Walking Stretches and Flexibility Exercises
Walking stretching exercises to improve your performance and do away with walking injuries for good.
by Brad Walker | First Published January 18, 2009 | Updated August 12, 2017
Distance walking and walking for fun have both been popular for centuries and more. Till the advent of the automobile, long distance walking was also an accepted practice.
Military groups had to march hundreds of miles to lay siege to other groups. In 100 AD, Emperor Hadrian toured his entire empire on foot, marching 21 miles per day in his full armor. History is full of many other remarkable walks by well known people.
The Black Forest Wanderverein, the oldest surviving walking club on date, was formed in 1864. Walking soon became the leading sport in Europe and America. Many walkers also earned handsome purses. The first walking Championship race was held in England in 1866.
In 1867 Edward Payson Weston, named the "father of modern pedestrianism." walked 1326 miles from Portland, Maine to Chicago, Illinois in 25 days and earned $10,000 (a million dollar equivalent today).
In 1906 Race Walking entered the Olympics at the Interim Games in Athens, Greece.
Whether for exercise or sport, walking is a sport that requires cardiovascular and muscular endurance. Good lower body strength is required, especially when walking hills. Balance is essential when Race Walking or walking on uneven terrain, as with the newest trail walking races.
Walkers require good strength in their lower body to ensure balance and endurance. Race Walking rules require the walker to adhere to a strict form that is taxing on the hips and legs. Strong, flexible lower legs help the walker handle uneven terrain and the occasional misstep. Core strength is important to maintain an erect walking position and the muscles of the upper extremities must be conditioned to handle the constant arm swing motion.
The major muscles used when walking are:
- The muscles of the legs; the calves – gastrocnemius and soleus, and the upper leg-the quadriceps and hamstrings.
- The muscles of the hips; the adductor and abductor muscles, the hip flexors, and the gluteals.
- The core muscles; the rectus abdominus, obliques, and the spinal erectors.
- The muscles of the upper extremities and shoulder; the biceps, the triceps, and the deltoids.
A good overall cross-training program, including weight training and flexibility training, will help the walker achieve success.
Most Common Walking Injuries
Walking is a very repetitive, low impact activity. Most injuries associated with walking are repetitive use injuries, although occasional trauma may occur.
A walker may fall victim to ankle sprains, meniscus tear (knee), hip flexor strains, blisters, and patellar tendinitis.
- Ankle Sprains: Ankle sprains can occur while walking even on level ground. A misstep step on a rock, or step off the edge of a track or sidewalk can result in the ankle rolling under or rotating awkwardly causing tearing of the ligaments that support the ankle joint. Pain at the site of the injury, swelling, discoloration, and tenderness may all be present with a sprain. It may be difficult to bear weight and pain may encompass the whole ankle area. Recovery time for an ankle sprain will depend on the severity of the sprain, and amount of tearing present. Rest, immobilization, ice, and NSAIDs will help the injury heal and recover.
- Meniscus Tear: As with ankle sprains, a misstep or step on an uneven surface may cause a twisting of the knee. Usually these twists do not occur with great force, but it may be enough to cause a small tear in the cartilage, meniscus, of the knee. This may result in pain, some localized swelling, and stiffness in the knee. A clicking or locking may occur in the knee at different times. A minor meniscus tear may take care of itself, although arthritis later may be an issue. A larger tear may require arthroscopic surgery to repair. After the surgery the knee will require a period of recovery and rehabilitation.
- Hip Flexor Strains: The hip flexor works to pull the upper leg upward. When walking uphill or over obstacles the hip flexor must work extra. If this muscle is weak it may be strained by the additional work, especially if not warmed up properly. A forceful stretching of the muscle, as with stepping in a hole, may also cause a strain of the hip flexor. Rest, ice (for the first 72 hours), and NSAIDs will help with recovery. A gradual return to activity, as tolerated, with good warm-up techniques will also speed recovery.
- Blisters: Walking requires a continuous stepping motion which causes the foot to move inside the shoe. Improperly sized or fitted shoes can cause excessive pressure and friction on certain areas of the foot causing the skin to become irritated and form a blister. Blisters can also occur when another injury has changed the walking form and the foot is subjected to different pressures. As the friction occurs on the outside of the foot, the body forms a pocket of liquid (serum) to protect the underlying tissue. Covering and cushioning the blister will reduce the friction while it heals. Try to keep the blister intact to prevent infection. If it does break keep it clean, dry, and covered.
- Quadriceps Tendinitis: The quadriceps tendon attaches the quadriceps to the tibia (with the patella embedded in it.) Overuse of the quadriceps, tight quadriceps, or frequent downhill walking can all lead to tendonitis in this tendon. When the quad muscles tighten they pull on the tendon; and repetitive motions such as walking cause it to work more. Walking downhill puts the tendon in a stretch position (bending the knee) while the quadriceps are still flexed. This causes extra stress on the tendon. Pain, tenderness, and some swelling may be noted around the knee area with quadriceps tendinitis. Pain when bending the knee completely and when the quadriceps muscle is flexed may also be present. Rest, ice, and NSAIDs will help speed recovery.
Injury Prevention Strategies
A good overall conditioning program and the use of proper equipment will help prevent most injuries associated with walking.
- Choosing level, well maintained walking areas, such as a track or groomed trail, will help prevent traumatic injuries to the knee and ankle.
- Proper warm ups before beginning activities will help prepare the muscles, and the body, for the activity and reduce injuries, as well.
- A good cross-training program, including the use of weights and a good flexibility component, will ensure that the muscles are ready for the work at hand.
- Using properly sized and fitted shoes will help reduce blisters and prevent alignment issues.
- Walking alone can cause the muscles to become tight, especially those of the lower back and hamstrings. A good program of stretching to lengthen those muscles and increase flexibility is essential to overall health.
The Top 3 Walking Stretches
Stretching is one of the most under-utilized techniques for improving athletic performance, preventing sports injury and properly rehabilitating sprain and strain injury. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that something as simple as stretching won’t be effective. Below are 3 very beneficial stretches for walking; obviously there are a lot more, but these are a great place to start. Please make special note of the instructions below each stretch.
Squatting Leg-out Adductor Stretch: Stand with your feet wide apart. Keep one leg straight and your toes pointing forward while bending the other leg and turning your toes out to the side. Lower your groin towards the ground and rest your hands on your bent knee or the ground.
Kneeling Quad Stretch: Kneel on one foot and the other knee. If needed, hold on to something to keep your balance and then push your hips forward.
Standing Toe-up Achilles Stretch: Stand upright and place the ball of your foot onto a step or raised object. Bend your knee and lean forward.
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Get back to the activities you love. Whether it’s enjoying your favorite sport, or walking the dog, or playing with the grand kids. Imagine getting out of bed in the morning with a spring in your step. Or being able to work in the garden or play your favorite sport without “paying-for-it” the next day.
About the Author: Brad is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.