Welcome back to the blog! This summer I’d like to look at two fantastic summer pastimes – walking and running – depending on your age, level of fitness and any existing injuries you’re likely to prefer one over the other. In the first article I’ll look at walking – both the benefits and the potential for injuries – and follow up in July by taking it to the next stage, with jogging and running.
Walking is a wonderful way to achieve the recommended thirty minutes of exercise, at least five times a week – at any stage of life. It’s simple, free and easy, and has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke and some cancers. The British Heart Foundation advises people to aim to walk at least 10,000 steps a day, most days.
Before you start, however, make sure you have comfortable walking shoes or trainers, which are supportive and the right fit to avoid blisters. Make sure you’re also wearing comfortable clothes and have a backpack with snacks, water and sunscreen/waterproofs/extra layers (delete as seasonally applicable) if you’re planning to make a day of it!
To enjoy the health benefits, you’ll need to raise your heart rate to a level classed as a ‘moderate intensity aerobic activity’ – put simply, you’ll be able to talk to a friend but not sing along to your favourite song. Build up a walking plan slowly, picking up speed and distance, and make it a habit which is part of your life – walking to work or to the shops, leaving the car behind for short journeys, using the stairs instead of the lift, and so forth. Joining a walking or rambling group is a great way to keep motivated, explore new places and meet new people.
A great way to track your progress is through a pedometer or FitBit, to see how many steps you’ve walked, and with a FitBit, how high your heart rate was, how long you walked for, and how many calories you burned.
Avoiding and treating walking-related injuries
But, even with something as simple as walking, small injuries can occur, or existing conditions, if left untreated, can take the enjoyment away. Here are a few of the most common conditions, with solutions – but if any symptoms persist, physiotherapy can usually solve most of these problems quickly!
1. Plantar Fasciitis
Feels like: Tenderness on your heel or bottom of your foot
What it is: The plantar fascia is the band of tissue that runs from your heel bone to the ball of your foot. When this dual-purpose shock absorber and arch support is strained, small tears develop and the tissue stiffens as a protective response, causing foot pain.
What to do about it: At the first sign of stiffness in the bottom of your foot, loosen up the tissue by doing this stretch: Sit with the ankle of the injured foot across the opposite thigh. Pull your toes towards the shin with your hand until you feel a stretch in arch of your foot. Run your opposite hand along sole of foot; you should feel a taut band of tissue. Do 10 stretches, holding each for 10 seconds,relaxing the stretch for a few seconds between each one. Then stand and massage your foot by rolling the bottom of your foot over a golf ball or full water bottle. Wear shoes with an arch support, and avoid hard (concrete) surfaces – stick to paths and grass where possible when walking until your symptoms have settled.
2. Ingrown toenail
Feels like: Soreness or swelling on the sides of your toes most commonly the big toe.
What it is: Toe pain can develop when the corners or sides of your toenails grow sideways rather than forward, putting pressure on surrounding soft tissues and even growing into the skin.
What to do about it: Leave wiggle room in your shoes. You may need to go up a half size when you buy trainers, because your feet tend to swell during exercise. Use toenail clippers (not fingernail clippers or scissors) to cut straight across instead of rounding the corners when you give yourself a pedicure.
Feels like: Pain on the side of your big toe
What it is: A bunion develops when the bones in the joint on the outer side of the big become misaligned, forming a painful swelling. Walkers with flat feet, high arches or stiff ankles may be more prone to develop bunions.
What to do about it: Wear shoes that are wider – especially in the toe box. Stretch your ankle and calf muscles before and after walking. Place your feet in cool water after walking to help reduce any inflammation. Gently stretch your toes whilst in the cool water.
4. Achilles tendinitis
Feels like: Pain in the back of your heel and lower calf
What it is: The Achilles tendon, which connects your calf muscle to your heel, can be irritated by walking too much, especially if you don’t build up to it. Repeated flexing of the foot when walking up and down steep hills or on uneven terrain can also strain the tendon, triggering lower leg pain.
What to do about it: For mild cases, reduce your mileage or substitute non-weight-bearing activities such as swimming or upper-body strength training, so long as these don’t aggravate the symptoms. Avoid walking uphill, because this increases the stretch on the tendon, irritating it and making it weaker. Regular calf stretches may help prevent Achilles tendinitis, but in severe cases, limit or stop walking and place cold packs on the injured area for 10 minutes, 3 to 4 times a day, to reduce inflammation and discomfort.At this stage it is prudent to seek some physiotherapy input. When you return to walking, begin on flat surfaces and gradually increase your distance and speed and then introduce gradients.
5. Lumbar strain
Feels like: Ache in your mid to lower back
What it is: Occasionally when beginning a walking programme people experience back ache. Usually because muscles around the back are doing activity that they are not used to and often because the abdominal and gluteal (bottom) muscles are not engaging consistently.
What to do about it: For general back fitness, keep the abdominal and gluteals muscles strong. While you walk, engage your abs by pulling your belly button toward your spine as if you were trying to flatten your tummy to zip up tight jeans and gently squeeze your bottom muscles. Do this for 30 seconds every 5 minutes whilst walking and it will soon become a habit for these muscles to engage gently all the time. Stretch out your back, hamstrings and hip flexors before and after walking to help distribute the load evenly between your back and legs.
Nordic walking and Pilates are two great ways of maintaining the fitness of these ‘core’ muscles and your back – provided you begin at the right level for you.