Walking is one of the gentlest and safest forms of physical activity. However, there are a few things you can do to minimize your injury risk.
Get a Smart Start
Start low and go slow. Increase your walking time or distance by about 10-20% each week.
Supportive, well-fitting and cushioned athletic shoes are the “signature” piece of equipment for injury-free walking. Good shoes will support your foot and promote a natural gait or walking pattern. Replace your shoes every 300-500 miles, because excessive wear can degrade the cushioning and support features of the shoe and contribute to chronic injuries. See “Sneaker Savvy” handout. You can find a list of walking shoes recommended by the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine at http://www.aapsm.org/walkingshoes.html.
Blisters occur from shear force, pressure and moisture affecting the interface between your foot and the shoe. Studies have shown that synthetic fiber socks decrease blisters when compared to cotton socks. This is because cotton tends to absorb moisture and increase friction. Look for socks that are made primarily with synthetic fibers such as Coolmax®, acrylic or polypropylene. If you purchase a new pair of shoes, go for a slightly shorter walk the first time out so that new pressure points don’t irritate the skin.
Shin splints (pain on the front of your lower leg) can occur if you increase your walking distance and speed too quickly or add too many hills too soon. To prevent shin splints, wear athletic shoes with adequate support and cushioning, gradually increase your walking mileage/pace and stretch your calves (both straight and bent knee) after walking.
There are many causes of knee pain, including osteoarthritis and patellofemoral stress syndrome. If you experience knee pain during exercise, check with your physician. You may need a new pair of walking shoes with better support or cushioning. You may also benefit from strengthening and/or stretching exercises targeting the muscles that support the knee and hip.
Moving vehicles present a risk of serious injury, so it’s important to follow your mother’s old advice when crossing any intersection. Look both ways, especially with many quiet hybrid cars on the road! If you’re listening to your iPod, make sure the sound doesn’t drown out street noise. Wear light-colored clothing with reflective strips if you’re walking at dawn or dusk.
Walking on sidewalks is safest. However, if you choose to walk in the road, walk against traffic so you can see approaching cars. There is a slight grade from the middle of the street to the curb to allow for water drainage. Walking on the edge of the street forces the downhill leg to bend slightly inward, stretching your iliotibial band (a ligament that runs along the outside of your thigh). This could cause some irritation and pain. Alternate walking on different sides of the street so that you don’t have the same leg consistently on the downhill slope.
Although walking is a low impact activity, know that concrete sidewalks are less forgiving than asphalt. Cinder tracks and dirt trails are even softer and gentler on your joints.
Walking paths and hiking trails provide a scenic and refreshing setting. But be aware that uneven terrain, rocks, tree roots or hidden holes could cause ankle injuries. Watch your footing! Lightweight trail running or hiking shoes are designed to provide additional lateral support and may be a wise investment if you will be walking in the great outdoors.
Listen to your body. If you feel pain, particularly if it increases or comes on earlier in your walk, you should limit your activity and contact your doctor. If you experience an injury during walking, follow the RICE prescription and then see your healthcare provider:
Rest. Rest the injured area. Get off your feet!
Ice. Apply a bag of ice to the injured area for about 20 minutes. Ice is nature’s anti-inflammatory and can reduce tissue damage. Use a bag of frozen peas if you don’t have an ice bag handy. Place a wet cloth between the ice pack and your skin. Repeat morning, after work and evening as long as you experience pain and/or swelling.
Compression. Use an ace bandage/wrap to secure your ice bag to the injury with some pressure. This can help control swelling.
Elevation. If your foot or knee is injured, sit or lie down with your leg elevated at/above heart level. This reduces swelling and can help promote faster healing.