Walking is one of the most accessible forms of exercise (even during shelter-at-home) — it can help keep your mind sharp, boost your heart health, and even ease lower back pain. If you’re feeling down or anxious, a daily walk can also help lighten your mood and calm your mind.
HOW FAR SHOULD YOU WALK WITHOUT TRAINING?
“If you’ve ever spent the day pounding the pavement at a theme park or touring a new city, you may have noticed you can walk surprisingly far without any specialized training,” says Austin Misiura, certified strength and conditioning specialist and physical therapist. This is perfectly safe, “presuming you’re healthy and well-hydrated,” he says. That means if you’re walking 20-minute miles, you could safely log 24 miles (or about 38.6 kilometers) during an eight-hour trek.
However, if you’re living with a health condition such as diabetes, heart disease or lung disease, or have recently experienced symptoms like chest pain, dizziness or balance issues, make sure to check in with your doctor before you take on a longer-than-usual walk, says Lynell Ross, a physical therapist and walking instructor for the National Diabetes Prevention Program. That way, they can determine what distance is within a safe range for you personally.
WHAT ABOUT INJURY RISK?
If you haven’t done any physical activity for a while, you can expect your legs and feet to be pretty sore if you try to walk more than about 90 minutes or a few miles at a time, says Misiura. You can blame DOMS (aka delayed-onset muscle soreness) for next-day aches, which are believed to come from microscopic tears in muscles that occur when you exercise. “However, as your muscles become more accustomed to long walks over a week or two, these should become less of an issue.”
For folks new to a walking program, “you might end up with some blisters or notice some pain in an area like your knees due to weakness in your hips or glutes,” says Nicole Lombardo, a physical therapist and CrossFit Level 1 Coach. “This is because other muscles or bones have to make up for the work weak muscles aren’t able to do,” she explains. But the chances of developing a walking injury like tendonitis or plantar fasciitis after one long walk are low — you’d typically have to walk longer-than-usual distances for multiple days in a row for that to happen, says Misiura.
To minimize injuries, “it’s better to avoid overdoing it and stay consistent rather than starting with a super intense session and then crashing,” says Kevin Padin, certified strength and conditioning specialist and a physical therapist.
WAYS TO ADD DISTANCE
1. GET THE RIGHT WALKING GEAR
Opt for socks, tops and bottoms made with moisture-wicking materials and well-fitted walking shoes with the appropriate amount of support for your feet to avoid shin splints and blisters, suggests Steve Stonehouse, a certified personal trainer and U.S.A. Track & Field coach. Make sure to bring a bottle of water along with you, too — it’s better to have water and not need it than the other way around, he says.
2. START ON LEVEL GROUND
Begin walking longer distances on flat, level surfaces like a track or sidewalk, suggests Misiura. Making your muscles work harder with hills or an incline too soon increases your risk of injury, so it’s best to incorporate that later, he explains.
3. THINK IN MINUTES, NOT MILES
“Your body doesn’t know distance — it just knows time under tension,” says Stonehouse. As such, you’re better off measuring your walks in minutes rather than miles, he says. Aim to walk for a prescribed length of time at first. A good rule of thumb: Consider how long you can typically walk (like during a trip to the mall or grocery store) and go from there, suggests Lombardo. Even a quick 10-minute walk can make a difference.
4. FOLLOW THE 10% RULE
“Overuse injuries come from doing too much too soon, so to start, limit yourself to 3–5 walks per week max with recovery days off in between,” says Misiura. To increase your walking distance safely, add no more than 10% of your walking volume each week, he suggests. For example, if you walked 30 minutes for four days for a total of 120 minutes in your first week of walking, you can then add 10–12 extra minutes to your walks (or about 3 minutes per walk) the next week. This allows your body to slowly adapt to more stress, becoming stronger rather than breaking down, he says.
5. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
Look out for red flags that might indicate you’re walking too far too fast, such as pain that changes your stride or causes you to limp, makes it difficult to relax or sleep at night, or requires medication to treat, says Misiura. Any of the above is your cue to take a break and shorten your walks to avoid an overuse injury.
6. MAKE IT FUN
We tend to stick with an exercise if we like doing it, and if you’re enjoying yourself, you might find yourself walking longer with ease, says Ross. Consider scheduling walks with your partner or family, taking a relaxing walk in the park, or even dialing up the intensity of your walks with a rucking workout.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Exactly how far is too far for a walk depends on your personal medical history and walking background. Your safest bet is to begin with a distance you already know you can walk — and gradually increase your walking distance. And remember: No matter how many miles you log, a regular walking routine is a great addition to a healthy lifestyle.