While walking is a great low-impact exercise that can help with weight loss and increase longevity, it’s still possible to get injured. That’s why a visit to a physical therapist can be so helpful — it can actually help you avoid walking injuries in the first place, especially if you’re ramping up your walking speed, getting more steps or starting a new high-intensity routine.
“The most common walking injuries tend to be overuse injuries, which happen because too great a load is placed through the tissue,” says Tyler Nightingale, a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City. Typically, these injuries signal you’ve taken on too much exercise too soon (Think: a 10,000-steps-a-day goal rather than gradually leveling up) or your movement patterns are off (if flexibility is reduced in one area of your body, that can increase the stress elsewhere, like from your hip to your Achilles tendon).
Of course, pushing yourself too hard is one of many easy mistakes to make when you’re feeling motivated to lose weight and get in shape. If you’re looking to up your intensity and avoid injury along the way, a quick trip to a physical therapist can help.
When you head to the physical therapist, they’ll create a sketch of your walking profile by asking about your health, lifestyle, training history, past injuries and goals, says Dan Giordano, certified strength and conditioning specialist, physical therapist and co-founder of Bespoke Treatments.
Next, they’ll analyze your walking patterns with a ‘gait assessment’ to pinpoint potential sources of injury, like a joint or set of joints you’re overusing or moving inefficiently. “A good PT will assess a painful movement pattern and identify which part of the chain isn’t working properly to assist you in fixing it so you can move in a healthy and efficient way,” explains Nightingale. Armed with this information, they’ll craft a personalized treatment plan designed to protect you from injury and allow you to level up your walking performance over time.
To sharpen your walking form, your physical therapist will focus on improving your mobility (your ability to move in a full range of motion), strength (your ability to generate force through that range of motion) and stability (your ability to control your movement).
“Hip-opening stretches help improve hip flexibility and spine rotation for improved walking form, while calf stretches are key for increasing ankle flexibility to address and prevent Achilles tendon and plantar fasciitis pain,” says Giordano. “Proper foam rolling, especially the calves and quads can also alleviate knee pain,” notes Nightingale.
Similarly, physical therapists can give you a personalized plan that might include exercises like lateral side stepping, single-leg deadlifts and eccentric heel raises to improve hip stability, shin splints and alleviate plantar fascia pain, so you can walk longer and at a more brisk pace.
To make the most of your physical therapist visit, be sure to document how you feel during your walks and any aches, pains or abnormalities you’ve noticed recently. Try reaching out to a doctor, personal trainer at the gym or friend for a referral You can also find a physical therapist near you with the “Find A PT” search engine provided by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).