Fitness Articles

How to Walk with Proper Form and Technique

The Art and Science of Fitness Walking

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Walking comes naturally to humans. It’s one of the earliest skills we develop, long before we learn how to talk (or invent excuses to avoid walking). And given good, basic health, it’s something you can do throughout your life without worry about overdoing it. Prior to the last century, walking was the primary mode of day-to-day transportation for most people, and often involved much more time and distance than most of us spend at it today.

So if you’re wondering whether walking is challenging enough to keep you fit, don’t. Fitness walking (as opposed to leisurely walking to do everyday tasks) can build endurance, strengthen your bones, improve your health profile and help you manage your weight. And many people who have successfully lost weight and kept it off over time have made fitness walking the foundation of their fitness routines. But like anything else, the more walking you want to do, the more important it becomes to do it right. By the time many of us get to adulthood, especially if via the sedentary route, we may have developed some postural quirks and bad habits that can make even simple walking a source of aches and pains.

So, here are some walking basics that will help keep your walking workouts safe and effective by building your walking technique from the ground up.

Think "Heel to Toe"
Comfortable and efficient walking begins with a good foot strike, which allows your ankle to move through its complete range of motion. Here's how to do it properly.
  1. Step forward landing squarely on the heel of your foot.
  2. Roll forward onto the ball of the foot.
  3. Raise the heel and push off with your big toe.
As the heel of your front foot is striking, you are being propelled forward by your back foot, pushing off the ground. Unlike a running stride, your feet should never lift off the ground completely when walking.

To get an idea of how this heel-to-toe motion should feel, try sitting on a chair with your legs extended straight out in front of you, toes pointing straight up to the ceiling. With your left foot, bring your toes back toward you so your heel is extended and your foot is flexed; with your right foot, push your toes forward as if pushing on the air with the ball of your foot and big toe. Then slowly reverse the positions of your feet, moving back and forth several times for one minute. This is the ideal motion for walking. But because most of us don't walk perfectly, you may feel some burning or tension in your shins or calves. This means that those muscles (where you feel the soreness) are underused, and you may need to do some strengthening and stretching exercises so that walk as close to perfect heel-to-toe form as possible.

Find Your Stride
Everyone has a natural stride length that is most comfortable, and it may be shorter or longer than someone else’s stride. One of the most common mistakes you can make with fitness walking is to increase the length of your strides in order to walk faster. That’s OK for running, not walking, as over-striding can strain your muscles and joints, causing pain in the arches of your feet, and your knees, hips and heels. If you want to walk faster, focus on taking more steps per minute, not taking longer steps.

How fast should you walk? It depends on your fitness level, stride length, and turnover rate. Here are some general guidelines:
  • Slow to moderate walking is a 3 to 3.5 to mph pace (17-20 minutes per mile), about 115-120 steps per minute.
  • Brisk walking is about a 4 mph pace (15 minutes per mile), about 135 steps per minute.
  • Fast walking (or jogging) starts at a 5 mph pace (12 minutes per mile), which is about 160 steps per minute. Most people cannot walk at this pace. It's usually easier and more efficient to jog than it is to walk once you work up to this speed.
Walk the (Straight) Line
Be aware of your posture: Stand as tall as possible, feet pointing forward, abs engaged, back straight, neck in line with your shoulders (not forward), head up, and eyes gazing about 10 feet ahead of you. When walking, your center of gravity to move forward, not side-to-side (known as hip sway). Your pelvis will rotate forward with each step, but should not turn from side to side. Try to keep your legs in line with your hips and toes pointing forward, not inward (pigeon-toed) or outward (duck-toed).

Pump It Up—Your Arms, That Is
You've probably seen those “serious” fitness walkers who pump their arms vigorously as if they were running. Even if it makes you feel self-conscious, this is the most efficient way to walk—especially at higher speeds. When your arms are too straight, it can be difficult (even painful) to pump them enough to achieve a good speed. And if your hands swell during exercise, keeping your elbows bent can help avoid or minimize that.

Keep your arms close to your sides and bend your elbows at 90 degrees. Keep them bent at a right angle while you walk. When pumping your arms, the movement should come from your shoulders, not your elbows, and your hands shouldn't rise higher than chest level. Finally, avoid clenching your hands. Imagine you’re carrying something delicate in them, like a raw egg—don’t squeeze tight enough to break it, nor so loose that you drop it. Try not to exaggerate the movement of your arms, but do use them to your advantage. You can only walk as fast as your arms pump.

Take to the Hills
There’s a natural tendency to lean forward when walking uphill and lean backward when walking downhill. However, leaning can put a lot of strain on your back, and should be avoided when possible. So what's a walker to do? Remember your cues for posture and form. Maintain your posture as upright as possible, especially on mild and moderate hills. Steep declines may require slight leaning, but be careful not to put too much weight in your heels, which can cause your feet to slip out from under you on loose terrain. When walking up an incline, push upward and forward with your toes, pumping your arms to help you. When walking downhill, relax your knees a little bit to absorb some of the extra impact.

The 8 Keys to Proper Fitness Walking
And you thought walking was simple! There are a lot of things to keep in mind. This quick list summarizes the info above so you can get out there and put one foot in front of the other!
  1. Stand tall, with your shoulders back, head and neck aligned with your spine, and abs pulled in.
  2. Push off with the toes of your rear foot, and land squarely on the heel of your lead foot.
  3. Roll through the entire foot, from heel strike to the ball of your foot to the final push off with your toes, allowing your ankle to more through its full range of motion.
  4. Avoid over-striding. Increase the number of steps per minute to increase speed.
  5. Bend elbows at a right angle, and swing your arms from the shoulder, keeping elbows close to your sides.
  6. Avoid clenching hands or over-swinging your arms.
  7. Minimize leaning on hills.
  8. Don’t neglect stretching and strength training, especially if you experience burning or tightness in shins or calve muscles.

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Member Comments

  • Walking heel to toe is actually harder on your knees, you should strike the ground with your midfoot.
  • Dean, I really think after reading comments and discussing with other exercisers that you are really missing the boat on your guidelines to walking pace. I have many years of treadmill work and 3.6 mph is plenty fast enough and gets my heart rate into a high range. My friends and I are jogging at a 4/4.2 mph pace. At 5 mph we are definitely at a sprint. I work out 5-6 times per week and would not consider myself out of shape. I have to say something because I think it is comments like in this story and research that contribute to the world's obesity epidemic. Although your article has some great expectations, these numbers for walking pace immediately turns anyone thinking about exercise and experienced exercisers away from getting or staying in shape. Maybe those numbers are accurate for professionals, but let's be more realistic. Comments like this defeat the purpose in encouraging more people to get and stay active and I fail to believe that this research is based in any average person.
  • Instead of pumping your arms, get a good walking stick (how about an article on how to get a good one and use it properly?)

    A walking stick will actually work your upperbody as you push off from the ground, and since your arms/chest are doing some of the work, you can walk longer/farther.

    And it gives your hands something to do as you move along...
  • I walk heal to toe as the article state, but lately, I've experienced a pain in the part of my right foot just beneath the middle toe. I've tried to look up what could be causing this and have followed what little advice there is on it, but have found no relief. Fortunately, it doesn't bother me all the time. Sometimes, it hurts after 15 minutes of walking, sometimes after an hour of walking. Shoes don't seem to a contributor as I've walked in various types of shoes and pain always happens sooner or later.

    I'm going to the Dr. soon and I'll ask him. Meanwhile, like so many others have said, I'll just do the best I can.
  • This article was helpful. I learned a couple of things about walking that I didn't know could be harming me. Thanks!
  • MS_GODDESS
    I'm another "shorty" who just doesn't have a long stride. I'm practically jogging at about 3.7 mph. However, this was a good "refresher" article that reminded me to stop clenching my fists when walking. I also have never read any sort of instruction regarding hills, so I'll keep that in mind for next time - I definitely tend to lean forward when going uphill.
  • As soon as I read the words "heel strike" I knew I wasn't going to be following all of this advice. I wear Zero heel drop" shoes for walking and my 5ks. In these you walk on your toes first, and softly land your heels, which is much better on my arthritic knees and easier for my hips and back as well.
    My fav shoe, for most anything is still the Fivefingers series. ( yes I know the company had some problems with their more outrageous claims about their "barefoot running" technology , and had to offer to buy back the shoes..but I'm not an extreme runner looking to shave time off my splits , I'm a chubby, arthritic senior who just wants to walk with less pain, which these shoes help me achieve.
  • KIMBERLY1EVANS
    i am a daily runner, and i also do yoga stretches before my runs each day. I had Plantar Fasciitis and it devastaated me. I couldnt run anymore which is one of my favorite exercises. I just recently cured my PF and i created a blog explaining what it took for me to cure it. Im sure the readers here could enjoy http://www.howtoc
    ureplantarfas
    ciitis.org
  • As a runner, I have had to totally relearn how to land my foot-strike as it is completely different with walking. If I had read this article sooner, I might have avoided painful shin splints!
  • I have a total knee that only bends 88 degrees. It is very difficult for me to walk fast. I do however, march in place. I always thought the average person walked 6 mph. I guess it really does depend on how long your legs are. Like the saying different strokes for different folks. I just walk thinking about keeping my abs in and swinging my arms. I also concentrate on hitting heel first and pushing with my toes.
  • Reading thru some of the comments, I can agree with the others. The speed rate is not the same for everyone. I am 5ft 3, and I normally, according to my app, walk at a rate of 2.4, which is the average for me. I have pushed it to 3. But I just feel that everyone is different and shouldnt be expected to walk the same. Longer strides, shorter strides. I have foot issues and sometimes i have to really slow my pace to avoid pain. But the biggest issue I have is learning how to walk heel to toe. I have tried this and cannot be sure I am walking as instructed. I find myself paying too much attention to what my feet are doing and not enjoying my walk. So, my advice to everyone, walk the way that suits you, find the stride you are comfortable with and push just a little beyond that, but not to the point of exhausting yourself too soon, or injuring yourself. I have been an avid walker for 3 years now, and I love to walk. It is my hour to myself, my thinking time, my sorting things out in my head time, my finding time to speak to a higher power time. But most importantly, it is my chosen form of exercise and I have to focus on getting heatlhy and staying injury free. So everyone do what is best for your body.
  • LCERTUCHE
    I never could walk very fast but now I've learned to take shorter, quicker steps it is much easier. Walking is a challenge for me because of degenerative joint disease and old injuries but I am walking much more now. The more weight that comes off the easier and farther I can walk. Some days I still can't stay on my feet long but the days I can I really push it to the max.
  • LEEGYRL
    For a website that's supposed to motivate, today's article failed miserably. I'm 25 pounds into my 75 pound weight loss goal. I've been so proud of myself for reaching a 25 minute mile, during which I am in the medium to high portion of my heart rate range. Learning that this pace doesn't even fit into the "slow to moderate" category is quite disheartening.
  • Good information. I am 5' tall with short legs (I hate that part), so the speed listed isn't accurate for me. I am walking very fast at 3 mph and need to break into a jog at 3.5. Still, the reminders about posture are good as I am working to improve mine overall.
  • I am a long time walker. I still learned things from the article I did not previously know and was refreshed on others. Good article.

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

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