Walking and running are excellent ways to build fitness and promote good health.
Walking, in particular, is recommended for people who are new to exercising, as it produces less shock to the joints. Despite the relative safety of walking for exercise, injuries do occur from causes such as trauma, lack of ankle strength or flexibility, training errors, and improper shoes. Fortunately, most of these are easily preventable.
Causes of Injury from Trauma
Many people have experienced the pain of a sprained ankle. Ankle sprains are more likely to occur when walking over uneven ground. Wearing proper shoes can reduce this risk, but the best form of prevention is to stay away from trouble in the first place.
If your balance is less than perfect, avoid walking in unfamiliar areas when the light is poor. Shopping malls are an excellent place for someone just starting a walking fitness program. I recommend going in the morning as there are usually fewer people there.
Causes of Injury from Lack of Foot and Ankle Strength or Flexibility
The foot and ankle have a difficult job to do. They must absorb shock from walking, balance the weight of your body, and propel you forward. All this happens very quickly, thousands of times a day.
Strong hips, healthy feet: The muscles of the foot and ankle are strong, but they cannot do everything alone. Successful running and walking requires good strength and endurance of the muscles around the hip. Known as the gluteal muscles (or buttocks), these are the largest muscles in the body. When you stand on one leg, it is largely the gluteal muscles that keep you from falling over. An excellent exercise to strengthen these muscles is a lunge.
Perform this exercise 3 – 4x per week. Start with 10 repetitions on each side, and build up to 30.
Flexible calf muscles: When you walk and run, the calf muscles must perform the action of absorbing shock and pushing your body forward. Without proper stretching, these muscles will become inflexible, which will cause the heel cord to become tight. This can lead to painful inflammatory conditions such as plantar fasciitis and tendonitis.
Stretching the calf should be done following running or walking, and should be done at least once a day. Stretches should be held to the point where mild discomfort is felt, but no pain. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds and repeat twice on each foot.
Causes of Injury from Training Errors
When it comes to exercise, there is a lot to be said for taking baby steps. Most training errors come from doing too much too fast. If you are just starting a walking exercise program, it is best to start slow. Pick a distance you have walked in the past (for example, a few blocks around your house). Keep walking this distance for a week. You may get some muscle soreness in your legs the first couple of days, but this is normal and should go away in a day or so. After the first week, add another block. Keep adding one block per week until you reach your desired distance.
Starting a running program can be a challenge if you have never run before. I recommend starting with a walk-to-run progression. Select a distance you wish to be able to run — two miles, for example. Start off using a 4:1 ratio. Walk for 4 minutes, and run 1 minute. Do this program three days a week for one week. At week two, increase the time running by one minute. The progression should look like this:
- Week One: 4 minutes walking, 1 minute running.
- Week Two: 3 minutes walking, 2 minutes running.
- Week Three: 2 minutes walking, 3 minutes running.
- Week Four: 1 minute walking, 4 minutes running.
- Week Five: Continuous running.
- At this time you can gradually increase your mileage.
Causes of Injury from Improper Shoes
Not every foot is the same, so not every sports shoe is right for everyone. Wearing the right shoe for your foot, and replacing your shoes at the proper intervals are some of the best and easiest ways of keeping your feet injury free. See the article on page 23 for shoe suggestions.