Stepping out: Walking doesn't have to be tame

Walking doesn't have to be low-key. Carrying weights, increasing the pace, or walking hills are just a few ways to step up your walk.
Jennyfer Simpson, 52, has been walking through her tree-lined Morningside neighborhood in Miami forever, but it doesn't show, she says with a giggle.

"Even though it doesn't seem to be doing anything," she says "when you don't do it, you notice. It gives you a kick start and seems to keep you a little slimmer."

That's why she sticks with it, five days a week, 7 to 8:15 a.m., north to south and east to west, along with several neighbors including Rosie Gordon-Wallace. They're depending on Simpson to be there, to break a sweat, to help solve the problems of the world, so "you have to wake up because you can't let them down," she says.

They're not counting steps or miles. The distance they cover "depends on how we're feeling. We're old ladies."

But they do make it challenging. They'll pick up the pace, get their heart rates going, or forge up a slight incline to test their stamina.

Pick up the pace with race-walking

Walking, dismissed for years as a workout for wimps, is hardly a monolithic effort. You can walk faster, longer, or harder. You can do intervals. You can pump your limbs in exaggerated motions. You can wear weighted vests or other challenging doodads (although some experts discourage them).

Take race-walking.

Running injuries led Stan Chraminski to race-walking, but he was skeptical at first that he could achieve the aerobic workout to which he was accustomed. He found it was just as good -- and easier on the joints.

Chraminski, a leader of the Pacific Pacers Racewalk Club in western Washington state, says the most helpful attributes for race-walking are coordination, flexibility, speed and endurance, but that anybody can do it. "Whether you are interested in fitness or competition," he says, "the only barrier is your desire."

Race-walkers, some of whom are faster than runners, form a small but tight-knit community. They walk for fun, but also compete in 5Ks, 10Ks and marathons. They usually look as if they're in a hurry to get to the restroom.

Jasper Bell, 39, of Perrine, doesn't care how he looks on the race course. "It's very true that I get a lot of laughter," he says.

When he tore a knee ligament, which was not a result of running, he "had no other choice but to walk," and after a few months, he started to enjoy it.

Now he's running again, but he continues to race-walk for preventive maintenance. "It increased my speed," he says. "Everyone knows I can't stay away from the running scene." He can run a 5K in about 18:30, and race-walk the distance in about 31:30, speeds that usually send him home with awards.

Getting started

If you decide to try the sport, you need to master technique, so learn from an experienced race-walker.

Sherry Wilk, 51, the unofficial coach of the Miami Walkers, has completed five half-marathons and she's now training for the Disney Marathon in January. The training is very similar to running, she says. You have to gradually increase your distance or risk getting injured.

"We'll design a program based on your goals and abilities," she says. "A new person's goal is to finish. You gotta crawl before you can walk."

And when you are walking in competition, either foot must be on the ground at all times, so speed without form can lead to disqualification. Worse, poor form can lead to injury.

Author Therese Iknoian does a nice job in the second edition of Fitness Walking (Human Kinetics Publishers, $16.95) of helping readers put structure to their steps, offering advice on everything from form to safety to shoes. She lays out a series of programs and breaks them down for beginners, intermediate and advanced walkers.

Now, let's not forget the stealth way to get some activity. Pace when you gab on the phone. Walk your kid to school once in a while. Walk at lunchtime. If you're going to the store to pick up one or two items, walk, don't drive. A University of Tennessee study found that women counting steps were more active than women walking briskly 30 minutes a day.

Gordon-Wallace's mother, Eglantine Gordon, is 88 and she walks every other day and carries a big stick. Dogs "come and see the stick, they go away," she says. After those 45-minute walks "I feel so refreshed."

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