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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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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