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Backpacker Magazine – August 2011

How to Walk

Yes, there's a better way to put one foot in front of the other. Improve your stride, trek farther, and end leg and back pain with our guide to the new science of healthy hiking.



Ups and Downs
When the slope changes, so should your gait. Here’s how to adjust your stride on hills.

RIGHT WRONG RIGHT WRONG

Uphill
>> Push your body uphill with your glutes, rather than pulling yourself with your quads and calves. Create a pushing motion by straightening your support leg. Well-trained glutes are less prone to overuse injury than the smaller muscles.
>> Keep your stride short so that you are stepping underneath your torso rather than in front of it, which strains knees and ankles.
>> Lean forward slightly to counter the slope angle. The amount of the lean depends on the grade (do what’s comfortable), but make sure to angle forward from the ankles rather than the waist, keeping your spine straight. You don’t want to hunch forward into the hill, which can cause a sore back.
>> Shorten trekking poles so you can plant tips beside you—grips even with your elbows—and push off from behind as you move forward.

Downhill
>> Bend your knees to absorb shock, and keep steps short to minimize impact. A study by the University of Salzburg found that, for downhill walkers, a 50-percent increase in stride length resulted in 220 percent more force on the knee and 360 percent more force on the hip.
>> Although the downhill slope prevents a full heel-to-toe gait, strive to land on your heel or midfoot (not the ball of your foot), then transfer your weight to the forefoot to decrease pounding on joints.
>> Keep feet, knees, and hips aligned and pointed in the direction of travel. Avoid flaring knees and feet. Walking with your feet angled outward might seem like a way to apply the brakes, but it can cause injury as the body attempts to compensate for skewed alignment.
>> Lengthen trekking poles so you can reach forward and absorb and redistribute downward pressure.

 


Choose the Right Footwear
Too-heavy boots and too-light insoles cause some of the most common foot problems.

Boots The best backpacking shoes are as light as possible while still providing adequate arch and ankle support and protection against the elements. Heavy boots, besides weighing you down, can restrict the motion of the foot and actually alter your foot strike as the added swing weight (picture three-pound bar bells strapped to each ankle) could cause your feet to drag and/or land unnaturally. What you want: a shoe with a partially rigid midsole that flexes at the ball of the foot and is roomy in the toebox. That allows a natural gait, so your arch (not the boot’s) absorbs shock and the metatarsals and toes provide stability and evenly distribute body and pack weight. When you shop, you’ll know a shoe is too rigid if, when you’re walking around the store, you literally hear a ker-thunk sound because the boot isn’t flexing at the ball. (Very stiff boots often have a rockered, or curved, sole to give the feel of a more “natural” stride, but that’s not the same as flex.) How do you know if it’s too light? Hold the heel of the shoe in your hand and push the toe down against the floor or table. “If the sole collapses anywhere but at the ball, it’s probably not supportive enough for backpacking,” says Brandan Hill, a designer at Chaco. In the store, exaggerate a strong toe-off to make sure the natural flex point of the ball of your foot matches the boot’s flex point. Try going up and down in half-size increments to get a feel for how the flex point shifts.

Insoles Shoemakers use the words “insert,” “insole,” and “footbed” interchangeably to refer to the same thing: a contoured platform that’s supposed to provide additional cushion and stability, and keep your foot in a neutral position (level, with arch raised). The problem: Most shoes come with thin foam insoles that do squat. The solution: Get an after-market insert made specifically for hiking or running; most feature a molded, hard-plastic base for arch support, and resilient foam for all-day cushion. Most BACKPACKER editors swap out thin, noncontoured footbeds for a supportive insert like this:

>> SOLE Signature EV Ultra A 3.2-mm-thick layer of dense foam sits atop a rigid plastic platform that molds to the foot with wear. A deep heel cup and pronounced arch support cradles the foot, providing excellent lateral stability. Our flat-footed tester found this insole ideal for reducing overpronation. This model is also a good choice for hikers who suffer from knee pain or ankle rolling caused by an uneven foot strike. $50; yoursole.com

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Anonymous
Jun 28, 2012

Aly
Apr 19, 2012

GREAT article. I leave basically untrained - for the Camino de Santiago next week - this will at least give me things to think about whilst walking:)

Aly
Apr 19, 2012

GREAT article. I leave basically untrained - for the Camino de Santiago next week - this will at least give me things to think about whilst walking:)

MandalaRunning@gmail.com
Mar 25, 2012

Confirmed: Check Barefoot Running for the Complete Idiot. When Foot strikes, first thing that happens is an outside heal strike. Further as this article demonstrates foot then rolls to the inside heal while almost at same time engaging little toe-mound, then back momentarily to the inside heal while progressing to big toe mound to a big toe lift-off. Each of the four corners of the foot engage a complete kinetic chain from foot to top of head. Hands follow same sequence as foot while running. A complete fluid flow of the body in motion occurs. This is very important stuff to review in both walking and running to identify compensations culturally induced, or through injury or stress.

pjcamp
Mar 19, 2012

Why am I hearing bagpipes when I look at your "take the test" guy?

John Parry
Mar 19, 2012

The description of how to walk reminds me of racewalking. It is not that the stride on level ground is short, but that there is less of the stride is in front of the body and more of the stride is behind the body. Also when you are using your hips as described the effect is your overall stride length is longer.

Darren
Mar 17, 2012

Why no mention of shin-splints and stress fractures and how to prevent them? It's a very common long distance hiking injury.

Also, enough with the barefoot fad already.

Bear
Mar 17, 2012

I have been hiking barefoot consistently for a couple years, and can generally do it every season but winter (and as long as the ground isn't very wet, a pair or two of wool socks help). I have always hated shoes and wear then as little as possible. I guess it isn't for everyone, but I find the sensation of feeling the trail is just as exciting as the sights and sounds. I also feel like I am making less of a negative impact. I have to be conscious of where I step rather than clumsily tromping through the bush.

Eric
Mar 16, 2012

Short strides can lead to blisters due to overheating. So it's best in my opinion to find a good balance, not just start taking baby steps as recommended here.

Jay
Mar 16, 2012

You're kidding...??? Maybe backpacker will teach me how to dress myself as well...

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