Training: Strength-training for walking

My friend Vivien is walking from London to Brighton over the May bank holiday weekend, in the hope of raising £500 for WaterAid.

Based on Viv’s current stats, she’s likely to take about 140,000 steps to cover the 100km distance. Each foot will hit the ground 70,000 times. That means each foot will flex and push, each calf and tibialis anterior will contract, each knee will stabilise, each quad and hamstring and glute and hip flexor will all contract 70,000 times each in quick succession over the course of about 24 hours. Each string of muscles will fire roughly 50 times a minute. It’s no surprise that Viv noticed some serious calf and and hip flexor fatigue; those poor little muscles unused to working so relentlessly, trying to keep up with the vast quads, glutes and hamstrings which are a little more used to heavy and repeated loading.

It’s tempting in endurance sports to continue increasing the distance, but the risk with that – apart from boredom – is that the strong muscles get stronger through the repeated action, the weak muscles stay weak, and if you manage to steer clear of overtraining or overuse injury, you certainly don’t get any more efficient. As a personal trainer, I like to think about the little tweaks that make a big difference, and as a chronic bargain-hunter, I like to look for the biggest bang to my buck; in this case, how can we make every single step that little bit more efficient?

The answer, clearly, lies in the smaller, neglected muscles like the foot muscles and the hip flexors. Strong foot muscles and calves mean a stronger push-off from each step, strong hip flexors mean a smoother step-through action and less wasted energy. All contribute to lower injury risk as the limb is better primed to work as a unit.

With Vivien’s consent, I decided to share with you the training recommendations I gave her, knowing she would have no gym equipment and very little time and space, and always being wary of giving out exercises that I am not there to supervise.

If any of you are walkers, joggers or runners, try this little 10-15 minute routine at least three times a week and no more than five, to switch on and strengthen everything that you want to be firing you forward with each step:

75 three-way calf raises (25 toes straight, 25 toes pointing out, 25 toes pointing in)

  • Stand on a step with your feet half on and allow your heels to drop slightly lower
  • Contract both calves until you are on the balls of your feet
  • Sink back down to start position
  • Complete all 25 straight, then all 25 toe-out and all 25 toe-in. For the toe-out and toe-in variations, angle your toes at about 45°

Calf raise collage

25 step-downs

  1. Stand with one foot flat on a step, straighten your other leg and hold it back out of the way of the step
  2. Bend your standing leg until the toes of your straight back leg gently touch the ground
  3. Straighten your standing leg until you are back to the start position
  4. Do all 25 then repeat on the other leg

Note: do not push off the back leg!

Step-down collage

25 side step-downs

Same as previous but this time you are side on:

  1. Stand with one foot flat on a step and the other leg straight above the step below, keeping the toes pulled in to your shin
  2. Bend the standing leg until the heel of your hovering leg gently touches the ground
  3. Straighten your standing leg until you are back to the start position
  4. Do all 25, then turn around and repeat on the other leg

Note: with both step-down exercises, you may rest your hand on a wall or banister, but take care not to pull yourself up with your hand or arm!

Step-down collage 2

2 x 25 ski squats

  1. Stand with your feet no more than 5cm apart and your toes pointing forward, and make sure your knees aren’t touching
  2. Bend into a squat position, then come halfway up – that’s 1 rep
  3. Repeat 24 times in a quick and smooth pulsing action, never coming fully upright
  4. Take recovery as need after completing all 25 reps, then repeat

Note: fight to keep your chest up and your bum back by keeping your back strong!

Ski squat collage

2 x 25 hip flexor raises

  1. Sit upright on a chair or bench, feet flat on the floor
  2. Without changing the angle at your knee or ankle and without dipping your upper body, pull one knee up towards your chest by contracting your hip flexor
  3. Lower the leg without touching the ground and repeat 24 times
  4. Do all 25 on one leg, then repeat on the other leg, then repeat each leg

Hip raise collage

3 x 20 calf walks and 20 heel walks

  1. Stand tall on the balls of your feet
  2. Take 20 small strides, pulling your toe in to your shin as each foot is in the air
  3. Rock your feet back onto your heels pulling your toes up towards your shins
  4. Take 20 strides
  5. Repeat 2 more times

Note: do not step forward from the hip!

Calf walk collage

3 x 10 lunge walks

  1. Stand tall and take one big step forward so that your back heel comes off the ground, sink down so that your front knee forms a right angle above your ankle
  2. Use the strength of your front leg to pull your back leg in as you straighten up
  3. Step the back leg through to take a big step and repeat
  4. Alternate legs until you have taken 10 steps in total
  5. Take recovery as needed then repeat two more times

Note: keep your torso upright and your chest out; don’t hinge at the hip!

Lunge walk collage

Last but not least: 100 toe scrunches (barefoot)

  1. Lay a towel out flat on the ground and sit so that your toes are resting on the edge of it
  2. Scrunch your toes up and use them to pull the towel in towards you with each scrunch
  3. Readjust the towel as needed until you have completed 100 scrunches

This should take no more than 15 minutes but take recovery as needed. If you don’t get through it all in 15 minutes in your first session, stop, and aim to reduce recovery time with each subsequent session so that you can complete all exercises in 15 minutes.

If you are a keen walker – or are simply looking for a useful little add-on to boost your training routine – let me know how you get on with these.

In the meantime, if you want to follow Vivien’s training, check out her blog and her fundraising page. Good luck Vivien, and anyone else taking part in the London2Brighton Challenge!

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