How to turn walking into a workout

Walking training tips and techniques

We all know how to walk, but how do you turn walking from a way of getting from A to B into a bona fide fitness workout? The number one reason people don’t achieve the benefits they expect from fitness walking is that they simply don’t walk fast enough, for long enough or often enough.

While any amount of walking (classified as a moderate exercise activity) will benefit your heart and general health, you need to approach walking much as you would any kind of exercise programme if you want to achieve genuine and lasting fitness benefits, and that means you need to have a plan of progressive walking training, with specific goals and a set route to achieving them.
Have a walking plan

That might sound daunting, but all it really means is rather than training aimlessly (say, by going out for the same walk every single time) or randomly (by following a week of inactivity with a full day’s hike), you apply some structure to your regime.

The variables you have to ‘play with’ are frequency, intensity and time (known as the FIT principle). The way you manipulate these three variables will determine the results you are likely to get from your programme.

How much walking is enough?

When thinking about frequency, it’s important to distinguish between walking as part of your daily lifestyle activity and walking specifically for fitness. Some guidelines recommend walking (or an equivalent moderate-intensity activity) for 30 minutes most days of the week to safeguard health. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), a world authority on exercise, suggests that for fitness, we work at 55 to 90 per cent of our maximum heart rate for 20 to 60 minutes, three to five days per week. To ensure that you don’t end up being one of the many people who say that ‘walking doesn’t work’, try and see these three to five sessions as over and above your daily lifestyle walking rather than counting towards it.

And does your walking have to hurt?

How hard do you need to work at walking to make it worthwhile? Well, the pace at which you walk is an individual thing — one person’s sprint is another person’s leisurely stroll. The goal is simply to increase your pace over a period of time. The important thing is to work at your own level. However, research does suggest that while any amount of walking at any pace is good — faster walking — and more of it — is better. For example, one study showed that women who usually walk at a brisk pace are about half as likely to develop heart disease than those who usually walk at a more leisurely pace, and that increasing walking pace from 3 to 4mph (4.8 to 6.4kph) can double fitness improvements. Don’t be disheartened though — both steady paced and faster walking have an important role to play in your overall fitness, which is why it is so essential to vary the speed and distance (or time) of your walks.

Steady walking vs. speed walking

Walking at a steady pace for a prolonged period will yield many health and body benefits: the major boost is to the cardiorespiratory system — the heart and lungs, although moderate-paced walking will also teach your body to become more efficient at extracting oxygen from the blood and burning fat instead of carbohydrate as a fuel, will improve endurance in the lower body muscles and strengthen the connective tissues such as ligaments, tendons and cartilage.

Walking training tips and techniques

And, providing you do it for long enough, it will burn a substantial amount of energy. For example: a day’s hike (six hours cross-country walking, with a stop for lunch!) for a 70kg (154lb) man will burn 2,520 calories. Faster walking, whether performed in one continuous effort or in ‘intervals’ (efforts separated by recovery periods) has some additional benefits.

Working at a greater intensity of effort makes your heart more efficient at pumping blood around the body, gets you accustomed to working at a higher percentage of your maximum heart rate and raises what is called your lactate threshold — the point at which the working muscles produce more lactic acid, a by-product of metabolism, than can be cleared. This lactic acid builds up in the muscle, hampering muscle contraction. Now, this is a good thing, as it means you can work at a higher percentage of your maximum effort without getting this lactic acid build-up.

In other words, you can walk the same speed with less effort or walk even faster — increasing muscle strength and power and increasing energy expenditure even higher.

So which form of walking is best?

A combination of the two, thankfully! For one thing, walking at a leisurely pace means you can probably walk for longer than you can if you go all out, so your calorie expenditure has the potential to be higher. Secondly, walking at both fast and slower speeds helps you become adept at identifying your own perception of what is a ‘comfortable’ or a ‘challenging’ pace.

And the good news about time and intensity is that as one goes up, the other goes down. In other words, you don’t try to increase both how hard you walk and how long you walk simultaneously. For best results, it’s a good idea to work on increasing length in some sessions, and on increasing intensity in others.

Increase your walking regime

When you start, it may be that a 15 minute stride leaves you exhausted, but a few weeks down the line, once your body has made some of the adaptations described, that 15 minute route will no longer leave you sweat-soaked and breathless. Great! But that doesn’t mean that you simply continue doing it — you have to up the ante a bit.

If you don’t make your body work harder than it is used to, then it will have no reason to get fitter. Whether you are a lifelong couch potato about to take their first foray into fitness, or a highly active person, your fitness programme needs to be constantly adjusted to be more challenging, if you are to continue making fitness gains. Sport scientists call this ‘progressive overload.’

Keep walking

It’s only when the overload described above is repeated often enough that the body begins to make the adaptations. And that is why consistency is so important. The stop-start cycle that many of us get stuck in with exercise and eating plans is not desirable. Not only does it make the journey to fitness much more arduous, it also means that you are putting a lot of hard work in — albeit sporadically — without reaping the results.

Remember to rest

I’m certainly not suggesting that you should never have a day off! In fact, rest is a crucial part of training as it is then that the body takes stock of the physical demands that have been placed upon it, and triggers the necessary adaptations, so that next time you make those demands, it will be more prepared to cope. There’s no need to take a day’s rest from your usual daily activities, however — it’s only when you are working harder, by following a progressive walking programme, that you need to think about scheduling in rest days

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