Walking in any of its guises is a natural, instinctive method of moving. For most of us we have been walking since we were about 12 months old. As with so many things, it is easy to take for granted and, particularly for those of us fortunate enough to be able to walk without assistance, it is easy to become complacent about it. Indeed, with the distances we typically travel increasing and the time we have available becoming shorter, walking has become something that many see as an exercise regime or method of enjoying the locale rather than a mode of transport. Far be it from me to criticise this, indeed if it weren’t for two energetic dogs, I too wouldn’t walk very far, preferring to run or cycle if it’s a trip for pleasure and use the car or if not.
Walking, if done properly, with the thought and preparation that we would give to any other form of atypical exercise, is a hugely beneficial, wonderful way to spend time with friends or in solitary reflection, to find pleasure in even the grottiest of weather while increasing our levels of health and fitness. If, however, we don’t give it careful thought it causes all sorts of problems which typically show themselves as back ache and sore knees.
Power Walking takes casual walking up a notch in intensity providing a superb, low-impact means of improving cardiovascular fitness and endurance, total body strength, mobility and back health. It requires little in the way of specialist kit and can be incorporated into ordinary everyday activities or given its own allotted time and gives possibly one of the quickest returns on investment in terms of positive impact for time spent for the debutante than just about any other physical activity. While it is always advisable to seek the advice of a medical practitioner before starting out on a complete lifestyle change to ensure that your body would be able to cope with sudden increases in activity levels, Power Walking does not carry the same risks when starting out from inactivity that other, more extreme sports would have. And yet, the benefits could be as good, if not better.
There are a few sensible things to consider before setting out:
What to wear
Footwear is obviously the major consideration – it needs to fit comfortably enough to support your feet without slipping yet still allow room for your feet to spread as they get hot. Remember this is Power Walking not hiking, you won’t be out for hours so shoes or trainers which allow foot movement are more appropriate than walking boots, but they should be suitable for the terrain you will be walking on. Things to consider are grip and water resistance.
Supportive underwear is extremely important. While we won’t be bursting into a 1980s aerobics routine there will still be various parts of our bodies that need to be able to move in a controlled manner. Ladies should consider their bra carefully. No matter how large or small, too much movement is not only painful at the time and risks chaffing, but a poorly supported bust can be a contributory factor in mid to upper back problems. Gentlemen should consider supportive underwear too. Briefs or shorts are personal preference, but again excessive movement should be minimised to restrict chaffing, discomfort at the time and the risk of many more serious complications later.
Outer layers also need to be thought about carefully. You will get warm, indeed maybe even hot. Again, to labour the point, Power Walking is not “la la la la la-ing” and you will be walking more briskly than a typical stroll, or even a hike. Layering is a good idea so that you can take clothes off as you warm up and you can easily put them back on again as you cool down, but remember you do need to be able to carry them. Some people prefer to be a little cold at the start knowing they will warm up to the correct temperature, others prefer to feel comfortable at the outset and remove layers as they get warmer. Hats and gloves should be thought about carefully here too – it is highly probably that they will come off and very quickly even in the winter.
Sun and hydration
Never underestimate the power of the sun. Wear a good quality sunscreen on all parts of your skin that will be, or maybe, exposed even in the winter. The sun doesn’t need to be shining and it doesn’t need to be hot for your skin to be at significant risk from harmful UV. In the Summer a sun hat that protects the head, neck and face are to be recommended as are sunglasses, indeed in some organised events these are mandatory.
As for hydration, a water bottle should never be carried in your hand. This is a dreadful habit which causes terrible upper back problems and sometimes can manifest itself very quickly. I can’t express myself strongly enough on this point. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the donut shaped bottles are OK, or that you won’t be out long enough to worry about it. They aren’t OK and you will be, even 10 minutes is too long to be carrying anything as heavy as water. Remember water weights 1kg per litre without the weight of the bottle too. Water should be carried on you back in a rucksack or Camelbak (again compulsory in many events). If you haven’t got either of these but you have a coach or a trainer, then they will carry it for you (if they don’t then sack them!).
So now we are ready to Power Walk. We just leap out of the car and go, right? Well no, not quite. There are a few things to think about
Step 1: Always mobilise first, but don’t stretch – not yet!
Start by moving each joint in all the directions it is intended to move in. You may well find that you do this instinctively anyway. You are about to walk so focus on the lower body and be methodical.
Waggle, scrunch and splay your toes. Point and flex your feet and rotate at the ankle in both directions and bend and straighten at the knee. Lift one leg up and move it forwards and backwards and rotate the whole leg at the hip. Don’t forget the second leg!
Gently bend forwards and backwards a little and rotate at the waist and then gently rotate the arms at the shoulder, then roll the shoulders bringing them all the way up to your ears and sliding your shoulder blades down your back and changing direction. Finally rotate the head, take ear to shoulders and look to one side just in front of your shoulder and repeat on the other side. These last few bits can be done as you start to walk if you prefer, and the whole thing takes only a few minutes. Time well spent!
Step 2: Warm up
Now you are ready to go, but slowly first, here we are allowed a brief period of daisy picking as you start to warm up and think about how your body feels and how it moves. Breathing calmly and comfortably, in through your nose and out through your mouth, focus on your posture as you start to move. Imagine a balloon on top of your head helping you stand tall and upright, or a ribbon running down through your spine which holds you upright. The moment your posture becomes “tall and lovely” you become lighter on your feet, your tummy and your bottom naturally tighten slightly and you are better able to use your feet to drive you forward as you move in the way that they are designed.
Spend 5 minutes or so walking like this bringing your awareness to how your feet are moving and to your tummy and bottom staying tighter and standing a little taller.
Every few steps start to introduce a lunge where you take a wide step forward and drop the back knee down towards the ground, then drive back up by squeezing the buttock of the back leg a little more. Repeat on the other leg. After a few pairs of lunges do three or four sumo-style squats every third step and then switch to ski-style squats.
About now you can introduce some arm movements by bringing them up as you squat down. No fancy choreography here, just simple, effective stretching.
Step 4: Now we are ready to Power Walk.
Power Walking uses the arms to drive you forwards. Bend at the elbows and keep your body upright. If you are coordinated enough then it is ideal to use opposite arm to leg but, to be frank, as long as the arms do not cross your body then it really doesn’t matter that much. There are more important things to think about. A helpful tip is to just touch your middle finger tip to your thumb tip, barely touching, and this keeps the hands relaxed and removes tension from the arms all the way up to the neck.
Keep your head in a neutral position with your gaze two or three steps in front of you. Don’t look at your feet – it’s too late they are already going there! Your brain will have already clocked any hazards and programmed you to avoid them. Trust it. It knows what it’s doing.
Relax, breathe, maintain good posture, talk to yourself, your walking buddies or the dog and enjoy the next 40 to 45 minutes!
Step 5: Warm Down and Stretch
Maintaining the same good posture and walking form, gradually bring the pace down for the last 5 to 10 minutes of the walk so that you are back to daisy picking for the final stage.
Post exercise stretching is extremely important and hugely under-rated but I firmly believe that as long as you are disciplined and do your stretches relatively close to the end of your exercise (within an hour or so) they don’t need to be immediately after if you feel uncomfortable doing them in public, are getting cold or someone has put the coffee on.
I often close my classes with the advice to go somewhere “less smelly and more comfortable to stretch” – the shower, the coffee shop, the train, the office. Anywhere you like as long as you do them. I really have laid on my office floor stretching while on a Skype call (and I wasn’t on my own!), I have seen people on the London Underground stretching next to their folding bikes and I have drunk my coffee outside a bar while my cycling buddie lay on the payment to stretch her hips.
You need to focus on stretching the hamstrings and calves (all the way down the back of the leg), the glutes (three sets of muscles in your bottom), the hip flexors, the triceps (back of the arms) and the shoulders.