How to Use the Gym to Prepare for your Walk

by Sarah Rowell

Gym Walking

As promised last month in our article about hill climbing, this issue we look in more detail at how walkers can use a gym to prepare for the hills.

The purpose of gym-based training can broadly be broken into two core categories.

Ankle strength

  • Developing your cardiovascular fitness. This affects your heart and lungs, which are responsible for delivering energy to the muscles – like a car’s engine and fuel delivery system.

  • Increasing your local muscular strength and proprioception. Using the same analogy, these two make up the car’s chassis. Improving them will make for easier walking and reduce the risk of injury.

How you plan your session will therefore vary the stimulus that you give your body and hence the training improvements you make.

Before you train

As with any fitness regime, if you are at all worried about your ability to cope or if you are starting from scratch, getting a quick check up from your GP or from the gym staff before you start is a good idea. Underlying conditions such as very low or high blood pressure will potentially alter which regime will suit you best, so you need to be aware of them.

Likewise, while some strength exercises are given, the best thing would be to discuss your individual needs with a gym professional. They can assess your strengths and weaknesses and develop a bespoke exercise regime for you.

The other real advantage of this approach is that you get someone to cast an expert eye over how you do the exercises. Making sure you exercise correctly is key, not only to prevent injury, but to ensure that you get the particular benefit you need.

From experience I know that there are certain exercises which are designed to strengthen and engage your glute muscles (in your backside, and essential for strong and controlled walking and running movements) which I can appear to carry out well but do so by mainly engaging my back muscles – the result of which is stronger back muscles and weaker glutes…

Likewise if, for example, you are doing squats or double knee bend based exercises to strengthen the muscles at the front and back of your thigh, but your knees slightly out of the correct alignment, the potential to aggravate knee pain becomes very real.

Cardiovascular fitness

As mentioned in the last issue, stepper, ski, cycling and elliptical machines, as well as walking or running on a treadmill, can all enhance your walking fitness. Simply jumping onto a machine and exercising away for 20-60 minutes or more is not only boring (even with music), it’s a disappointingly ineffective way of increasing your fitness.

The interval training concept gives better results much faster. It involves interweaving harder bouts of exercise, which we can maintain only for a short period of time, with bouts where we work at a lower intensity.

Most modern gym-based machines have the option of various programmes that you can switch between. Often there will be a ‘hill setting’ amongst these that you can use to simulate ascents, or you can make up your own. Not only will this give you a better training stimulus by mixing harder and easier efforts, it will also make it less boring. Here are some personal favourites.

  • When exercising listening to music, I change intensity every time the song changes. The only downside of this is that it can lead to an extra-long ‘hard’ or ‘easier’ section depending on the song.

  • I work my way up and down the gradient. For example, on an elliptical machine I will change the gradient I am exercising at every 20-30 minutes. One machine at my local gym has 10 settings, so over 40 minutes I can work my way up from ‘on the flat’ to very very steep and back down again.

  • I replicate some of my favourite running-based sessions on whichever machine I am using.

    • 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 minutes of ‘effort’ with 2 minutes easier recovery between each.

    • 3-5 x 5 minutes efforts, 2 minutes easier in between.

Alternatively, you could go for a mix and match session. Here you mix cardiovascular and strength development, so a 60 minute session might involve 15 minutes of stepper, 15 minutes’ strength work, 15 minutes of bike, and 15 minutes of proprioception work.

Strength/proprioceptive work

Areas to focus on for strength-based work are the three key ‘core stability’ platforms used when walking: ankles, trunk and shoulders.

Much has been written about trunk stability, but for walking on rough ground having strong and stable ankles is essential, as is having decent control in your shoulders if you are going to be carrying a rucksack and/or using walking poles.

With ankles especially, you need to make sure you build both strength and proprioception to ensure injury-free walking.

Proprioception training

The word proprioception combines the Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own”, with perception. It refers to the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in each movement. It enables us to sense how our bodies are positioned.

Strength can be built by doing lots of resisted exercises with a theraband. Therabands are made of tough latex and can be stretched while giving resistance; they come in different colours that denote different strengths.

Proprioception can be developed by simple tasks such as standing on one leg, progressing to being able to do so with eyes closed, and then moving on to being able to do the same but on a unstable surface such as a wobble cushion, or even a slope. From personal experience, a strong ankle with limited proprioception is very open to recurring injury, so it’s important to develop this alongside general strength.

From gym to the trails

It may seem strange to enthuse about going to a gym in a walking newsletter, but, particularly if you want to tackle hilly, more challenging walks with a sense of enjoyment and achievement, then just as an athlete does pre-competition training, so doing some pre-walk preparation will make your holiday both more enjoyable and reduce the risk of injury or soreness along the way.

Walking up

Sarah Rowell

Olympian, Advisor in High-Performance Sport

Sarah Rowell has been a successful long distance runner since the early 1980s, running marathons before switching to off-road surfaces.
Her achievements include representing Great Britain in the Olympic Marathon, finishing second in the 1985 London Marathon and second in the 1996 World Mountain Running Championships, and winning the English Fell-Running Championships in 1997.
Sarah now works as an advisor within high-performance sport.

Read more blogs by Sarah Rowell

Originally published 06/03/15

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