Picking the right pace, wearing the right shoes, and knowing how long to go at it can help you get the most out of a walking workout.
You’re ready to get walking on a regular basis. So, is it as simple as getting there and putting one foot in front of the other? While that is the heart of it, there are nuances about starting a walking program that will help ensure you do so safely and in a way that maximizes the benefits you get out of it.
“One of the great things about walking as a form of exercise is that almost everybody already walks. It’s just a matter of increasing the amount, and in most cases, the speed of your walking,” says walking coach Dave McGovern, 15-time US Champion racewalker and author of The Complete Guide to Competitive Walking, about making the common practice a workout.
Whether you’re physically active already or just starting out with exercise, here’s what you need to know about starting a walking program, including setting that right pace, safety must-knows, and putting together a training plan that’s right for you.
Pick Your Pace
Every step you take counts toward your physical activity, says Amanda Paluch, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, who researches physical activity, epidemiology, and kinesiology. However, increasing your walking pace and duration is how you can use walking to really boost your fitness.
She recommends aiming for moderate intensity, sometimes also called low-intensity steady-state (LISS) exercise: “This would be an effort where your heart rate and breathing is slightly elevated. A good gauge is you can talk, but cannot sing.”
Get the Right Gear: For Walking, the Right Shoes Matter
One of the best things about walking workouts is that you don’t need any fancy clothing or gear. That said, shoes are one of the most important elements. “Although you won’t need special shoes for easier walks versus for more brisk walking, you should look for a low-heeled running shoe,” McGovern says. A lower heeled shoe helps with your forward momentum. “Think racing flats rather than thicker-soled trainers,” he says.
If you have questions about what shoes are best for you, Carrie Boyle, a walking coach with the virtual walking program 99 Walks and an NASM-certified personal trainer, recommends going to your local running store, where an associate can assess your gait and help fit you with the appropriate shoe.
As for what to clothes to wear: There’s no need to buy a new walking outfit — unless of course you want to because it feels inspiring or motivating, Boyle says. Otherwise, shop your closet, pulling items that fit the criteria of being comfortable, breathable, and able to be layered, depending on the weather. She likes cotton fabrics for their breathability.
Tips for Staying Safe While Walking
Staying safe while on your walks is important. Here are five safety checks to make before every walk, according to McGovern:
Leave your earbuds at home. “I realize a lot of walkers like to listen to music while training,” McGovern says, while adding that he discourages this when walking outdoors. “Being aware of your surroundings is critical to staying safe when training outdoors.” It’s distracting and more difficult to hear approaching cars, animals, or people, he says.
Walk in the correct direction. You’re not a car, you’re a person, so walk facing traffic, says McGovern.
Carry ID. McGovern likes the Road iD, a metal tag that you can customize to include info like your name, city, state, in-case-of-emergency contacts, allergies, and medical history, and attach to a band or a fitness tracker. Or slip your driver’s license in a running belt, secure pocket, or in your cellphone case, the Road Runners Club of America recommends.
Make your habits known. If someone’s home, mention the walking route you’re taking, and in general share with friends and family the routes you tend to walk. And, McGovern adds: “Avoid unpopulated areas, deserted streets, overgrown trails, and unlit streets.”
Make yourself visible. If you walk before dawn or during or after dusk, wear reflective clothing or shoes, says McGovern. You can also purchase light-up vests and armbands for high visibility. At any time of day, it’s a good idea to wear bright colors so you’re more visible to drivers, bikers, and others on your routes.
Warm Up Ahead of Your Walking Workout
The appropriate warm-up for a walk? Walking. “In most circumstances, you can warm-up by simply walking at an easier pace at the start of your workout and build into a faster pace,” says McGovern. If you’re planning on walking at a very fast pace, he recommends doing a few dynamic flexibility drills, such as leg swings (stand and hold onto something while swinging one leg in front and then behind you), hip circles, and walking toe touches. The idea is that you want to introduce some gentle movement to the muscles and joints you’ll be calling on during your workout.
A 4-Week Walking Training Plan
If you’re brand new to walking workouts, the first step is determining your baseline.
If you have a step counter, wear it for a few days to see the average number of steps you’re taking per day, suggests Dr. Paluch. You can then increase this by 1,000 steps per day, slowly progressing your way up to 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day. (Why that amount? Her research has found that taking 7,000 steps per day correlated with a lower risk of death compared with those who took fewer steps than that, with benefits leveling off at 10,000 steps per day.)
If you don’t want to track steps, focus on duration, suggests Paluch. She recommends starting by adding 10-minute walks on most days of the week, and upping the duration of those walks by 5 to 10 minutes per walk per week. The goal would be 150 to 300 minutes per week of walking, she says.
Plan for at least one day per week of a rest or active rest day for recovery, suggests Boyle.
Listen to your body here. If you sense that you need a full day of rest from physical activity, Boyle suggests spending the time you would otherwise spend walking to do something for you: meditate, read a book, or cook. Active recovery is doing a lighter version of the activity or a complementary activity, she says. That might be going out for a slow walk where the goal is not to get your heart rate up or participating in gentle yoga or some light swimming.
So over the course of four weeks, your walking workout plan would look like this:
Day 1 Walk 10 minutes
Day 2 Walk 10 minutes
Day 3 Walk 10 minutes
Day 4 Walk 10 minutes
Day 5 Walk 10 minutes
Day 6 Rest or cross-train
Day 7 Walk 10 minutes
*The rest or cross-training day can be moved to any day that works best with your schedule
Day 1 Walk 15 minutes
Day 2 Walk 15 minutes
Day 3 Walk 15 minutes
Day 4 Walk 15 minutes
Day 5 Walk 15 minutes
Day 6 Rest or cross-train
Day 7 Walk 15 minutes
Day 1 Walk 20 minutes
Day 2 Walk 20 minutes
Day 3 Walk 20 minutes
Day 4 Walk 20 minutes
Day 5 Walk 20 minutes
Day 6 Rest r cross-train
Day 7 Walk 20 minutes
Day 1 Walk 25 minutes
Day 2 Walk 25 minutes
Day 3 Walk 25 minutes
Day 4 Walk 25 minutes
Day 5 Walk 25 minutes
Day 6 Rest r cross-train
Day 7 Walk 25 minutes
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