Common Walking Myths Can Lead to Injuries

Walking with Weights

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The benefits of walking are many. You can maintain a healthy weight, strengthen your joints and muscles, improve your mood and coordination, and prevent or manage many serious health conditions (including heart disease and diabetes). But to do so requires you to approach walking wisely.

And that is where education is important. Walking, as with any other form of fitness, has more than its share of myths that not only undermine these goals but place people directly in harm's way. Many of these beliefs are so popular that it can often be difficult to tell which are true and which are not.

It's time to bust a few of the more common myths and misperceptions.

1. Running Burns More Calories per Mile Than Walking

While vigorous activity burns more calories than moderate activity over the same period of time, speed plays only plays a part in how many calories you can burn per mile. In fact, if you walk briskly for a mile, you will burn the same calories as if you ran a mile.

We can measure this using a scale called metabolic equivalents (MET) which tells us how many calories per kilogram are being burned per hour. On average, walking translates to a MET of between two and eight, depending on speed. Running, by comparison, achieves a MET of anywhere from eight to 18.

While that may sound like a big difference, the variation is mostly due to the distance covered by the same amount of time. Running or fast walking simply gets you there faster; it doesn't change the mileage. What this tells us is that a runner and a fast walker who move at an average speed of five miles per hour will both achieve a MET of eight.

What this shouldn't suggest is that slow walking for five miles will burn the same calories as sprinting the same distance. It's really more about how efficiently your muscles are being used. For example, you can burn more calories per mile if you use racewalking techniques as they engage more muscles than regular walking. By contrast, slow walking burns fewer calories per mile as you tend to lose momentum and use fewer muscles like your arms, shoulders, hips, and back are less engaged.

2. You Need to Drink a Lot of Water When Walking

While it's true that many of us don't drink enough water during the course of a day, going overboard is also not a good idea. The guidelines for endurance exercise are pretty straightforward: drink when thirsty. Drinking too much poses a problem known as hyponatremia, a condition where the level of salt in your body is too low.

To ensure you are properly hydrated, follow a few simple tips:

  • Drink a tall glass of water an hour before walking.
  • While walking, drink about a cup of water (six to eight ounces) every half hour, or more often if you feel thirsty.
  • If you plan to walk for more than two hours, get a sports drink to replace some of your lost body salts (electrolytes). Drink when thirsty.
  • Weigh yourself immediately before and after a long walk. If you gained weight, you were drinking too much. If you lost weight, you weren't drinking enough.

3. Arm and Ankle Weights Amp up Your Powerwalking

While there is some truth that added weight can burn more calories when walking, wearing arm weights, ankle weights or weighted shoes can be hazardous when powerwalking or racewalking. Nearly every physical therapist will strongly recommend against this as it increases the risk of injury, sometimes serious.

Why? Powerwalking involves faster, coordinated movements, unlike resistance training where your focus is on one muscle group at a time. If you lose coordination when walking or begin to get tired, you can accidentally miss a step on an uneven surface, strain your knees or hips as you ascend or descend hills, or strain your shoulders if your arms become suddenly exhausted.

Fitness walking poles are a good alternative if you want to add a challenge to your powerwalking. They not only tone your upper body, but they can also help relieve strain on your hips, knees, and ankles.

4. You Can Prepare for a Marathon in 3 to 6 Months

It is great when people decide to set fitness goals for themselves. It is why many will decide to start training for a marathon. It not only provides them a concrete goal to shoot for, it gives them a specific date by which to reach that goal.

While admirable, any person wanting to run a marathon will need to approach training sensibly. If you live a relatively sedentary lifestyle, all the drive in the world may not be enough for you to reach your goal safely.

Before marathon training even begins, you will need to assess your baseline fitness, ideally with a fitness professional. At a minimum, you should already be regularly walking distances of three to four miles at a time during the week and six to eight miles on weekends. You should do so within your recommended heart rate by age, ideally in or around your aerobic zone.

If you are an absolute beginner, plan on training anywhere from nine months to a year ahead of the target marathon. If you have already set your mind on one but only have three to six months, set a goal of doing a half-marathon instead.

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  • Slaght, J.; Senechal, M.; Hrubeniuk, T. et al. "Walking Cadence to Exercise at Moderate Intensity for Adults: A Systematic Review." Journal of Sports Medicine. 2017; article ID 4641203.