Walking is America’s favorite form of fitness – and for good reason. You don’t need fancy equipment, you don’t have to pay for it, and best of all, you can do it anywhere.
Yet there’s more to walking than just putting on your shoes and hitting the pavement. If you want to reap the rewards from a walking program, including optimizing your health and losing weight, you’ve got to step up your game, so to speak. How? Employ the following eight strategies to move from casual walking to fitness walking, all of which I’ve used in my career as a competitive Nordic walker:
- Amp up slowly: If you’re new to fitness walking, progress gradually. A good rule of thumb is the 10-percent rule so that you’re increasing either mileage or frequency by no more than 10 percent each week. Listen to your body and if you’re feeling some aches and pains – first-time walkers or those who increase too quickly often feel soreness in their shins first – pull back a little until you’re feeling better and then continue.
- Pick up the pace: One of the biggest mistakes I see walkers making? Underwalking, meaning that people simply aren’t walking fast enough to reap serious benefits. Granted, there’s a time and place for a leisurely stroll, but if you’re embarking on a walking program to boost your fitness, brisk walking is where it’s at, as most studies that point to benefits from walking involve brisk walking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define “brisk” as walking three miles an hour or faster. One way to gain speed? Take shorter strides. Most people think longer equals faster, but it’s actually the opposite. A shorter gait means a faster pace. Also, check that you’re rolling from heel to toe as you walk and not just slapping your feet on the ground.
- Get in the swing: Now that you’re picking up that pace, put those arms to work, holding them at roughly 90-degree angles by your side and moving naturally, opposite arm with opposite leg. Make sure you’re pumping those arms from front to back and not across the waistline, as many walkers are prone to do, which can throw the body out of alignment and cause injury. Driving those arms forward and back at a quicker pace will even help your feet move faster.
- Vary your route: It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and walk the same route every day. Yet two things are bound to happen. First, your mind will get so bored from lack of stimulation that you may lose interest in a walking program. Then because you’re not changing the terrain, your body will become so adjusted to the workout that you’ll stop making gains. So come up with several routes — I keep a log on my computer – and do a different one every day so that I repeat a route only two times a week at best.
- Mix up your intensity: Along with changing the route, you need to change your intensity throughout the week. After just a few weeks of doing the same activity, your body adjusts, and what was once hard eventually becomes easy. Plus, if you want to keep improving your fitness, you have to keep challenging yourself, and one way to do this is by adding intensity either via hills or intervals at least once or twice a week on nonconsecutive days. (On the other days, do steady-state walking where you’re holding a brisk pace on a relatively unchanging surface for the duration of your walk.) With hills, choose a hilly route or find a long hill and walk up and down it several times. Meanwhile, to do interval training, walk a certain distance or time – like two or three minutes — at a fast pace and then recover for a minute. You can also use landmarks, speeding up at every fourth mailbox or something similar. Even a track with marked distances will work. The bonus of doing tougher workouts? Because they’re harder than those steady-state walks, they’re usually shorter.
- Add tools wisely: Many walkers think that holding weights will add intensity and make that walk harder, but it’s not a good idea, as you can easily injure yourself by carrying weights. If you want to add something to your walk, consider a walking vest or even Nordic walking poles. With the vest, you add a small amount of weight to your torso, which can make your walk tougher since you now have to move with more weight on your body. Unlike the hand weights, though, the vest is supported by your torso, namely your core which is your body’s powerhouse and can safely support that weight. Meanwhile, poles can help you walk faster and engage more muscles in your body. Instead of simply using your legs, you’ll now be using the core and upper body, making the activity a more total-body workout than walking without poles (or even running, for that matter).
- Move to the beat: Numerous studies show that exercising with music can help you go longer, even perceive exercise as less hard. While I don’t use music when I’m in a race, I rarely train without my iPod. That music simply makes exercise more enjoyable and can help you keep the pace if you’re using an app that syncs the beat to your walking gait.
- Set a goal: Whether you want to walk a half marathon or walk so many days or steps a week, set some type of goal. No matter how passionate you are about activity, that goal will make it more fun to move, especially on days when you’re not feeling quite up to the task.