Walk this way

Don’t let common walking injuries come between you and your workout. Find out how to deal with the top four aches and pains

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Nothing beats the toning up and trimming down that a regular walking program offers. But poor training techniques or the wrong attire can add up to aches and pains. Follow these tips to sidestep common walking injuries and keep striding toward your fitness goals.

Aching shins have stopped more than one frustrated walker in her tracks. Shin splints – a catch-all term for any shin pain – usually result from muscular imbalance, foot structure, the wrong shoes, gait abnormality, walking on concrete, or increasing your speed or distance too quickly, says Dr. Robert Morrell, a sports medicine physician in Vancouver. To strengthen the lower legs, stand with your feet together and lift the heels off the ground. Then rock back and balance on your heels. Repeat this move five to 10 times, three times a day. Stretch your calves by stepping one foot forward and pressing your back heel to the ground. Do this stretch five minutes into your walk and again at the end.

Tanya Vrga, a personal trainer in Toronto, never imagined that simple walking could lead to intense pain on the bottoms of her feet. Overuse – walking to and from work, running for 90 minutes a week and standing all day – resulted in plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the tough tissue that supports the arch of the foot. (Other common causes include walking in sand and too much hill training.) It takes time to resolve plantar fasciitis, so get a diagnosis immediately, advises Dr. Morrell. Massage your arches by rolling the soles of your feet on a tennis ball. To strengthen the foot muscles, practise picking up marbles with your bare toes. Another good exercise? Plant your heel on one end of a towel and use your foot muscles to gather the towel up with your toes.

According to Joan Foster, a manager at Aerobics First in Halifax, a bit of heel slippage is normal for walking shoes, but too much or too little can quickly create oozing blisters. “Try on several pairs of shoes, and ignore the size,” advises Foster. You may need to go up a half or full size to get the right fit.

Experts agree that “cotton is rotten” when it comes to socks. Look for high-tech synthetic fabrics that wick moisture from your feet and let it evaporate through the mesh of your shoes. Jeanne Mutch, a walking coach from Shubenacadie, N.S., swears by itch-less machine-washable wool athletic socks. Socks specific to the right and left foot help eliminate wrinkles, another source of blisters.

New athletic shoes, when paired with the proper socks, don’t need a break-in period, notes Brian Michasiw, owner of Brainsport The Running Store in Saskatoon. Your feet should feel comfortable from day 1. For long distances, some feet may need a very thin layer of petroleum jelly or moleskin applied to tender spots.

If the balls of your feet feel bruised or sore every time you take a step, you likely have metatarsalgia – a collapsing of the metatarsal arch, which runs transversely across the ball of the foot. High-heeled dress shoes or the wrong athletic shoes are often the culprits. Walkers with metatarsalgia need metatarsal pads for their shoes to help support their arches, so check with your doctor if you suspect you have this condition.

If you’re a serious walker, the best way to avoid any type of injury is to join an organized program, says Dr. Morrell. “Walking sounds easy, but you need to be sure you’re progressing on a slow, progressive basis and are getting good advice.”