At a meeting of Bristol Health Partners last week, the speed at which people cross pedestrian crossings was discussed. Guess what the average walking speed for over 65s is? It’s 0.8 meters per second. This equates to an average of 2.88 km/h or 1.79 mph. I’ve just tried walking at that speed and not only is it hard to walk that slowly but I couldn’t walk properly at that pace. It was a flat footed shuffle.
I know that I’m not yet 65, that I’m relatively fit, and walking is my business. However many of you reading this will be over 65. If you’re Nordic walking with us you will be walking at at least double that speed. Even on a pedestrian crossing.
So ask yourself: how and why has the over 65s population of Bristol ended up with an average walking speed of 0.8 m/sec?
I don’t know the answer to that of course but it must be something to do with how people use (or don’t use) their feet. Consider this:
- Your foot contains 26 bones, 33 joints, 20 of which are actively articulated. Can you actively articulate 20 joints in your foot?
- There are more than a hundred muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your foot.
- One quarter (25%) of the bones in your entire body reside from the ankles down.
- The same is true of your muscles and nerves – 25% of them are dedicated to your feet.
- Your foot is involved in almost every non-sitting activity you do.
- Muscles – and the attached nerves and tendons - need to be used to stay healthy. If you don’t use them they atrophy. ‘Use it or lose it’ we say in the fitness industry. Which brings me back to those 20 articulating joints.
- If you don’t actively use your muscles and joints, or you don’t use them in the correct way, it puts pressure on other muscles and joints and messes up your entire body’s alignment. Turned out feet anyone?
- Most people have never given any thought to the process of how they walk (Nordic walkers excepted).
What can go wrong
Basically, human feet are strong and complex mechanical structures which bear the entirety of our weight, need to be kept moving and loaded correctly to stay vital and healthy. Corns, calluses, bunions, stiffness and pain – not necessarily in the feet, but in the ankles, knees and hips (or anywhere), can result if not. Use me as an example:
I tend to turn my left foot out slightly (I’m working on it). It won’t be coincidence that my left hip flexor is always tighter than my right. Neither is it coincidence that when I’ve walked a lot my left ankle can feel unstable. My ankle is in actual fact fine but my slight turn-out loads my leg muscles incorrectly, tightens my hip flexor and voila my ankle gets the wobbles. If I didn’t know how to stretch everything out properly I would probably end up hurting my ankle. It’s the weakest link. All because of a slight turn-out in my left foot.
I can now see why that 0.8 m/sec has come about.
What you can do
It’s one thing knowing what’s wrong but how to fix it is another. Probably your best starting point is a podiatrist and there are many good ones around. If you want to know what your foot should be doing as your body moves through each stride, the Nordic walking heel/toe roll technique is the answer. This technique is valid for all the walking you do, not just Nordic walking (don’t be over vigorous if you have arthritis):
- Be active with your feet;
- Lift your toes so that your heel strikes the ground first
- Roll through to your mid-foot, balls of your feet, toes in a fluid action
- Think of your feet as being soft and pliable, not hard and rigid
- Spread your toes wide, push off evenly with the big, middle and little toe
- Aim to ‘open’ your ankle when you push off (top tip if you don’t know what this means: show the person behind you the sole of your shoe).
There are also many, many stretches and exercises you can do to keep your feet in good order. We do some of them during our warm-ups and stretches (but they’re most effective when shoeless). Things like rocking from your heels to your toes; going up onto your toe tips; spreading your toes (can you separate your toes or lift them individually without bringing along the rest of the gang?); stretching the muscles over the top of your foot (my favourite – see picture below); rolling your feet over a tennis or spikey massage ball.
If you want to read more round the subject I’ve just finished the most fascinating book on feet – Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief by Katy Bowman. She’s a biomechanics specialist of the foot and ankle and her book packs quite a punch, particularly concerning shoe choices and heels. There’s a great ‘foot gym’ section full of exercises and stretches and masses of other information, all written in an engagingly chatty style.
A note of caution. You have spent a lifetime developing your walking pattern and gait. You may have arthritis or other issues with your feet. Don’t try and change anything too quickly, seek advice from a podiatrist or similar if you want to analyse or improve your gait. Most of all, know that you can help yourself – and that Nordic walking is a good way to start.