Learning How To Walk

senses while walking

Odd, to still be learning about walking at 50…

Walking is one of those everyday miracles that we all take for granted. A hugely complicated coordination of body and mind that propels us in the act of not quite falling from place to place.

Humans and some of our hominid ancestors such as Homo erectus have been walking for more than a million years, and researchers are only just beginning to work out how we do it.

It’s never been completely clear how human beings walk, but findings published last month in the Journal of Experimental Biology outline a specific interaction between the ankle, knee, muscles and tendons that improve the understanding of a leg moving forward in a way that maximizes motion while using minimal amounts of energy.

We are also coming closer to understanding how babies learn to walk, building complex neurological patterns in the brain and spine that enable them to propel themselves about. A wonderful article in New Scientist shows that for all our purported advantages, we still rely on some very old biological programming to enable us to move our limbs.

And yet, here I am, at 50 years of age learning how to walk again. Not in the way that means “I couldn’t walk at all”, but in a way that means “I really wasn’t aware of what walking meant”.

How Adults walk

The vast majority of human adults use walking as a way to get about over short distances. As our societies have advanced, we have increasingly relied upon mechanised transport to make that easier for us. Walking has given way to the travelator, the elevator, the bicycle, the car, the bus, and the train. But we still have to walk the first and last part of any journeys we take.

As I’ve become more aware of what walking means, I’ve begun to look around at how others walk and that has helped me to realise that most people barely stumble. An awful lot of people have distinctive defects in their gait, not all of which are due to an underlying medical condition. Next time you are in a public place, or on a busy street, have a look around for some of these walking abnormalities that have been given names:

  • Propulsive gait — a stooped, stiff posture with the head and neck bent forward
  • Scissors gait — legs flexed slightly at the hips and knees like crouching, with the knees and thighs hitting or crossing in a scissors-like movement
  • Spastic gait — a stiff, foot-dragging walk caused by a long muscle contraction on one side
  • Steppage gait — foot drop where the foot hangs with the toes pointing down, causing the toes to scrape the ground while walking, requiring someone to lift the leg higher than normal when walking
  • Waddling gait — a duck-like walk that may appear in childhood or later in life
  • Ataxic gait –  a broad dumpy waddling
  • Limps – where one foot or leg is favoured

And it is not just the way in which people walk that is so often dysfunctional or indicative of deeper problems, it is their attitude, haste, stress, and poor technique that makes walking so hard for them. People approach long walks as if they are unpleasant, stressful, and painful. They see long walks as sweaty, panting, aching torture.

I happen to think that all of those thoughts are terribly, terribly wrong.

Lifetime of Injury and Laziness?

Even if we don’t have an underlying medical condition, most of us carry a lifetime of injury and laziness in the form of small muscle tears, joint damage, and uneven development of musculature below our shoulders. Done well, walking is incredibly graceful, and unbelievably energetically efficient. It uses a huge range of muscles from the top of my head to the tip of our toes. It engages almost every joint in the body in a smooth and coordinated motion. Our posture, and specifically the smooth motion of our head involves a set of tendons and tissues that are unique to humans. So it is hardly surprising that every little injury and insult our bodies have suffered during our lives is reflected in the way we walk.

Indeed our gait is so unique to us, that it can be used by computers to identify us. Subconsciously, we use the gait of others to identify them well before we can see their faces or bodies.

Where we haven’t developed the muscles required to hold us up right or propel us properly, that all shows in the way that we walk. In many ways our walk is us.

The joy of ending a walk
The joy of ending a walk

And yet we all get about reasonably well, so rather than worry about the things that can go wrong when we walk, I’ve decided to write a little more about how to make walking far more pleasant, much easier, and are generally nicer thing to do.

Walking and being Present

Walking is just about the most human thing that a human being can do. And yet most of us are not even fully aware that we are doing it. We are just not “present”.

Edward Thomas, through his wonderfully emotive prose and poetry brought home to me the need to be fully present and aware whilst walking. It is not easy to be present: there are far too many pressing things of the day demanding of our attention. Mobile phones, navigation devices, the worries of work and home, all the urgencies of our imagination pressing upon us and shielding us from the events of the moment. Thomas was not alone in realising that it was absolutely essential to let go of all of those things and engage every single one of our senses whilst travelling.

things to see while walking
things to see while walking

Because if we don’t make ourselves fully present, we won’t be taking part in the journey and we will not have seen or experienced the things that are there.

I never saw that land before,
And now can never see it again;
Yet, as if by acquaintance hoar
Endeared, by gladness and by pain,
Great was the affection that I bore

To the valley and the river small,
The cattle, the grass, the bare ash trees,
The chickens from the farmsteads, all
Elm-hidden, and the tributaries
Descending at equal interval;

The blackthorns down along the brook
With wounds yellow as crocuses
Where yesterday the labourer’s hook
Had sliced them cleanly; and the breeze
That hinted all and nothing spoke.

I neither expected anything
Nor yet remembered: but some goal
I touched then; and if I could sing
What would not even whisper my soul
As I went on my journeying,

I should use, as the trees and birds did,
A language not to be betrayed;
And what was hid should still be hid
Excepting from those like me made
Who answer when such whispers bid.

            Edward Thomas

We can’t all be writers or poets, but we do get to write our own memories as we walk.

Engaging the Senses

The need to engage all of our senses while we walk calls upon us to do more to make ourselves aware of how our senses work when we are not walking. It is a lifelong challenge to make our senses work for and engage with our minds, and for some of us, especially me, we need to do a little practice.

So, rather than worry about the unopened post, or the difficult employee at work, go for a walk. And while you walking make a conscious effort to do all of these things:

scent – inhale through the nose and smell everything around you, commenting internally on what it is that you think you smell. Smell the air, and work out what it means for the weather, the season, or the vegetation around you. Notice how far away you can smell animals upwind of you, and how much further you can smell humans wearing perfume or smoking!

touch – not just the leaves on some plants and the earth with your fingers, but roll up your sleeves and open a few buttons and feel the air. Is it cool, or warm? Is it humid, or dry? Let the breeze blow upon you, the rainfall upon your face, the fog sticking your hair. Enjoy the feel of each one.

Taste – an awful lot of things in the countryside are safely edible once you know how to identify them. Don’t let their delicate and precious tastes pass you by. At the very least, at the end of long and tiring walk, enjoy the taste of simple food and excellent beer!

hear – walking is surprisingly noisy, and your passage will disturb wildlife at a great distance. When you can, stop, and lean against a tree or disguise your profile and listen to how the sounds around you change from alarm calls to the true sounds of nature.

see – look at the things of nature close up, as well as far away, in front of you and behind. Learning to judge distances on complex terrain is phenomenally difficult, and worthy of a great deal of your time and attention. Be aware of colour, and texture, and haze, and shape.

time – walking has a way of changing your perspective on time, compare how long you think things will take with how long things actually take.

balance – your sense of balance will change as the terrain moves and your feet, learn to balance gently, feeling from the balls of your feet up through your ankles and knees to your hips then up through your bank to your head.

motion – walking is motion, and if you put your mind to it you can become aware of the motion you have over the ground: a gentle bobbing and a sensation of travel.

direction – not all of us are blessed with an innate sense of direction, but if you are you can train it by checking your internal “compass” against a map and compass on a regular basis, and, with luck, you will find that your sense of direction improves.

Clouds for Walkers
Clouds for Walkers

And the reason why you should bother with all of these things is that they will make the distance fly under your feet, your blisters and bruises or simply cease to bother you and every journey by foot can become a pleasure. The more you engage, the more you enjoy.

Breathing Deeply

The way we breathe has a huge effect on the way we walk. Walking is an exercise that should never require you to pant through the mouth (as runners often have to do). Walking is a pastime that one can enjoy with friends whilst conducting a conversation in – mostly – full sentences. Free, easy, and deep breathing is part of that.

Equally, if one tackles a section at a pace above that which you can breathe freely and easily, or attempts to charge up the hill, you will be forced into rapid and shallow breathing through the mouth. I would urge you at this point, to slow down, and take conscious control of your breathing.

Rapid breathing can fool your mind into thinking that you are reaching the limits of your exertion. It also triggers “panic” reactions in the body that limit your thinking and enjoyment, and can make your movements less efficient. Calm down. Breathe deeply and slowly.

You will thank me for this advice.

Make a conscious effort to keep your breathing both deep and relaxed. Ideally, take professional singing lessons and learn diaphragmatic breathing or “belly” breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing allows for deeper, fuller breaths and better oxygen delivery during exercise. It is relaxing and pleasant. Here’s how to do it:

relax and drop your shoulders. Lift up your chin. Look ahead.

relax your abdominal muscles slightly. Pulling them in too tightly or sucking in your stomach will limit how fully your can breathe.

breathe deeply – enough that your belly, and not your chest, fills and empties as you inhale and exhale.

continue this technique at your own pace to meet your oxygen needs and check that you can still talk in full sentences.

pursed lips can help to maximize the use of your diaphragm while breathing, and in fact the American Lung Association advises it for many conditions. Breathe in through your nose. Pucker your lips as if you were whistling, then breathe out slowly. The breathing out motion should take approximately twice as long as breathing in. Your abdomen should expand when you inhale and deflate when you exhale with little or no movement in your chest.

Breathing in through the nose will also help you engage your sense of smell, and find even more to enjoy. Not over stressing your breathing will enable you to engage more with your walking partners, or sing, or recite poetry to yourself, or merely just relax.

Walking Up Hills

Hills. We all love looking at them. Very few people like walking up them. It is hard. Try doing 8000ft of hills in a day and it is more than just hard. The wrong technique can leave you barely able to move, exhausted and injured. So what should you do to walk up hills?

warm up – Hill-walking presents a greater aerobic challenge to your body and uses the muscles in the front of your thighs and your gluteus muscles to a greater extent than otherwise. So warm-up first by walking to the hill. 10 minutes should do it. Use the approach to ensure you are hydrated, caffeinated and have taken on some quick release sugars for your muscles. They are about to need it. And sort out your clothing – you are about to generate a lot of heat.

pick your route – look for a steady way up that allows you to walk on firmer ground. Even if it is not as straight, you will move faster on milder gradients, and suffer less injury if you slip. Take your time over this. There is no need to charge at a large hill. There will be a “better route up”, and, I guarantee it will be really obvious when you look back from the summit that you failed to find it the first time.

slow down – even if super fit – slow down so that you’re not depleting your carbohydrate sources too quickly. You should be able to talk in whole sentences most of the way up. A, steady pace with quicker cadence smaller steps is better than a fast one punctuated with lots of stops. Anyway, you’re there for the views and friendship, right?

don’t stop – not until the top.

breathe – Try to maintain a slow, regular breathing pattern. Try to properly fill your lungs from the base of your abdomen. (If you’re also a singer you’ll have a head-start here!) Avoid breathing so that your shoulders are going up and down. In cold weather, breathe through your nose so that the air is warmed.

keep cool  – many people misinterpret getting sweaty as being tired. You will be warm as you walk up hill. Hundreds of Watts of heat are coming out of your large muscles and have to be shed somehow. So open up some clothes and let the sweat out. You will not tire as fast. Just don’t let wind chill or rain over cool you, please.

engage a lower gear – you should shorten your stride when you walk up hill. If possible, try to keep up the same cadence but just take shorter ones. Aside from not putting too much strain on hip and knee joints, this should also allow you to balance yourself and place your feet more carefully so that you avoid slipping.

protect your knees – you should never raise your knee more than 10 to 15cm. Those short steps help. If you are taking big steps up you are multiplying the forces on your knees hugely and will soon tire and have to stop as your large muscles will be fatigued.

posture – Lean slightly into the hill but try to maintain your balance by keeping your torso over your hips.

look up – we have all seen people looking down at their boots as they labour up a hill. It is demoralising, and it unbalances you. Much better to look up! Point your chin at the top of the hill and that will also help with posture as well as morale. Most importantly, chin down blocks your airways, making breathing harder and causing early fatigue. Chin up! Air in!

poles – Walking poles can be a great help when going uphill – they allow you transfer some of the ‘load’ to your arms and allow you to set a rhythm for your walking. They keep your head up, and lend confidence. You will need to shorten your poles for up-hill sections.

When you get just over the top, reward yourself. You earned it. Zip up and pop a layer on, as you will cooling down fast. Now, where is that chocolate bar?

Walking in Mud

My favourite explanation goes like this: “don’t walk in mud”. I mean, obviously you try to go around it, or stay home when it rains, but sometimes you just have to go through it. And there is a knack to that. We call it “the ducky paddle”

You can get safely through even quite deep mud without filling your boots, falling down, or sapping all your energy in a fruitless slog. You don’t have to widen the trail, or find a new path to wreck clean terrain; you can – and quite often should – power right down the middle.

slow Your Pace – Attempting to walk in soft mud at your normal pace will wear you down quickly. Slow your pace and take much smaller steps at first. Once you have some confidence you can speed up. Then the quicker you go, the more fun it becomes, and the better time you make.

shorten your stride – worth mentioning again, for two reasons: balance and sinking time. Wed mud and uneven surfaces underneath it can throw your balance off. A shorter stride helps you maintain more contact with the ground and improves your stability. A short stride also allows you to make quick adjustments to changes in the terrain. It also means that you keep your centre of gravity over your feet, and that helps you balance. Also, smaller, quicker, “duck paddle” steps really help stop you sinking so deeply.

duck paddling toes – With a loose surface like mud you can still get traction if you use the pointed part of your foot. Pointing your foot so that your toes dig into the mud provides a solid platform of compressed mud for you to push off from. This technique will put additional strain on your calve muscles, so you will want to work up to this. It also strains your ankles, especially in hiking boots, which is another reason to practice.

posture – walking with a shorter stride and by pointing your toes may put your upper body in a less than efficient position. Stand up straight. Be conscious of neutralizing your hip alignment so you’re not putting undue pressure on your lower back. Engage your abdominal muscles, centre your hips front and back, keep your head up, and your shoulders relaxed to maintain good walking posture. There is a tendency to look down – but that will unbalance you. Just motor on.

After all – what is the worst thing that can happen? You did bring dry clothes on this walk, didn’t you?

Warning – some mud is just really deep, cold, nasty and full of rocks. Sorry.

sense of direction
sense of direction

It is never “Just Walking”

Walking is a strange thing, because it tends to take more time than our minds allow for the creation of longer term memories from shorter term experiences. Walking also has a definite beginning and end. The following day we cannot help but remember the event as a composite experience, and the way we describe it may then be completely different to the way we described it while we were experiencing it.

Our memory of our walks therefore becomes highly coloured by a thing called the peak – end rule which in summary means that we remember how we felt at the end, and we remember the best or worst part of the journey and our brains construct a sort of average. Our minds are quite unable to remember duration as a function of this. We only remember the highs, the lows, and the ends.

It is therefore very important that, if you wish to do a lot of walking, you learn to make sure that every walk has a high, and that every walk ends in a very pleasant way. Be kind to yourself: make sure that most of your walks end with a friend in a pub. Make sure the highs outweigh the lows: if you suffered terrible blisters then take a few minutes, cool off your feet, and enjoy your favourite snack looking out over an outstandingly beautiful view. Train yourself to remember the good things that your senses experienced, and focus on the highs (and not the lows).

Keep doing this, and very soon you will look forward to every walk, to every journey, and every opportunity, because all of the lows, the tiredness, the exhaustion, the blisters, the mosquitoes, and the gritty/sandiness of it all, will have faded behind all the wonderful highs and the beautiful endings.

You won’t need to walk because it helps cure depression, or reduce your risk of cancer, or improve your lymphatic system, or help with cardiovascular disease, or help you reduce weight. You will walk because you love it.

And then, if you’re very lucky, you can grab your boots and go and do it again. After all it’s just walking, right?

sweyn enjoying the trailwalker walk 100km
sweyn enjoying the trailwalker walk 100km

1 Comment

  1. Great article. thank you for taking the time to pass on your well learned truths. i have always found that walking encourages thinking as well as engaging the senses. Something about the rhythm seems to stimulate the brain. A logical evolution for a big brained bipedal mammal i suppose especially for a variant that relied on its feet for a massive and rapid dispersal once it left africa! i also liked your comment about nature hearing a walker coming. On short walks in a wood try sprinting suddenly round a bend or into a clearing. It can be quite remarkable just how much wildlife you startle which had hitherto been quietly moving out of the way of your lumbering progress and was surprised by the sudden change of pace!


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