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The Most Frequently Asked Walking Questions

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Q: What's the best time of day to walk?
A: It varies from one person to the next. To me, any time of day is perfect!

In the summer, I love to walk in the mornings, when it's nice and cool and the sun is up early. In the winter, I usually try to walk on my lunch hour, since that's the warmest part of the day. The fresh air revitalizes me for the afternoon, plus I get a healthy dose of vitamin D from the sun's rays. The question is, when are you most willing and able to walk? That's the best time for you.

Q: Should I eat before I walk?
A: Again, it varies from one person to the next. I almost always eat something before I leave on my morning walk. I just feel better. But if I'm planning to go at a brisk pace or to do some interval training, I'll keep my breakfast small and simple -- maybe a piece of fruit and a glass of juice, or some low-fat or nonfat yogurt. The human body doesn't particularly like digesting food and exercising hard at the same time.

That said, a leisurely stroll after a large meal may enhance digestion and burn a few extra calories. But walking before a meal works just as well, provided you don't have any problems with your blood sugar.

And if that meal happens to be breakfast, be sure to drink a nice, tall glass of water before you head out. Your body may be somewhat dehydrated after a night's sleep.

Q: What's the simplest way to determine how fast I'm walking?
A: The easiest way to gauge your speed without wearing a pedometer -- or getting in your car and measuring mileage, which can be pretty difficult unless you walk along a street -- is to count your number of steps per minute. The experts use this number to calculate pace, based on an average stride length of 2 and 1/2 feet. (Stride length is the distance from the heel of one foot to the heel of the other foot when you're taking a step.) They've already done the math for you.

  • 70 steps per minute equals 30 minutes per mile, or 2 miles per hour.
  • 105 steps per minute equals 20 minutes per mile, or 3 miles per hour.
  • 140 steps per minute equals 15 minutes per mile, or 4 miles per hour.

If you pay attention to your steps, after a while, you'll be able to estimate your pace fairly accurately without bothering to count. You'll just know what a 20-minute mile or a 15-minute mile feels like.

Q: How many calories do I burn by walking a mile?
A: The average 150-pound person burns between 80 and 100 calories per mile. That number can change depending on your height, your weight, your fitness level, whether you're walking on hills or level terrain, what you're wearing, the outside temperature, and many other factors.

If your goal is to lose weight, forget about the numbers. Instead, develop a healthy eating plan that you can live with, and incorporate as much physical activity into your daily routine as possible. Walk for at least 1/2 hour a day. If you can do more, great! Maybe you can squeeze in 1/2 hour in the morning and another 1/2 hour in the evening. Then during the day, take as many short walks as you can, indoors or out.

Become aware of how much time you spend sitting, and make an effort to fill some of those minutes with physical activity. At work, for example, pace around while you're talking on the phone and use the restroom on another floor or in the farthest corner of your building. That way, you know you're burning more calories throughout the day. The exact number doesn't really matter.

Shoe Savvy

Q: My walking shoes have two sets of eyelets. Which should I use?
A: That extra set of eyelets allows you to fine-tune the fit of your walking shoe. If you have a narrow heel, lace both sets of eyelets to tighten the top of your shoe. This keeps your heel from slipping, so you don't develop blisters. You may have to experiment to get the lacing just right.

Q: I walk early in the morning, so my walking shoes always get wet. They're still damp the next day when I go to put them on. Any suggestions?
A: Ideally, you should have two pairs of walking shoes, so you can alternate between them. That said, stuffing newspaper inside your wet shoes can help soak up moisture, so they might be dry by the next day. Just don't put wet leather shoes near the heat. Drying them too fast causes them to shrink or crack.

Q: When should I get new shoes?
A: Replace your walking shoes every 6 months or 600 miles, whichever comes first. At that point, it doesn't matter if the shoes still look great. They've lost a lot of their cushioning power. Be kind to your feet, and you'll keep walking forever.

Focus on Fitness

Q: How can I evaluate my fitness level as a walker?
A: James Rippe, M.D., author of Dr. James Rippe's Complete Book of Fitness Walking, has developed a special formula to help walkers assess their fitness. Find a flat 1-mile loop. Warm up for 5 minutes, stretching your calves and hamstrings. Then walk the mile as quickly as you can without running out of steam. Compare your time against the benchmark for your age group.

  • Under 30: If you can walk a mile in 13 minutes, you're in great shape.
  • 30 to 39: Doing a 14-minute mile puts you in the "great shape" category.
  • 40 to 49: Cover a mile in just under 15 minutes (14 minutes, 42 seconds), and you're at the top level of fitness for your age group.
  • 50 to 69: Doing a 15-minute mile is excellent.
  • 70 or over: If you can walk a mile in 18 minutes, 18 seconds, you're very fit for your age.

If you exceed the ideal time for your age group by 3 to 6 minutes, you're not in the best shape aerobically. But don't worry -- just keep walking. Regular, consistent exercise can lower your time.

Q: Is it possible to do too much walking? Can I overtrain?
A: If you're new to walking, build up your time and mileage gradually. After all, you want your feet to toughen up and your muscles to get used to the exertion. You may not actually hurt yourself, but if you feel stiff and sore, it may keep you from going out again.

If you're walking regularly and you're really picking up your pace, you can just as easily overtrain. Here are some indicators that you may need to reduce your intensity or distance or even take a day off once in a while.

  • Your daily walks seem to be getting harder instead of easier.
  • You feel more tired than usual during the day.
  • You have difficulty springing out of bed in the morning.
  • You have trouble falling asleep or sleeping soundly.
  • You begin eating less or eating irregularly.

If you cut back on your walking routine and your symptoms persist, see your doctor. There may be an underlying medical problem that's making you feel bad.

Staying Injury-Free

Q: My hands swell when I walk. Is this a problem? It feels funny, and I don't like it.
A: Swelling in your hands is normal. When you swing your arms, the blood rushes down into your fingers. It isn't harmful, but it could be uncomfortable, especially if you wear rings. It's a good idea to take off your rings before you go walking.

If the swelling bothers you, try squeezing your hands into fists from time to time while you walk. This helps push blood back from the fingers. Some people carry small rubber balls to squeeze. Keeping your elbows bent as you swing your arms can also minimize swelling. But unless you're racewalking, the bent-elbow technique can feel rather silly.

Q: Whenever I start walking, I get side stitches. What causes them, and what can I do about them?
A: A side stitch -- a sudden, stabbing pain in your side -- results from a spasm of the diaphragm, the muscle that separates your chest and abdomen. It's crying out for oxygen because your expanded lungs and contracted abdomen are blocking normal blood flow. This sounds serious, but it's not a big deal.

At the first sign of a side stitch, stop walking. Using three fingers, massage the area where the pain is most severe until you feel relief. Do not hold your breath. As your breathing slows to its normal rate, the pain should subside. Then you can resume your walk. Like any muscle, your diaphragm cramps when it isn't warmed up properly. So remember to warm up before you head out. Walking slowly should do the trick.

Q: Help! I'm having pain in the front of my lower legs. What is it?
A: It sounds like shin splints, a common problem among beginning walkers. It results from doing too much too soon. Your shin and calf muscles cramp from overuse, and you notice a burning pain in your shins.

To avoid shin splints, increase your distance and pace gradually, and always take time to warm up before doing any speedwork. If you've already overdone it, try slowing your pace. If you're still in pain, try stretching your calf muscles. Stand facing the nearest wall or tree, then lean forward, putting your palms against the wall or tree and keeping your heels flat on the ground. Or sit on a bench with your legs straight out in front of you and flex your feet toward you. Still in pain? Hobble home and apply ice for 15 minutes. Be sure to wrap the ice in a towel, to protect your skin from the cold.

Q: I have heel pain. What should I do?
A: Heel pain becomes increasingly common with age, especially among the over-40 crowd. Often it results from a condition called plantar fasciitis -- that's inflammation of the plantar fascia, a sheath of connective tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot. As this tissue becomes overstretched and inflamed, it produces sharp pain, especially first thing in the morning when you get out of bed. The pain eases as you walk around, but it can come back, especially if you sit for a long time.

As you get older, your body's tissues become less pliable. That's why stretching is so important. For heel pain, stretching your calf muscles may help. If it doesn't, you may need better walking shoes or special shoe inserts (called orthotics) to keep your ankles from rolling inward (overpronating), which may overstretch and inflame the plantar fascia.

If simple stretching doesn't relieve your pain within a week or two, schedule an appointment with a podiatrist. You need to find out what's causing your pain. If you keep stretching and tearing your plantar fascia, you may develop heel spurs, painful bony protuberances from the heel bones.

Whatever the source of your heel pain, it needs time to heal. Just be patient. Your podiatrist may want to give you cortisone shots, but they're only a temporary solution. Getting them repeatedly may cause tissue damage over time.

Q: How can I avoid blisters?
A: A bad case of blisters can knock a beginning walker right off her feet. More experienced walkers who step up their workouts or switch to hiking can encounter problems, too. Here's how to keep your feet blister-free.

  • When you feel a "hot spot" on your foot, act right away. Take off your shoe and apply moleskin or an adhesive bandage over the affected area.
  • Make sure that your shoes fit both feet. Often one foot is larger than the other. The friction created by wearing the wrong-size shoe -- whether it's too small or too large -- can lead to blisters.
  • Wear high-tech socks made from fibers that wick away moisture. Skip the cotton and look for synthetic blends such as CoolMax or Wonderspun.

Safety First

Q: There are some nasty-looking dogs in my neighborhood, and they're not always chained or fenced in. What can I do to protect myself?
A: You're right to be concerned. Even dogs that seem friendly around their owners can become aggressive when they're protecting their turf from strangers. If you can take another route, do so. Or call local authorities -- either your town's animal-control officer or the police -- to find out the provisions of municipal leash laws and to report any violations.

If you must walk by a property with potentially dangerous dogs, be sure to carry something for protection. Tie a sweatshirt around your waist, wear a fanny pack, carry an umbrella or a walking stick -- anything that you can put between yourself and a dog, in case one tries to bite you. The dog won't care if he gets you or the object in your hand. As he bites down on the object, keep tension on it and back yourself to a place of safety, like inside a car or behind a fence. Then let go and wait for him to leave.

Never stare down a dog. Instead, stand still and try to stay calm. Say, "No!" in a deep, firm voice. If the dog stops in his tracks, yell, "Go home!"

If a dog knocks you down, curl into a tight ball and protect your head and neck with your hands. Wait for the animal to leave, then slowly move to safety. Running will only attract the dog's attention.

Report any attack to your local animal-control office immediately. Even if the dog bit your fanny pack and didn't harm you, he's dangerous, and his owner should be notified.

Q: I like walking on an outdoor track near where I live because I don't have to contend with dogs or cars, but I get bored. Any suggestions?
A: An outdoor track can be lots of fun for walking. It's a great place to interval train -- speed up for one lap, slow down for the next. You can listen to music during your workouts since you're out of harm's way. (If you're completely alone, you might want to keep one ear free, so you can hear a stranger approaching.) You can practice special techniques, like walking with your feet parallel to one of the white lane lines or crossing each foot over the line to stretch out your hips.

Wear a watch or a stopwatch to monitor your pace. If you walked a 15-minute mile last week, can you shave a few seconds off your time this week? Write down your times, so you can track your progress.

When you're on a track, you can really let your mind wander since you shouldn't have to watch for obstacles. Carry a little tape recorder to record your brainstorms or to make tapes to send to relatives or friends. If you're comfortable walking with someone, just having a buddy can distract you from the monotony of going around in circles.

Pairing Up to Work Out

Q: My wife and I like to walk together, but she has trouble keeping up with my brisk pace. I don't want to give up our time with each other, but I do want to get a workout. What should I do?
A: Your situation is quite common among walking couples. Each person has a different pace or a different stride, so one gets bored slowing down or the other suffers trying to keep up. There isn't any perfect solution, but since you're the faster partner, you could wear a weighted vest or backpack while you're walking. Or you could try using a PowerBelt. It's a device that you wear around your waist, with handles to pull for an upper-body workout. Just pumping your arms helps to rev up your heart.

Perhaps the best suggestion is for you to do most of your workout first, then join your partner for your cooldown. You'll be relaxed and in a great mood by the time you're finished walking, ready to share quality time with your partner.

Q: I want to start a walking club in my area. Where do I begin?
A: My first question to you is, do you really want to add this kind of complication to your life? Most people I know prefer to walk either alone or in pairs. Getting an entire group together on a regular basis is just too difficult.

On the other hand, you may find some interest in walking classes. Many people are willing to pay a nominal fee to have someone motivate them to walk. If you're willing to lead a class, all you need is a watch, a cell phone, CPR certification, and some enthusiasm. You don't have to know racewalking technique, although good posture is definitely a plus.

To find your recruits, place an ad in your local newspaper or post a notice at your church or YMCA. Explain that you'll lead walks at a particular time, from a designated starting point, a set number of times a week for a fee of $3 to $5 per session. (If you're experienced in racewalking technique or you have some sort of training certification, you may want to charge more.) You'll have the walking group you wanted in the first place, and as a bonus, you'll be getting paid for your efforts.

The catch is, you're responsible for everything, including getting your walkers back to the starting point on time, making sure that they stay within their target heart-rate ranges, and leading them in stretches before and after every workout. You may want to have water bottles or light snacks available, too.

Treadmill Tips

Q: Do I get as good a workout when I'm on my treadmill as when I go outdoors?
A: All treadmills are different. Some give very accurate indications of your speed, while others don't. On my treadmill, I feel like I'm walking 4 miles an hour even though the speedometer reads 2.5.

What's more, when you're on a treadmill, the walking surface is continuously pulling away from you. As a result, you're not getting the solid push-off from your back foot that you do when you're walking outside.

But the real issue is that you're probably using the treadmill for a certain reason. Perhaps you don't feel safe walking outside, or the weather is keeping you inside. What's important is that you're moving your muscles, burning calories, and getting a great workout.

Personally, I wouldn't want to do all my walking on a treadmill. The benefits of walking outside in nature are just too great to ignore. So make sure that you exercise outdoors whenever you can.

Q: I feel dizzy when I get off my treadmill. Is there something wrong with me?
A: Absolutely not. When you're walking on a treadmill, your body gets confused because it's moving but the scenery isn't changing. So once you return to terra firma, your body thinks it should keep going, even though you're standing still. To minimize dizziness, try slowing your treadmill to a very easy pace before you hop off. Then walk around for a few minutes until your sense of equilibrium returns.

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