Intelligent Walking

We all know how to walk correctly, don’t we? At least the “biomechanics” experts know don’t they? Well it seems that the scientists haven’t done their job here and everywhere you look they say “research needs to be carried out”. Basically they like to cite their scientific credentials, especially if they earn a living on the medical side of this (podiatry etc.) but they basically haven’t a clue what they are on about. I wrote about the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome in respect of “balance” for skiing – but this ugly syndrome seems to haunt everything related to science. Let’s face it, who’s going to want to admit to not knowing how to walk correctly, especially if they have studied biomechanics based subjects?
Running recently using the information from the late Gordon Pirie’s book “Running Fast and Injury Free” has been a real breakthrough for me. Pirie is not alone in his understanding, but current popular publications do not target or separate the key issues as intelligently as Pirie does. I’m personally having a lot of trouble with my calve muscles adapting to barefoot activity – but it is becoming clear to me that this is normal and it is a consequence of a lifetime spent doing everything in shoes or boots with significant heels – the muscles and tendons have been shortened. The problems I’m having are not caused by going barefoot – as they seem to be on the surface – but they are caused by shoes. Recovering from sore calves last week I was discussing the mechanics of movement, specifically the forefoot strike, with Christiane, who is a qualified mountain guide. She surprisingly said that sometimes she walks like that. My first reaction was that’s not right, this can only be used for running – but then I reflected on the fact that I actually walk with a forefoot strike when going up and down stairs no matter what I have on my feet. Forefoot striking for walking in general just goes against everything we’ve ever heard though – doesn’t it?
Mulling over the subject I went out for a gentle walk and began to play around with the walking stride, once again wearing the Vibram Five Fingers. To my great surprise it actually felt very natural on the tarmac to use the foot with a forefoot strike instead of landing on the heel. It was necessary to focus at first to deal with the change in coordination, but that’s something you have to do develop any skill. Okay, perhaps at my age it  seems a bit late for “learning to walk” but better late than never!  Going off-road up a gravel trail and then a rocky footpath the effect was just stunning – no painful surprises under the foot – nothing! Normally when covering this sort of terrain there are a few sharp stabs under the foot but I’d been putting that down to still being a bit over sensitive – now all of that was gone. Within minutes this new way of walking felt completely preferable to “normal” heel striking – it already felt natural. This outcome was completely dependent upon the previous work on barefoot running. Exactly the same principles apply to both and there is no way I’d have worked this out for myself from scratch. Christiane is an exceptionally intuitive and sensitive individual so it doesn’t surprise me that she had identified this on her own – but I just wouldn’t have spotted this at all. For me the brainwashing of “heel strike” when you walk and the comfort of thick soft heeled shoes had become a chronic addiction. Like any addiction it was progressively worsening – the heels getting thicker and softer over the years but the damage getting worse and awareness being driven out of the picture altogether.

So how does this work?

Forefoot Strike: First thing is that the foot comes down on the outside edge of the forefoot. The foot then flattens onto the whole forefoot, eventually coming down onto the heel. The foot rolls back onto the forefoot and over the toes to complete the stride (Toe/Heel/Toe)

Placement: The foot mustn’t reach too far ahead – it falls almost directly beneath the body – with the toes pointed slightly downwards (simply relax the ankle).

Stride Length: The stride length is lengthened by staying in contact with the ground further behind the body. To allow the foot to get further behind the pelvis has to rotate slightly, following the foot back. This equates to swapping the reach ahead of the foot/heel strike for a “reach behind” instead with a forefoot strike.

Centre Of Mass: Making the above changes naturally places your centre of mass further forward relative to the support of the ground – so without trying it becomes the main source of propulsion as you “fall” forwards.

Core Muscles: Now that you are reaching behind and including the pelvis the core muscles around the psoas are activated to pull the leg forwards for the recovery.

Posture: Not only are the psoas muscles activated but your entire posture changes reflexively. You can feel the postural perineum muscles (used a lot in Pilates), you become more upright with the upper body.

Arm use: The arms and shoulders become more active and counter the motion of the pelvis (opposite direction)

That’s a list of the basic mechanical actions that I can identify for the moment. The effect however is much greater than that. Pirie talks about “caressing” the ground with the foot and that’s exactly what it feels like. If you heel strike then you land square on the heel bone and a shock travels up the body. When you land on the outside of the forefoot, the foot is already at an acute angle with the ground and as it flattens (technically this is a rotation from an acute angle to flat) the energy is absorbed in the flattening action and there is zero shock to deal with. This means that stones don’t hurt your foot at all and there is no shock being dealt with by your joints. The participation of all your postural muscles means also that you can respond to any subtle adjustments that are needed. One extremely important aspect of this is that not only has the vertical shock been removed but any pressures travelling up or down through the core of the body are now distributed though the core muscles instead of through the spine. The instant I go back to a heel strike I can feel all the core muscles go flabby, the skeleton takes over support and shock waves travel right up through the body. No wonder I’ve had spinal surgery three times!!!!! The shocking thing is that when my back troubles began I was directed to the highest qualified podiatrist in my country and what did he do? He raised my heels even higher! 6 months later I was having surgery.

I’ve noticed that if I go back to walking in heeled shoes not only is it impossible to walk without a heel strike but even on returning to barefoot walking it’s hard to re-coordinate a forefoot strike to begin with. I have a great deal of experience with proprioception issues being a professional skier – so if it’s tricky for me then I suspect it will take a great deal of concentration for most people to change.

The tactile (proprioceptive) experience, with the reflexive posture included, makes the entire process of walking a real physical pleasure instead of a plod – which it always feels like in shoes. I must confess it’s the first time in my life that I’m actually excited by the prospect of going out walking. Perhaps this will calm me down from my excessive sports activities – but I doubt that really.

In America some people have labelled this way of walking “Fox Walking” because it is very quiet and there is a tendency to place one foot more in front of the other – thus minimising the signs you leave on the ground. If someone is tracking you this is a good way to lose them! A few individuals are suggesting that it is really the “natural” gait – but as usual there is no real scientific information either way.

One thing that is clear and accepted is that shoes definitely change the way we walk as do different surfaces. It just makes so much sense to go back to using the foot as nature designed it and to learn from it directly. I notice how I even stand differently on my bare feet already – using support along the whole length of the foot. Previously my foot would just collapse in a heap unless I tensed the muscles because my body didn’t recognise where to look for the support from after being conditioned to mushy spongy shoes that confuse all proprioceptive information.

Skiing Connection: When I have a skiing client who is aware enough to deal with selective pressure on different areas of the feet I have in recent years suggested a specific pattern. The pattern is in connection with timing (high to start a turn, dropping into the turn and up to finish – like a motorbike)  and it is Toe/Heel/Toe. Only yesterday was I able to connect this with walking and only a week ago with running.

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