Step It Up a Notch
Helping Walkers and Hikers Climb to the Next Level
By Susan Rich
Stroll, ramble, lumber, gambol, stride, shuffle, glide. It doesn’t matter what you call it, stepping out means walking, and like any other fitness activity, there is always a way to do it better.
A spiffy pair of shoes, wet weather gear, and a walking buddy are must-haves for many of us, but sometimes a few sessions with a walking or lifestyle coach can work wonders.
Judy Heller is a personal trainer and owner of Ero-Fit and Associates, a personal coaching and consulting firm. She advocates an holistic approach towards fitness, combining her expertise with advice from professionals in the medical community, to create a balanced exercise and lifestyle regimen for her clients.
Becoming a better walker is more than just having your gait analyzed, she says: “People are inherently good, and they want to be the best they can be. They don’t all know how to get there, and sometimes they need help looking at their issues, the obstacles and challenges that are holding them back. They can have a relationship with a walking coach who is non-judgmental and caring and can help them reach their goals.”
Almost daily, the media bombards people with health and fitness information – and these sometimes conflicting reports leave people unsure of how to best manage their health.
The information is “delivered by sound bite and people get very confused,” Heller adds. “Many people have health problems, like hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol. They know they need to make a lifestyle change. Others have been living a totally sedentary lifestyle. They’ve gained weight, and they used to be able to lose it easily, and now they can’t.”
Working with a personal trainer can help decode this information and get people started on a safe and realistic approach to exercise and diet.
And then there are the enthusiasts who just want to get better at their chosen sport.
“Some people love walking but they don’t feel like they are getting the maximum benefit out of it – they realize that others are walking faster, better, easier, or are walking without injury. They come to the conclusion that they need coaching.”
Heller’s coaching philosophy is to help people create a lifestyle that creates a balance between exercise, diet, work, and personal relationships.
“I personally don’t care if you walk, cycle, throw a Frisbee, walk your dog; any movement is better than no movement. It doesn’t take much to get the body to respond.”
The Race to Compete
Once walkers get up to speed, many step up to the challenge of walking a marathon. Bob Hickey, a coach with the Los Angeles Marathon, helps get them ready.
Hickey has been coaching walkers in the LA Marathon since the event started more than 10 years ago. He teaches people how to walk more competitively, with a focus on technique and speedwork.
“My goal is to make athletes more efficient when they walk,” he explains. “You have to learn to walk as efficiently as you can, to be as good as you can be.”
One challenge novice walkers face is form. “The biggest thing I tell them is to get their arms up, don’t keep them hanging down by their sides. They need to get a ninety-degree bend in their arms, and understand that the faster they go, the harder they have to work their arms.”
Although it is possible to learn to walk quickly without coaching, competitive walking, and its cousin, racewalking, represent two different forms. Coaching is vital to succeeding in the latter two disciplines, Hickey says.
The difference between walking and its other forms is that “You need someone to coach you, to make sure you are doing the form properly. Your feet should be straight, one in front of the other, not side by side. The idea is to walk in a straight line, not toeing out. That’s what you like to see in walkers, because the straighter the line you walk, the shorter the distance you walk. Walking a straighter line uses less energy, and that’s the key” to gaining speed.
Hickey has been passionate about competitive walking since 1972. An award-winning racewalker, nowadays Hickey has to stop himself from giving impromptu coaching lessons: “I am tempted to stop people who are walking on the street and offer to help them walk better. I wish I could do that all the time.”
Giving Hikers a Leg Up
Sometimes taking walking to the next level is a scramble.
Barbara Bond, author of 75 Scrambles in Oregon, encourages people to return to the climbing style reminiscent of their youth: scrambling. The sport is a combination of hiking and non-technical climbing and is done by using hands and feet to claw one’s way up and down rugged trails.
“Scrambling doesn’t require a lot of gear, and it’s what we did naturally when we were younger. It’s pretty intuitive” and relatively safe, she explains.
It’s a challenging activity, and there are scrambles for almost any skill level. It’s the next step up for hikers willing to try something new, and maybe two steps up for walkers who are curious about hiking.
Bond is not a certified guide, but as a long-time member of the mountain-climbing club Mazamas, she has been scrambling (and hiking) for years.
The first step for would-be scramblers is to start hiking, she says. It’s important to learn the basic technique, build stamina, and develop a sense of balance.
To get started, walk the trails and practice climbing. If you live in Portland, spend time in Forest Park. If training in the city, hit the stairs: Scale stadium risers, climb the steps to City Hall, cruise the winding stairwells of parking structures.
It will be hard at first, but don’t give up. “You have to get your legs in shape for upward movement, and you need to develop lung capacity,” Bond says. “It’s hard for everybody to walk up stairs multiple times.”
Unless someone has a condition that precludes them from developing a strong sense of balance, hiking on trails, slowly increasing exposure to uneven terrain, and repetition will help develop the necessary skills, she says.
After that, “Scrambling is a natural transition. It will be more difficult than what you have done before, but you’ll get this feeling of accomplishment.”
Women and men are equally capable of scrambling. “A woman I know — celebrated her 50th birthday by climbing Mount St. Helens. She lives in Chicago, has never been athletic. She walked to get into shape, trained to accomplish this goal, and then she did it.”
Photo of the Hurwal Divide courtesy of Barbara Bond