While walking is considered a low-impact and generally safe form of exercise, injuries can still pop up — especially if you’ve recently increased mileage or intensity. Instead of letting pain slow you to a halt, use these tips to treat five of the most common walking injuries and reduce chances of recurrence.
LOWER BACK STRAIN
Symptoms: An aching feeling or pain in your lower back, on both or either side of your lumbar spine.
The injury: If you’re not used to walking for distance, your technique and form can falter as the miles progress. Over-striding is one way you can stress the lower back as you fatigue, especially if you have a pre-existing injury. A lumbar strain happens when the ligaments, tendons or muscles of the lower back are stretched too much, causing small tears in the tissue.
What to do: Tight hamstrings and weak core muscles are normally the culprit. After the injury has calmed down from a few days of rest, get into the habit of stretching your hamstrings a few times per day to improve your flexibility and relieve tension in the lower back. The second step is to strengthen the muscles that stabilize the spine and power your movement as you walk. These exercises are a good place to start.
Symptoms: Ranging from a dull ache to a sharp pulling feeling along the arch of the foot, the pain will usually be worse first thing in the morning or at the beginning of your workout.
The injury: Improper or worn shoes, overpronation and high arches are common causes of plantar fasciitis. If you’ve increased your mileage or are walking more hills than normal, this area of the foot can also become inflamed.
What to do: Depending on how severe your pain is, you won’t necessarily need to stop working out. Avoid hills and wear good shoes that provide plenty of arch support and correct overpronation. Calf stretches and walking alternatives like cycling, swimming and weight training are great options to maintain fitness until the injury subsides.
PATELLOFEMORAL PAIN SYNDROME (PFPS)
Symptoms: Pain or aching behind or around the kneecap.
The injury: Commonly referred to as runner’s knee, this injury can affect walkers, too. It occurs due to poor tracking of the knee cap along the groove of the femur, and can become inflamed from increased mileage, when descending hills or leaning too far forward when you walk.
What to do: Weakness in the quadriceps and hips are the most common causes of this injury. To prevent the inflammation from causing the pain and becoming more severe, rest may be required. Activities that don’t cause pain, such as swimming or the elliptical, can be done as tolerated. If you can still walk without too much discomfort, keep the mileage low and avoid walking up and down inclines. Once you’re feeling better, focus on quadriceps and hip strengthening to help correct your patella tracking.
ILIOTIBIAL BAND SYNDROME (ITBS)
Symptoms: A sharp pain on the outside of the knee is most common, but you may also feel a dull pain or tightness along the outside of the thigh or on the outer hip.
The injury: The iliotibial band attaches to a muscle on the hip called the tensor fasciae latae (TFL). This muscle works in conjunction with the gluteus minimus and medius to abduct the femur. When these muscles are weak or tight, the IT band can rub against the outside of the knee and cause irritation as a workout progresses. Too many hills, taking long steps when you walk and increasing mileage suddenly are other common causes.
What to do: Correcting pronation with footwear or orthotics, rest and strengthening the gluteus minimus and medius should resolve most cases. Icing the area to reduce inflammation around the knee and stretching the TFL (hip) is also recommended. If you have a foam roller, this may also help loosen the tissue on the outside of the thigh, relieving some of the pain on the outside of the knee.
Symptoms: Pain and sometimes swelling at the back of the heel.
The injury: Since correct walking form forces you to push off on your toe, the tendon that connects the calf muscles to the heel can sometimes become inflamed, causing a dull ache that can get worse over time if left untreated. Hills or walking steep inclines can also cause irritation, as can doing most of your workouts on uneven terrain.
What to do: For mild irritation, reducing mileage and sticking to flat, even surfaces like a track can help. Icing the area for 20 minutes a few times per day is recommended until the inflammation is reduced and pain subsides. For more severe cases, you may need to stop most of your walking workouts and stick to activities that don’t irritate the area, like swimming and cycling. Keep in mind that aggressive stretching of the calf muscles can irritate Achilles injuries, so keep these to a minimum. If you’re still having pain after a week or two, consult a doctor or physical therapist.