Walk Longer and Stronger

Wait a minute. Isn't walking about the simplest form of exercise there is? It lets you check your coordination at the door, which is why you turned to it in the first place, right? Just one foot in front of the other with an eye out for potholes, trucks, and snarling dogs, right?

Careful, speed racer. How you go about putting those feet out in front of you could make or break your walking program, especially if you're serious about getting fit. The more you walk, in fact, the more likely any irregularity in your style is going to sneak up from behind and "bite" you with an injury.

But your style is fine, you say—the same as it's been since childhood. Don't let those be famous last words.

"Most walkers aren't aware when they're walking inefficiently and making it harder on themselves," says Cambridge, MA-based fitness walking and racewalking coach Ken Mattsson. "Many people jolt and jerk when they walk, for example," Mattsson says. Or they swing their arms out too much. Such offenses might sound minor, but over time, their effects can mount up and can put you down with a walking injury.

But help is here. To keep you stepping in proper style, we asked Mattsson and other leading walking coaches to give us the rundown on the most common mistakes walkers make and advice on how to correct them. Don't take another step until you've checked it out!

Mistake 1: Your Posture Is Poor.

"Many walkers get hurt because they simply don't walk erect," says Bonnie Stein, a racewalking coach in Redington Shores, FL. The two most common posture problems? Walking bent over with the head down, or its opposite: strolling leaning back. Either way, you set yourself up for injury, Stein says.

Leaning too far forward or backward throws your body off balance, putting undue stress on your lower back, says Stein. The result? Strain and pain.

How To Fix It
Don't look down—or up.
To straighten up, hold your head high, so your neck and the rest of your spine form a straight line. Don't tuck your chin into your neck, and look well ahead of you. (Experts' advice on the distance ranges from 10 to 30 feet ahead.) Also make sure your shoulders are relaxed, and your stomach is tucked. A way to check yourself, says Stein, is to take a big breath every five minutes, and exhale strongly. Notice how your shoulders drop? That's how you want to carry yourself.

Check your alignment.
To avoid repeating old habits, mentally check the alignment of key body parts every so often, says Stein. As you step forward with your right foot, for example, check that your right ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder are in a stack. Do the same for your left foot.
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