Some aspects of the Nordic walking technique are common to both Nordic walking and ordinary walking. The heel/toe roll is one of them. Get this right and assimilate it into your regular walking and your balance, posture, joints, circulation and lower body tone will improve dramatically.
So what do we do wrong?
As I’ve said in a previous blog, whilst we are born to walk, many of us have never given much thought to the ‘how’. One of the most conspicuous aspects of this is the way we use (or rather don’t use) our feet and ankles.
A passive foot strike is no good for us at all. This is where the foot hits the ground more or less flat instead of articulating from the heel to the toes. Not only does this compromise the ability of the body to cushion the impact and transfer the force, it also jars and stresses the whole of your skeleton.
Over time a passive foot strike results in the ankle and foot becoming less and less pliable. The shin muscles then weaken and walking turns into ‘shuffling’. Sensory amnesia has set in and proprioception is lost.
It is an uncomfortable fact that falls are the top cause of accidents in people over 65. We can’t influence all the aspects of aging but we can keep our walking action dynamic, our muscles strong and our feet and ankles flexible.
How to get active with your feet
The key is that your foot is meant to roll through from the heel, over the foot arch to the ball of your foot and ultimately your toes. It is so important that it is one of the first aspects of the Nordic walking technique that we teach. We often use the image of squeezing a lemon under your foot at each stride – or of peeling Velcro from the base of your foot off the floor. The action should be fluid: focus on keeping your foot as soft and pliable as possible.
With walking boots this is sometimes difficult – which is one of the reasons why I generally prefer walking shoes to boots. Having said that, the technical quality of boots is increasing all the time and some are impressively pliable now.
Other points to consider
The heel/toe roll doesn’t mean you have to slam your foot down on the point of your heel and force the motion through to push off with your toes. It’s subtler than that. My best advice is to move your focus of attention to this area for a while. Here are some of the things I think about:
- My ankle joint: This is one of the key joints in our body and also one of the most neglected. It is well worth mobilising this joint before you set off and I pay particular attention to it in the winter months, doing ankle circles and an up and down movement to ensure the range of motion is good and the ankle well warmed up and lubricated.
- Smooth energy: I’m not sure what other description to give to this. I bring many influences into my Nordic walking, including the principles of yoga and tai chi. In these two disciplines no movement should be jerky or forced, so when I walk I try to control my foot fall and roll. I tighten my centre (my ‘core’) to help me to walk more lightly, allowing the energy and power to move in a fluid way from my heel, through my foot to my toes. It propels me in a strong but holistic way that is smooth and efficient.
- Using my shin muscle (tibialis anterior) to lift my toe. Not only does this keep the lower leg muscles strong and active (thus reducing the risk of falls in later life) but it also acts as a valuable circulatory pump, powering the blood up the leg back to the heart. You may find that your shins feel sore to begin with but this is quite normal and should soon dissipate. If it doesn’t and your shins continue to ache even after you’ve finished walking, then please tell your instructor as this may be indicative of shin splints, which need care and attention.
- Pushing off evenly with my toes: If you are wearing rigid walking boots, the best you can do is to roll through from your heel to the ball of your foot and push off from there. However, if your footwear is more pliable, you can increase your range of movement from the ball of your foot to your toes and push off from there. This has many advantages. Pushing off with your toes helps to open your ankle joint which in turn helps open your hip joint and improve your walking gait and efficiency. For those of your who are interested in increasing your speed, this is a key area. Make sure that you push off evenly. It’s easy to allow your big toe to be dominant but this makes for an imbalanced gait. My suggestion is that you try to spread your toes (think duck’s webbed feet) and focus on pushing off with your middle toe. It seems to encourage a uniform and more powerful movement.
Don’t forget that the heel/toe aspect of the Nordic walking technique is transferable to your everyday walking, with or without poles. Time spent on improving your this area will be time well spent.