BACKPACKING BASICS

How to Walk: A Guide To Making Sure Your Gait Brings You Strength

How to Walk
Russell McCarty
Written by Russell McCarty

Walking is the basis of pretty much everything we do, from walking to the grocery store after work to walking to the kitchen in the middle of the night for some much-needed kettle corn. But when you cross the line from someone who walks a little to someone who walks a whole lot, it becomes a little less mindless.

Those of us who backpack, hike, trek, or climb use our feet much more than the average person, and eventually it starts to leave its marks on our bodies – good and bad. That’s why, in this article, we’ll teach you how to walk the right way and keep your body at peak performance.

Talking the Walk: Why is Walking Technique Important?

Now, you may be thinking, “There’s no technique to walking – you just do it!”. While walking may seem like a straight-forward task, there’s a lot more to it than simply putting one foot in front of the other. Walking affects our entire body, head to toe, and the proper from can save us from temporary pain and permanent damage.

Person is Walking

This is especially important for those of us who push our bodies on frequent trips, long miles, and harsh terrain. Let’s take a look at some of the ways that our stride impacts our strength:

Feet and Ankles

Our feet may be the most obvious body part affected by walking. They carry us all over the place, and they hold up an enormous amount of weight and pressure – sometimes all day long. These intricate appendages contain over one hundred ligaments, tendons, and muscles and almost a quarter of the bones in our bodies.  Improper walking can cause pain and blisters, as well as more severe injuries like plantar fasciitis.

Ankles also bear the brunt of our bodies, and they are a common site for injuries like sprains. Having flexible ankles supported by strong accessory muscles can prevent foot and ankle injury of course, but it can also prevent a host of other injuries caused by falling after a misstep.

Feet And Ankles

Legs and Knees

Second only to our feet, the legs knee joints are the hallmark body parts of our saunter. While proper walking can lead to shapely and strong thighs and calves, improper technique can lead to muscle imbalances, knee misalignment, sprains, and muscle strains – or other long-term problems like compartment syndrome or tendonitis.

Many folks focus only on their quads and calves while walking, but the hamstrings, gluts, and shin muscles also play a seriously important role in walking. Since our upper legs, butt, and hips are surrounded by some of the biggest and strongest muscles in the body, utilizing them the right way is really important to keeping your body in line.

Hiker Knees and Legs

Hips and Back

This is an area that many people don’t consider when they walk, but it’s the core of proper technique – literally. Our hips and back center our weight, allow us to maintain balance, and keep our gait in line with our center of gravity. When you walk with bad posture, you’re not only looking for back pain, but increased chance of pain and injury in your neck, legs, knees, ankles, and toes (heads, shoulders, knees, and toes, if you’re keeping track).

The back is one of the most common sources of pain for adults, and maintaining good upright posture is essential to making sure you don’t become part of the statistic. After all, we walk to be healthy – what a waste to hurt yourself doing it!

Hiker Back and Hips

Now that we’ve gone over some of the reasons why you should pay attention to the way you walk, let’s get into the details! Below, you will find your step-by-step guide to learning the proper way to walk.

The Ins and Outs of Proper Walking

Everyone has their own unique stride, but there are certain things you can do to make sure that yours is optimizing your performance and preventing injury. Paying attention to the way you walk can take some effort, but it’s well worth the time – and we’ve laid out all the steps you need to take!

Here are some guided steps for adjusting your posture, arms, and legs to make sure your gait is straight.

Hiker Water

Posture, Neck, and Head

First things first, let’s talk about posture. This is (arguably) the most important part of walking technique, as your spine and hips orient your steps and provide stability for all your muscles.

Technique

Finding your standing posture is the key to good walking posture. To find a straight, active posture, follow these steps:

  1. Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, pushing your weight into the balls of your feet
  2. Let your arms dangle naturally at your sides
  3. Looking straight forward, extend your back and stand tall. Do not arch your lower back extensively
  4. Roll your shoulders back until your shoulders drop slightly down and back
  5. Actively engage your abdominal muscles by pulling in at your stomach

Once you find your standing posture, you can adapt it to walking – always keep your spine straight and tall, shoulders back, and head facing forward. Engaging the abdominal muscles helps stabilize the spine and hips.

Hiker Posture

Keeping good posture can be hard to do, especially for those who are used to the daily slouch. However, good posture makes all the other pieces of your walking technique possible – so practice until it becomes more natural and correct yourself when you find yourself slacking.

Troubleshooting

There are several problems people encounter when they try to work on their walking posture. If you find that your back, neck, shoulders, or hips are hurting after a walk, check for these common mistakes!

  • Looking down. It’s natural when we walk to look at the world around us – especially when our travels bring us to beautiful natural destinations. However, sometimes we end up staring at our feet or the dirt in front of us, and this can throw our whole body out of whack. If you catch yourself staring down with a bent neck or leaning forward as you walk, look up! Focus your attention straight ahead of you until straight posture becomes comfortable again.
  • Leaning back. This is another common trap for would-be proper walkers. If you overcorrect with the whole looking down thing, or you haven’t mastered the perfect posture yet, you may find yourself leaning back or over-arching your lower back as you walk. This lean-back can cause some serious pain, and if you find yourself defaulting to it, focus your energy on engaging your abdominal muscles. Ab strengthening activities, like crunches, can help strengthen your core and prevent leaning.

Hiker Looking Down

Arms and Natural Swing

Next up is the category we share with awkward school dances – just what to do with those arms! Using your natural arm swing is essential to adding power to your step and lessening strain on your legs, and overthinkage can lead to awkward arm movements. However, it’s important to take a look at the way you use your arms and make sure that they’re helping you – not hurting.

Technique

The trick with arm swinging is largely to simply go with the flow. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when you let it all go:

  • Bend your elbows at a 90˚ angle
  • Keep your hands semi-relaxed, like you’re grabbing a potato chip with your fingers and trying not to crush it
  • Swing each arm back and forth with its opposite leg
  • Keep your arms parallel to each other and to your path, allowing your elbows to stay close to your body

Hiker Bended Arms

Practice swinging arms with these guidelines.

Troubleshooting

If your arms are sore from swinging away, you waddle like a penguin, or you accidentally punched someone in the nose on your walk, troubleshoot your arm swings with these common mistakes and solutions:

  • Straight arms. A common culprit for awkward strides is the presence of straight arms. If you notice yours aren’t bent, gently bend them to a 90˚ angle and let them hang at your sides.
  • Crooked swing. This is another common cause for discomfort and overexertion in walking. If your arms do not swing parallel to your path, your elbows kick out to the side and your fists flow towards the center of your body, instead of alongside it. If you have trouble here, practice swinging your arm at the shoulder in line with your body.
  • Hands too high. This last problem involves the range of motion of your swing. When you walk with bent elbows, your hands should not come far above your waistline. If your hands end up sky high, focus again on your posture – you’re likely scrunching your shoulders to get them there.

Hikers

Legs, Knees, and Feet

And finally, the most complex part of walking. Your lower extremities have a big job to do here, and it can take a lot of effort to make sure your body is working in the best way possible. Here are some steps to get you started:

Technique

The cycle of a step, from one foot to the other, is a largely natural process that we learn very young. But paying attention to the way that we walk can help you pick out important issues that could mess with your health or performance.

  1. Tighten your abdominal muscles and gluts to swing your hip forward
  2. Straighten your lead leg out and place your heel on the ground
  3. With your back leg, roll off the heel and onto the ball of the foot
  4. Push off of the back leg from the ball of the foot using the calf muscles
  5. As your back leg comes forward and takes the lead, roll the opposite foot from heel to toe
  6. Repeat!

Hiker Walking

This walking technique utilizes a heel-toe method that reduces strain on the feet and ankles and reduces impact – preventing injuries to knees, hips, and leg muscles.

Troubleshooting

The actual stride is the place where maybe the most walking mistakes take place. If you find yourself getting shin splints, tiring too quickly, or icing your feet, check out these common issues:

  • Sometimes, we get a little ahead of ourselves. And sometimes, that means our steps get big. Too big. Overstriding is a common mistake in which your steps become unnaturally long. If you’re taking leaps and bounds, slow it down! Focus on maintaining posture and only extending legs as far as the hips naturally take them.
  • Flat footing. Another common issue walkers encounter is with their feet themselves. Often, we walk around completely unaware of how they hit the ground. In proper walking technique, however, remember to roll your foot from heel to toe – once again, slow down and practice if it doesn’t come naturally!

Hiker Walking With Big Steps

Other Tips and Tricks

While walking technique is mostly about, well, how you walk, there are a few things you can pay attention to that will optimize your ability to walk well.

Stretching

First up is stretching! Everybody talks about the importance of stretching, but there’s no amount of talk that can truly show how important it really is. Maintaining flawless posture and taking perfect steps is unachievable with flexibility.

By stretching out, you give your muscles a chance to release and heal, and you help your tendons and ligaments avoid injuries like tears and sprains. Increased flexibility often means increased stride and increased performance as well.

Woman is stretching

When you stretch for walking, don’t just focus on the calves and quads. Stretch out the tops and bottoms of your feet, your shins and hamstrings, gluts, abdominals, and of course the lower back. Maintaining good flexibility in all these areas will greatly increase your walking power.

Rest and Exercise Cycles

Walking may not seem like the most intense form of exercise, but it can be just as physically demanding as any other in the right circumstances. If you go hard, resting hard is equally as important. In fact, exercising without enough rest can actually backfire – causing weakness, burnout, and sometimes lifelong injuries to the muscles, ligaments, and tendons.

Like any form of exercise, allow yourself at least one to two rest days after a difficult workout. Proper rest gives your muscles a chance to heal and can prevent overuse injuries like tendonitis. It also prevents burnout and creates time for your muscles to rebuild – even stronger than before.

Hiking as Exercise

Always accompany your rest with plenty of fluids and electrolytes to keep your internal systems in check and promote healing. And of course, if possible, eat healthy and balanced foods with lots of protein to further speed up your muscle healing process.

Proper Shoes and Clothing

This consideration is especially important in the age of internet shopping. It’s easy to find a million places selling walking shoes and clothes that claim to be the very best – but it’s often hard to know if your outfit is really doing your body well.

For shoes, lightweight, flexible models are best. Flexible soles allow for a good heel-toe roll while providing enough support to keep your foot happy. Shoes that are too big or too small can cause injuries that range from minor blisters to chronic syndromes, so make sure you know try before you buy.

Hiking Proper Clothing

Clothing is much more flexible than shoes, but a walk can be quickly ruined when you discover that your wardrobe choice was woefully inadequate. Dress in lightweight layers that you can easily carry if you need to take them off, and prioritize breathable fabrics to prevent losing heat from sweaty gear.

Breathing

Finally, our last suggestion for proper walking. Learning how to breathe deeply and deliberately can mean the difference between a wheezing, lung-burning excursion and a sunny stroll that leaves you energized.

Learning to focus on and regulate the breath is a skill that can be used during any type of exercise – or even at rest. Work on taking deep, even breaths. Then, move up to more intentional types of breathing. As your walks become more intense, breath in deeply through the nose and exhale slowly through pursed lips. Try to exhale for about twice as long as you inhale.

Breathing Properly

There are several other breathing techniques to master with different applications. For instance, high-altitude hikers and climbers use pressure breathing (deep breaths into the stomach followed by a forceful exhalation) to fight off altitude sickness and keep their lungs functioning at max capacity. Runners often match their inhales and exhales to their steps or every two steps. Find the breathing that works for you and, you guessed it, practice!

Summing Things Up

And there you have it, a step-by-step guide to finding your perfect walking technique. We’ve gone over all you need to know about posture, arm swing, and stride as well as a bunch of tips for before and after you get out on the trail.

Do you have any tips on walking technique you would like to share? Let us know in the comments!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Russell McCarty
Russell McCarty

Russell considers backpacking one of his great passions in life. He actually managed to transform his passion into a living becoming a professional adventurer. Russell loves long-distance backpacking and he enriched his portfolio with famous trails like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition or the Appalachian Trail. With thousands of miles under his feet, Russell is the expert to consult when it comes to how to prepare for a successful outdoor adventure.

  • Alicia Djuric

    When it comes to walking, the most important thing in my mind is to be comfortable while you do it. I’ve tried a lot of different walking shoes out but the one I like most is the New Balance WW877 Walking Shoe. It’s comfortable enough for me to be able to wear it all day long!

  • Jean Antos

    I bought the Columbia Pilsner Peak Pant primarily because I liked the color/style of them, but they’ve also been very comfortable to wear on my hikes. I like how loose fitting they are around the waist; I hate pants (especially hiking pants) that are too narrow and uncomfortable!

  • Russell McCarty

    So true Alicia! Having the right shoes that fit well is the key to healthy walking. While you’re at it, I suggest checking out the best hiking shoes brands:

    http://backpackingmastery.com/basics/best-hiking-shoe-brands.html

  • Russell McCarty

    Agree with you on this one Jean! I can hike with my jeans on – just because they’re very comfy! However, with the new crop of pants coming up – what a waste not to try them on. See our link to these beauties:

    http://backpackingmastery.com/top-picks/best-hiking-pants.html

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