So, we’re heading into the slippery season. What have you done to prepare?
Yes, you can actually prepare to lower your chances of sliding out on snow or ice. This is a very good thing, especially when you’re walking across a resort parking lot in ski boots and you slip and fall on your butt with a clattering toss of gear just as you reach the snow—a definite fail-to-impress move. Sliding down any of the three concrete steps in front of a house door is also no fun.
How do you get more surefooted without having to spend hours in the gym building up your quads? You may be amazed by the simplicity of the answer: Lengthen your stride. Condition your walk so that when you take a step, the distance of the step is longer between your feet.
This isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. You’re going to want to shift your weight so that your front foot lands flat, not on the heel. But changing your walk so that this longer stride becomes a habit has additional benefits that add up to more than just a lower fall ratio. For example, this style of walking will strengthen and stretch your hamstrings (the back of the thighs) and hip flexors (muscles around the hip, lower spine and groin area). As any athlete knows, these muscle groups are very prone to pulls. Worse, a hamstring or groin pull seems to last forever. Months later, you’re still nursing that leg where frequent sharp yanks of pain send a constant unwanted message: Back off! The message gets into your head and only slowly fades away, sometimes taking as long as two years before you can regain full active prowess. That’s why it’s good to begin a prevention program now.
To get started on this new way of walking, check out the way you walk now. Do you take little steps, with your front foot landing only a few inches in front of the back foot? The problem with pussyfooting around like that is it gives you a very narrow and upright center of mass. It’s much easier to knock over a tall thin structure than one that is more spread out. Think of a sunflower as opposed to a bush. Which one would topple easier?
When you take a wider step, your upper body, which is the heaviest center of mass, is balanced between your legs in a position that creates a more stable base. Because you’re taking care to place the front foot down flat—or even better, on the ball of your foot—you’re required to use your hamstrings and glutes (butt muscles) to shift your upper body from your back leg to your front leg with each step. You may not think of it as exercise, but after a few days of walking this way, you’ll feel the tightness and muscle soreness that feels like the aftermath of a workout.
You can put an end to any delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) with a good 15-minute stretch session. Toe touches in various ranges of motion are good; do them standing up, or sitting on the floor with your legs straight out in front and slightly spread. While sitting this way, also take a towel and place it under your feet, then pull at each end to stretch out your lower back and calves as well. The stretching, which will make your muscles more flexible, also helps add to your sure-footedness.
As you continue walking with longer strides, you’ll realize that it gives you a near-effortless workout for your entire lower body. But, as with any exercise, it’s important to combine this way of walking with good form. Never walk stiff-legged. Keep your knees slightly bent, so that the impact of each step is absorbed. In fact, slightly bent knees should always be used as shock absorbers when walking. You never want the force of your steps to radiate up your leg and into your pelvis, which will happen if you walk with your legs locked out at the knees.
Finally, there’s one more big benefit from walking with a longer stride: You’ll be faster. When the warm weather comes around again and surfaces are no longer as slippery, you’ll be able to run like the wind.