Walking is often overlooked, especially in the US, as a means of exercise despite it being something that everyone can do for free. Walking can be seen as an inconvenience, a time waster, or something for the unfit.
However, walking with purpose can help young athletes (and parents and coaches) for three reasons:
1. It provides recovery physically from the trauma of competition.
2. By paying attention to the environment, you will become more mindful and help relax from the stress of the day.
3. It is the foundation of all running and locomotion and can prepare you for higher-intensity work.
Walking, like many other excellent habits, requires you to get started; here are some ideas on how and why you might think about walking more.
In this age of hacks, shortcuts, and multi-tasking, the thought of taking your time to get from A to B seems archaic. Yet people drive to their mindfulness retreat and wish for a more peaceful time. Student-athletes are ferried from home to school to sports club to home to competition; their eyes transfixed to screens when they are not being told what to do by adults.
And we wonder why they suffer from burnout and have short attention spans.
Walking allows the mind to wander (providing you are not staring at your phone, bumping into pedestrians, and risking a road traffic accident). The slower pace of travel, combined with the rhythmic action of legs striding, arms swinging, and the increased oxygen intake, all help the mind unwind.
Walking can be classed as ‘active’ recovery, compared to passive recoveries such as watching TV or reading a book (both of which may have their place). Tired and tight muscles benefit from easier movement than those induced by the rigors of competition. Yoga and static stretching are also active recovery methods and have proven benefits of stress reduction and relaxation.
But, walking is perhaps most useful in its provision of aerobic fitness. Not the mall-shuffling between fast-food joints carrying slushies type walking, but brisk enough to cover 3-4 miles in an hour. A century ago, men and women walked to work, and children walked to school. This was still common in the 1940s-1950s. When it came to running or more active sports, the participants had literally walked hundreds or thousands of miles. Old running programs used to have a ‘long walk’ on Sunday rather than today’s long run. A long walk then meant 16-20 miles: five or six hours, sometimes with a picnic or a pit stop at a cafe or pub.
If the route included hilly terrain, then a walker’s heart rate could be between 100-150 bpm for most of the journey. That is enough to provide the much sought-after ‘aerobic’ base, as any hiker will tell you.
How to walk
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Chinese Proverb.
A thousand miles is enough to put anyone off, but even one mile can seem daunting. I was in Houston two weeks ago and had to walk from my conference venue to the hotel. It was only 400 meters away, but I was a dripping mess by the time I reached the air-conditioned lobby. Every step was causing me to hate the concrete sidewalk more and more. How could there be no shade amongst the high-rise towers of the Medical District?
If you are going to start walking, give yourself a chance. Walk small, local journeys that are safe, temperate, and circular. That way, if you get stuck, tired, or caught in a thunderstorm, you can get back safely. Walking into Rice Village later that evening, after a welcome shower, the air was still warm but pleasant. I looked at all the different houses, paid attention to the manicured lawns, and said ‘howdy’ to the residents (this was Texas, after all).
Unplugging from devices is essential to relax. I am not an advocate of listening to podcasts or music whilst walking: they distract you from paying attention to what is around you. In order to relax, you need to be present in the moment, to see, smell and hear what is happening around you. I was very excited to see my first ever possum whilst walking at 0515 one morning in Houston (we don’t have them in Europe); the little mammal strolled across my path, snuffling its way into a bush, oblivious to the gawping human.
Moments like these can only be gained if we take the time to slow down and pay attention. Walking is one way to do this. Instead of seeing walking as a chore, or a bore, try seeing it as a welcome break from the hustle and bustle with the added bonus of maintaining or improving your health. You can work on your sports fitness later.