Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Doing what comes naturally is naturally the best way to walk

We don’t usually think about how to walk any more than we think about how to breath. We just do it. Even with our first baby steps as infants, we’re just “Doin’ what comes naturally,” as a song says. And doing something that is mechanically extremely complex, using most of our muscles and organs—brain, heart, lungs, eyes and more—in intricate actions that only physiologists understand.

There are exceptions. Military people must learn to march the way the military wants them to march. Infantry grunts are drilled to march 30, 40 or even 50 kilometres, packing heavy loads. Marathon runners give considerable thought to techniques that will help them cover the ground faster. And power walkers, too, must similarly learn the best techniques. Doing what comes naturally isn’t naturally the best way to walk, for the most effective exercise, health, or speed.

Which brings me to my subject. As I tramp into my 80th year, I think I’ve mastered the power walking technique as recommended by former Olympic power walker Mark Felton and others, and modified it just slightly to what seems to give me, at least, the best result.

In fact, I seem to have adopted three different modes of walking during three months of training, so far this year, as I prepare for a 42-kilometre power walking marathon on September 26, and a three-day 90-kilometre hike along for the Victoria Rail Trail from Lindsay to Halliburton October 9 to 11. As noted earlier, on the marathon I’ll be raising money for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and on the hike I’ll be raising money, for Lindsay’s Ross Memorial Hospital.

Power walking I’ve dubbed the locomotive style. I’ll explain that in a minute. Power walking provides the most vigorous exercise, does the most to improve posture, probably provides the most health benefits, and is the fastest of the three walking styles. But at least for me, it seems best suited to relatively short walks. I probably won’t be able to maintain an all-out power mode for the full 42 kilometres of the marathon. I will likely alternate it with the still brisk but less energetic style I call a military march.

You don’t see soldiers punching the air with bent elbows like power walkers; soldiers swing their arms. A military march, or something remotely like it, seems best suited for long hikes, such as my planned October hike to Haliburton. It seems closest to doing what comes naturally. “You’re swinging your arms freely with just a slight bend to you elbow,” says the Mayo Clinic.[i] “A little pumping with your arms is OK.”

Gorilla-style walking is probably approved by no one, but I sometimes do it for a few minutes as I warm up when starting out, more often as I cool down at the end of a good walk, or if I’m just pooped out and need to slow down for awhile. With muscles relaxed and shoulders slouched, my arms hang straight down, dangling loosely like an ape.

I call power walking the locomotive style because of the arms. My arms don’t swing: they punch. The elbows are bent at 45 degrees, and my hands make short, fast punches, back and forth. As the hands reciprocate like some power-driven mechanical devices they drive the speed of each short step as surely as the reciprocating rods that drive the big wheels of a railway locomotive. The faster the hands and arms go, the faster the feet go. The wheels of a locomotive must turn as fast as the rods that drive them, and the legs must go as fast as the arms that seem to drive them. I find it totally impossible to do anything but keep the speed of my legs in synch with the speed of my arms. I’m sure I’d fall flat on my face if things ever did get out of synch.

Some power walking instructions suggests that the arms should be bent a bit more than 45 degrees with the pumping hands chest high. I find that wastes too much energy. It seems easier, more comfortable, and just as effective to keep the hands at belly-button level. I also have a tendency to tightly close my fists as I pump my hands back and forth—another waste of energy. I have to remind myself to keep a relaxed, open fist, thumb against index and middle fingers.

Now I’m power walking with my arms driving my legs in short, quick steps (much faster than long strides). A few more things kick it into high gear. Head up, eyes forward, not focused on the ground. Stomach and butt squeezed in. Then, with the back straight, I throw the shoulders back, and the pace seems to automatically pick up another notch.

This is the way it works for me.

None of this makes me a fast walker. After some 650-training miles I am still nowhere near fast enough to complete the 42 kilometres of the September 26 marathon in the qualifying time of 6.5 hours. At my age, I’ll likely never be one of the qualifying “fast walkers” for whom the Scotia Bank Toronto Waterfront Marathon is said to be ideal. But at least I’ll be not quite as slow as I would be without—by that time—some six months of training. And perhaps a pair of those costly featherweight walking shoes that power walkers favour will enable me to cover the ground a little faster than in the comfortable hiking boots in which I’ve been training.

At 2 pm on the Sunday afternoon of the marathon, the streets of Toronto on the route will be re-opened for vehicular traffic. Any of the anticipated 20,000 marathoners still running, power walking or limping along will have to get off the road. But unless they roll up the sidewalks, I will still complete the full 42 kilometres as quickly as I can without risking my impaired heart.

And if I can’t walk as fast as real power walkers, at least I’ll look like one.

Not that power walkers are a great sight. As my marathon-running daughter says, “Power walkers do look funny.” As I hurry along with fast tiny steps I fear I must look like an old geezer rushing in urgent need to get to the nearest bathroom.

Never mind. I’m out there doing more than just practicing power walking. I’m also practicing the Keegel. The Keegel, as mentioned in an earlier blog, is the exercise that women do after giving birth to tone up muscles and body shape. For men, the Keegel is said to be a more effective cure than Viagra for erectile dysfunction. The Keegel essentially consists of alternately contracting and relaxing the pelvic muscles. As I power walk with my stomach and butt pulled in tight, I seem to be able to also pull in my pelvic muscles by squeezing just a tiny bit harder. In fact, says the Mayo Clinic, when walking you should “Tuck your pelvis under your torso.” And from time to time I give those pelvic muscles that extra squeeze.

Thus, as I power walk, I like to think that I’m killing two birds with one stone. Which is good, as long as I’m not the old bird.

[i]  Mayo Clinic Health Solutions. “Walk Your Way to Fitness.” Rochester, Minnesota, 2007.

Search terms: Walking; power walking; hiking; exercise; health; Scotia Bank Toronto Waterfront Marathon; marathons; Lindsay, Ontario; Haliburton, Ontario; Victoria Rail Trail; Mark Fenton; Kegel exercise; Ross Memorial Hospital; Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario.

No comments:

Post a Comment