Never underestimate the power of simply placing one foot in front of the other to get your fitness journey started. From a 30-minute fitness walk to race-walking a marathon, a walking program is as easy as taking that first step.
The health benefits of walking are undeniable. A study by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory near Berkeley, California concluded that walking briskly lowers your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol just as much as running.
The scientists analyzed data from more than 33,000 runners in the National Runners’ Health Study and more than 15,000 walkers in the National Walkers’ Health Study. What they found is at comparable effort, runners and walkers yielded similar decreases in risks for these three diseases, as well as an overall reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease.
Walk This Way
She has been coaching, training and competing in race walking events for more than 25 years and is a nationally recognized expert and consultant.
But like many, Heller began he fitness journey as a runner. “I ended up with every form of tendinitis imaginable.
“From my feet, knees and hips, I knew this wasn’t really going to be working for me. So I started fitness walking,” she says of her foray into the world of walking.
She loved it so much that she hired a coach who encouraged her to compete. Her racing career has led her events throughout the country and the world.
She competed in the 2016 World Masters Athletics Championships last fall in Perth, Australia, where her U.S. women’s 70-74 team took home the gold medal in the 10K distance. She is traveling to Toronto this month for the North American-Caribbean, Mexican World Master’s Athletic Championships in the 1,500 meter and 5K events.
Health Benefits of Walking
Heller believes she can pursue the sport she loves into her 70s is because walking – and race walking – are easier on the joints than running. Healthwise, fitness walking and race walking provide all the benefits of running, without the joint-jarring impact.
Fitness walking – sometimes referred to power walking – is a great low-impact cardiovascular exercise. Walking also provides a weight-bearing workout that can help reduce the pain of osteoarthritis. “Because it’s walking, I literally have been pretty much been injury-free after 25 years in a repetitive sport.”
Humans are built to walk, she emphasizes. “Walking is our default gait. That’s the beauty of it,” she says. “If people are moving by walking, the health benefits are there – mentally, physically and emotionally.”
The best part about walking is you can start wherever you are. “I have had clients walk to the end of their driveway and come back, and the next thing they know, they’re walking to the end of the block,” Heller says.
“Never underestimate the value of walking. Whether it’s 30 minutes or three 10-minute sessions. Just start out gently and set yourself up for success,” Heller says,
From Fitness Walking to Race Walking
Race walkers are a distinctive breed of athlete, highly focused on form and technique, says Heller. “Race walking is an Olympic sport, and it is very competitive.”
The sport is sanctioned by USA Track & Field and competitors are judged on form, with two key rules. First, at least one foot has to remain in contact with the ground at all times, as visible to the naked eye. And secondly, competitors must keep their leading leg straight from the moment it hits the ground until it passes under their hip. That’s why race walkers’ hips sway quickly from side to side with each stride. A violation of either rule results in disqualification, Heller explains, adding, “It’s a very fun competitive sport.”
Heller recommends doing what she did and hire a coach if you’re serious about race walking. Learning proper form is key. “When you’re walking, do you straighten the leading leg? Notice what it feels like to land on the heel and leave the leg straight as it passes under the hip. You have to get the arms up so they are parallel to the ground and really use your shoulders,” she explains. “You’re actually using more muscle in a proper walking gait than running.”
Training for competition, Heller works on form, mile repeats, hills and speed three to four days a week. “We don’t need to overtrain,” she emphasizes. “I’m a firm believer that more is not better. Being very deliberate about the training is more important.” Heller maintains a base level of fitness and typically accelerates her training for 12-16 weeks when preparing for a race.
Get Your Walking Program Started
Heller recommends simply Googling “race walking clubs in [insert your city]” to plug into the local race walking scene. I found several in my area that appeal to all levels of walkers – from fitness walkers to racers.
From there, just start walking. “Anyone can walk out the door,” she says. “If you want to go 5 minutes, then go 5 minutes. But go every day so you begin to create some consistency.”
At the end of the day, “We all share a love of walking,” she says. “If we share something in common, then we are a whole.”
Heller is grateful for her health and fitness and attributes that to walking. “With every step I take, I say thank you. We are never too old to be making a difference in how we choose our health.”