Walking Stretches and Flexibility Exercises
Walking stretches to improve your performance and do away with walking injuries for good.
by Brad Walker | First Published October 14, 2010 | Updated November 13, 2018
While walking may not seem like a strenuous exercise, walking fast for long distances can cause serious muscle injuries. Incorporate regular walking stretches into your walk training schedule will help to prepare your body for the physical demands of walking.
Muscles used in Walking
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: A Sprained ankle 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 Benefits of Walking Stretches
Incorporating walking stretches as part of a walking training program has a number of benefits:
- Stretching increases the length of muscles and tendons, this in turn increases the range of motion. With an increased range of motion, you can more comfortably complete a number of exercises and tasks.
- Regular walking stretches can help prevent injuries like runner’s knee (also called chondromalacia); iliotibial band syndrome; plantar fasciitis; and Achilles tendonitis.
- Finally, even the most basic walking stretches can just make you feel better. Glossing over it in your regular walking training, however, could cost you dearly.
Despite the numerous benefits, it is important to bear in mind that stretching can have detrimental effects when done incorrectly. Improperly done stretches can over time cause permanent damage to ligaments and joint. When performing the stretching exercises below, be sure to warm up first and if any of the exercises cause pain or severe discomfort, discontinue immediately. Review my article on the rules for safe stretching for more information.
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.
Watch the Walking Stretches below
Click on the play button below to watch the 10 minute walking stretching exercises video.
While the recommendations on this page are a good starting point, you'll get a lot more benefit when you include a wider variety of stretches and stretching routines.
Get over 150 of the best daily stretch routines to do away with injuries; increase your flexibility; improve your sporting performance; and become loose, limber and pain free.
About the Author: Brad Walker 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 (author page) 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 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.