walk with consciousness of your own body and movements. A physical therapist once told me, “If you do these exercises while looking at your phone or while talking to your kids, I won’t treat you.” My eyebrows went up, and she explained, “you won’t make improvements. It will be a waste of my time to work with you if you do the exercises distracted. They won’t work.” Stay connected; stay integrated. Your physical body and your mind/awareness are two parts of your body, not two separate things.

There’s one more major thing keeping you from walking well. And it’s a stroller. I’ll be addressing this later, because I have a lot to say about it.