“Learning to walk again” is a line from a great Foo Fighters song, and it’s the situation I have found myself in during the past several weeks. I’ve been an avid runner for the past 35 years. Aside from a few minor injuries and post-marathon recoveries, it has been rare for me to take more than a couple of days off from running. This year, however, I have been forced to take an extended break, and figure out how to become a walker.
“I feel the metal in my bones” is a line from another Foo Fighters song that has resonated with me in recent weeks. Back in August, I had to have 2 discs replaced in my neck. I was told by my doctor that I that I would have to stay away from running for a while…at least a couple of months. That fact was obvious to me after the surgery… my neck was stiff and sore, and I had no thoughts about running. I began walking to help reduce the risk of blood clots and to give my body a break from the couch. I was moving slow, but I was moving. At first, I would have to turn my entire body if I wanted to look behind me. Over time, my neck movement, energy level and overall feeling of well-being improved, and I believe that walking has been a huge part of my recovery.
As a runner, I really didn’t know how to walk for exercise… I just got out there and did my best. My walking began in the hospital on the day of my surgery, having to use a walker because I was unsteady. Once at home, I went for several short walks (a few blocks) each day, then worked my way up to a mile at a time. I rapidly increased to 3-4 miles at a time, then 6 – 8, then 10+. I had plenty of time since I was off work and many of my walks were 2 – 3 hours, or more. I really didn’t worry about pace, I just tried to walk a little further each week.
I also tried to focus on the joy of just being out there. It was great to be outside and I took pleasure in noticing the details of my surroundings. One of the benefits of running is that you can observe a lot more of what’s around you compared to driving, and I discovered that you can see even more when you are walking. I noticed things that I hadn’t seen before. I strayed from my usual running routes and found new trails, paths and shortcuts that I didn’t know were there. I also found walking slowly to be relaxing, almost like a meditation. I enjoyed being present and embraced the calm and peace of mind that walking slowly brought.
My competitive side didn’t take long to arise, and I found myself wanting to walk faster. I quickly learned that it’s entirely different from running and I did not know how to do it. Over time, I learned a few tips to improve.
- Cadence – I’m usually at about 180 steps per minute on a training run, and higher when racing or doing speed work. Slow walks were around 120, but I have picked it up to around 160 for faster walks.
- Foot Strike – Most walking occurs with a heel strike, then rolling onto the toes. Like sprinting, walking fast is easier with a mid-foot strike. I have also noticed that if I try to make my steps quiet, it is easier to pick up the pace.
- Forward Lean – I find that I’m a little more upright when walking slow. To go fast, In need to lean forward.
- Arm Swing – Walking fast is easier with and active arm swing. I try to focus on reaching my elbow way back on the side that is striding forward. This seems to increase the length and pace of the stride, as well as the opposite arm reaching forward.
With practice, I have learned to walk faster and started to challenge myself. I will shoot to go a certain distance in an hour or try to go a mile as quickly as I can. My records so far are 4.2 miles in one hour and a mile in 12:54. I feel this type of “speed work” leaves me feeling that I need a slower “recovery” walk the following day. In walking fast, I have reconnected with some of the self-competition that I miss in running.
My time away from running has given me a new perspective and appreciation for walking. Walking is fantastic exercise for anyone, and for runners, a great alternative when injured and those seeking to sprinkle in some cross-training. Walking slowly is easy on the body and relaxing both physically and mentally. Walking fast gets the heart rate up and requires focus on form. I will be running soon but plan to keep both slow and fast walking in my weekly routine.