One of the most wonderful things about walking is its sheer simplicity, so you might be surprised by just how important your walking technique is. Using proper form can make walking feel easier, prevent injury and speed up your pace. The latter is especially important when you’re looking to get the most out of your time hitting the pavement. While there’s nothing wrong with taking leisurely walks to clear your head or soak in a beautiful day, clinical research has shown that a minimum of 20 minutes of vigorous walking per day, five days per week, is what offers the most health benefit; 30 minutes or more is optimal for weight loss and fitness.
Good walking technique is easy to master; it all comes down to body awareness. Yes, speed is important. But when you increase your pace without first ensuring proper body alignment, you’ll notice that you may take bigger steps that get sloppier as you go. You may strike your toes, instead of your whole foot, which can ultimately slow you down, fatigue you more quickly and cause pain that spreads to your knees, hips and back, or even injuries such as shin splints and muscle strains.
Instead, use the following 10 walking technique tips to both protect yourself and pick up the pace:
1. Start with a gradual, five-minute warm-up walk in order to prepare your heart and muscles for fast walking.
2. Tighten your abdominal muscles to support your lower back and spine and improve your balance—especially helpful when tackling hills.
3. Stack your shoulders over your hips, and your hips over your knees, as you walk to maintain spinal alignment to prevent putting undue pressure on your lower back.
4. Keep your hands relaxed and your elbows bent to facilitate a fluid walking gait, which will allow you to accelerate more quickly and comfortably. Act as though you’re holding a set of keys in each hand to ensure the proper position.
5. Roll your shoulders back and down to avoid crunching them up to your ears. Most people shrug their shoulders upward when they move quickly, which can cause neck pain.
6. Begin your foot strike with your heel, then roll forward through the ball of your foot and push off with your toes. This three-part step minimizes injuries to the joints of your lower body and helps prevents ankle sprains.
7. Gaze forward, directly in front of you, except for occasional glances at the ground and to the side to so you can see obstacles in your path and avoid tripping.
8. Keep your arms at your sides and bent 90 degrees as you walk. Pump them naturally, close to your ribcage. You lose speed when your arms cross your body or extend along the ribcage.
9. Take small, quick steps to speed up—not long steps, which can throw off your stride and disrupt your healthy, efficient foot strike. The shorter your arm swing the shorter your leg stride will be. (As your arms drop, their swing becomes longer and slower, along with your leg stride.)
10. Decrease your pace gradually during your last few minutes of walking to allow your muscles and heart to recover. Stretch thoroughly when you’re done.
Now that you know the elements of a walking technique that will help you crank up your speed and stay safe, you may wonder just how fast is fast enough when it comes to walking for fitness. The talk test, a rough rule of exercise exertion, is a good gauge: Settle into a pace that’s fast enough that you cannot maintain a steady conversation with a walking buddy (real or imaginary) without panting. Try to do so a few times during your walk to check in on your intensity.
In addition to speeding up, you can also increase your intensity level (and your calories burn) with props like a weighted vest or walking poles. You can find these tools at most sporting goods stores.