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Backpacker Magazine

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.


Should You Go Barefoot?

Yes, no, maybe. The experts debate the controversial new craze. Proponents of barefoot running and hiking—booming in popularity since the 2009 publication of Born to Run—claim that training shoeless builds foot strength and reduces injuries. One outfit, Barefoot Hikers (barefooters.org/hikers), organizes boot-free jaunts all over the country. And barefoot-running clubs, websites, and even races have taken off. But naysayers warn that forsaking foot protection only invites new injuries. Who’s right? We think the jury is still out. You?

Yes

“I have been hiking barefoot for 50 years,” says Richard Frazine, 63, author of The Barefoot Hiker. “Going shoeless requires finding the right foot fall with every step. No step is the same. You literally feel your way down the trail with your feet.” A 2009 study by researchers from the University of Belgium and University of Liverpool found that South Indians who spent their lives barefoot had significantly wider forefeet—allowing a more effective redistribution of downward pressure across the entire surface area of the sole—compared to people who grew up wearing shoes.

No

“For people who have grown up wearing shoes, hiking without them is a bad idea,” says Arizona-based physical therapist Brian Schmitz, echoing the consensus of sports medicine professionals interviewed for this story. “You need structure around your foot for support when hiking. And you also need the protection that hiking footwear offers against cuts and injuries.” That doesn’t mean you don’t need the strengthening touted by barefoot advocates, but it’s better to achieve it through training, advises University of Calgary kinesiology professor Reed Ferber.


Maybe

“The ability to hike barefoot depends on the condition of your feet and how much ‘movement wisdom’ you have,” says Esther Gokhale, who studied indigenous populations in India, Asia, and Africa for her book 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. She found people who grew up wearing minimal footwear had stronger feet with healthier arches—not to mention a healthy posture and back for carrying loads—compared to well-shod Westerners. Unless you have muscular feet with well-developed arches, Gokhale suggests a “happy medium.” Wear a supportive shoe that has a thin sole, she says, “so you feel contours on the Earth.”
TRAINING

Add fitness to your form with our guide to stretching, strength, and balance.

Alone, a healthy foot strike and proper stride do not guarantee pain-free hiking. Weakness, instability, and tightness in the legs and hips can lead to problems as well. “Everybody is built differently, and gait will vary,” says Reed Ferber, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary and director of the university’s Running Injury Clinic. Fitness, however, is universal. All hikers should strive to improve strength, balance, and flexibility to enjoy more comfortable miles.

What follows is a backpacking-specific training program designed to give hikers the physical tools they need to put good walking technique into practice. The program was compiled in consultation with physical therapists specializing in sports medicine, including Ferber and Brian Schmitz, a doctor of physical therapy and certified strength and conditioning specialist at DeRosa Physical Therapy in Flagstaff, Arizona.

STRETCHING

Think of your body like an engine. Muscles provide the power, but you need oil (flexibility) to

keep everything running smoothly when you’re walking long miles. Maintain essential limberness year-round with these key moves.

Hips/Groin

Lunge on one leg, with front foot flat on the ground and with back leg straight and toes tucked under. Place your hands on the ground, on either side of foot, and press down with your arms (A). Hold for 10 seconds. Staying in lunge position, balance upper body on straightened arm opposite bent leg; twist torso toward bent leg and raise other arm toward the sky. Look up at hand (B). Hold for 10 seconds. Switch legs. Repeat three times.

Lower Back

Lie on the floor with legs extended straight and arms out to the sides, making a T shape. Bring knees toward chest. Keeping legs bent and together, lower them to one side, and let them rest on the floor while you turn your head in the opposite direction. Shoulders should remain flush against the floor at all times. Hold 10 seconds. Switch sides. Repeat three times.

Calves

Stand six inches away from a wall. Step one leg back three feet. Place hands flat against the wall and push in with your torso straight, front leg bent and back leg straight, shifting weight onto back foot and keeping heels on the ground. Hold for 10 seconds. (Bend back leg as well for a deeper stretch.) Switch legs. Repeat three times.

Quads

Standing with both feet flat on the ground, shift weight to right leg, and use left hand to pull your left leg behind you, against your butt. Stretch the right arm toward the sky and look up. Hold for 10 seconds. Switch sides and repeat three times.

IT Band

Sitting in a chair with your feet on the ground, place one foot on top of the opposite leg at the knee, making a triangle shape. Keep your back straight, lean forward from the hip, and press chest toward legs as far as possible. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Switch sides. Do this stretch lying on your back (pictured) to deepen it. Repeat three times on each side.

Feet/Legs

Sit on floor with your legs straight out in front and knees pointed toward the ceiling. Hinge forward from the hips with your back straight. Grab toes and pull toward your head, keeping feet flexed but legs straight, stretching foot, arches, and calves. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat three times. (Tip: Can’t reach your toes with legs straight? Don’t bend your knees. Use a towel to pull on your feet while maintaining good form.)

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