Christine McCarthy was a runner. Diehard and determined, running defined her. But about five years ago, her shoulders began hurting. So did her neck and the trapezius muscles in her upper back. She went through physical therapy, but the problems persisted.
So she turned to what she never thought she’d do, much less grow to love:
“People think it’s going backwards from running to power walking,” says McCarthy, head coach at Orangetheory Fitness in Salem, N.H. “They often have the mindset they have to run or jog to work out. I have to get them to realize you can work out differently and get the same or better effect than you would if you were running.
“I show them and they’re like, ‘Holy crap!’ In my studio, I have a lot of members who have switched to it. I can tell when it’s making a difference in them, and I do think it’s making a difference.”
That’s because, as she is more than happy to tell and to demonstrate — during a class or one-on-one — power walking is way more than a casual stroll. You’re moving quickly, quite often even faster than while jogging, so you’re burning calories like crazy, all the while keeping one foot on the ground at all times. Thus, you’re protecting your joints by easing impact.
“During power walking,” explains exercise physiologist Fabio Comana, science advisor to Orangetheory, “the largest impact forces during a heel strike would rarely exceed 2.5 times the body weight. In running, though, the body is suspended into the air during two float phases and being accelerated to the ground at a force which could be as high as 11 times the body weight.”
When you put your heart and mind into power walking, it can be as tough, as challenging, as Splat-Point inducing as anything you’ll do in the studio. Plus, it’s possible for just about everyone who steps through an Orangetheory door.
“When Ellen (Latham, Orangetheory founder) created the brand, she wanted it to be as inclusive as possible,” says Rachelle Reed, Ph.D., Orangetheory’s senior director of health science and research. “What’s important to know is that the programming is always tested for every kind of person — power walker, jogger, runner — to make sure it’s effective for every type of speed.”
Thus, as a power walker, she says, “You can still get into higher heart rate zones so your body is working hard in class.”
Here’s how: Every single time the intervals start in class, Reed says, the coach gives parameters like this one: “Coming up on a one-minute push! Power walkers: Incline goes to 7 percent or greater! Joggers and runners: Increase speed by 1-2 miles per hour, in 3, 2, 1!”
During that time, you shouldn’t be able to say more than a few words without needing to catch your breath.
“Your goal,” McCarthy says, “is to maintain speed up and down the incline. You’re building more muscle during the workouts because you’re walking the hills instead of running the flat. It’s strength training; you’re building a lot more muscle than you would as a jogger or runner.”
Many people will always think of power walking as a gateway to running, or as a temporary respite while healing from an injury, or as a confidence builder on the treadmill.
If that’s you, no worries. Still, McCarthy says, “it’s not bad to switch up your routine periodically. It’ll change your workout; you’ll build the most strength and feel more successful.”
Additionally, Reed says, we’re born to walk. And when you read research highlighting over and again the benefits of regular physical activity, it’s primarily talking about — you guessed it — walking.
“Almost all adults can walk and do walk throughout their day,” Reed says. “A lot of people find it’s a lower barrier to exercise because they’re comfortable with walking anyway.”
OK. You know the benefits, so if you’re ready, here’s how to make your walking workout the best it can be.
- Talk to your coach. All coaches undergo training specific to each phase of the workout. They know the tricks and tips to powering through a power walk.
- Wear a heart rate monitor. Doing so will help you better understand the body's physiological response, Reed says. “The goal is for you to achieve some Splat Points during class. A heart rate monitor will give you second-by-second feedback. You know when you should back off and when you should push a little harder.”
- Pump your arms at 90-degree angles. Doing so will help you engage your core and your upper body, Reed says. Swinging them across your body’s midline is inefficient and not a move the body naturally does.
- Keep your eyes focused forward. “A lot of people, especially on the treadmill, are looking down,” Reed says. “They’re watching their feet, which creates rounded posture, which creates a cascading effect.”
- Simulate being on a hike. “Squeeze your core as you charge up the hill, shoulders down and back, leaning forward, driving your knees up and pumping your arms,” McCarthy says
- Keep walking. In addition to your two, three, or more weekly Orangetheory classes, members are encouraged to move outside the studio, too. Reed and her team often forego Zoom meetings, instead walking while engaging in group calls.
"Walking daily can be a really great way to help achieve goals of weight management and improved fitness,” she says. “Replace some sedentary time with walking."