Updated February 18, 2014
You're ready to start walking, but do you have everything you need? Walking is a great fitness activity because there are only a few things you really need. But if you get all of your essentials, you will be able to walk in comfort and even prevent injury.
When I first started walking, my husband steered me to Colin Fletcher's The Compleat Walker, where I learned the essentials of layering your clothing. Did you know that sweatshirts are not so great if you are actually going to be sweating? Instead, you want to start with a breathable, sweat-wicking shirt as your base layer, made of a technical fabric such as CoolMax rather than cotton. You will want a windproof, water-resistant jacket if the weather is a factor. And if it is cold, you add an insulating layer of polyester microfleece or wool. Now you can take off a layer if you have warmed up or put one on if you are feeling cold.
Now you need to invest in your feet with a good pair of athletic shoes. Walking in any old broken-down, non-supportive sneakers or inflexible boat shoes is a set-up for injury. Do your feet a favor and seek out the store in your area that caters to serious runners, not the discount shoe place at the mall. At the serious running shoe store they will fit you properly and put you into shoes that will work right. As you expand your walking life, you will build up a shoe wardrobe for different surfaces and conditions: performance walking shoes, trail shoes, even trail sandals. In every style, look for shoes that are flexible, flat and do not have a flared heel.
Now that you have the right shoes, you need to get good socks. If you are going to that serious running shoe store, ask them about socks. I'm on a mission to eradicate the wearing of cotton socks for fitness walking. Cotton holds moisture next to your skin and increases the risk of forming blisters. Instead, you want socks made from technical, sweat-wicking fabric such as CoolMax, polyproylene or wool. These socks will help keep your feet dry and happy. Be sure to try on socks with your walking shoes to make sure you haven't chosen a sock with too much padding that will crowd your feet in your shoes.
While some of my walking buddies head out with only a key and maybe a cell phone, I like carrying a few more essentials in a pack - especially a water bottle for any walk of more than 30 minutes. It's wise to use a fanny pack or backpack to balance the load on your hips rather than carrying anything in your hands. You can wear a fanny pack if you only need a couple of items and your water bottle. Without a water bottle, one of these clever essential carriers are great. For more carrying capacity, a light string backpack will do, or a day pack with more comfortable straps. My choice for walks of over an hour is a small hydration backpack (such as a Camelbak ), so I can sip as I walk.
Walking is an aerobic activity and you will be losing water as you walk. You should start off well-hydrated with a big glass of water about an hour before your walk (to give time to eliminate any extra . . . if you know what I mean.) Then, as you walk, you should drink whenever you feel thirsty, according to sports medicine experts. To be able to do that conveniently, you should either carry water with you or plan your route so you have easy access to a water fountain every 20 to 30 minutes. How should you carry your water? Not in your hand. That's like carrying a one-pound weight and is a set-up for shoulder and wrist strain. Use a pack of some sort.
Walking outdoors is a wonderful experience of the sun in your face and the wind at your back. But those elements can wreak havoc on your skin in the long run. For me, walking without sunscreen is like walking without shoes. Both provide essential protection. Choose a high SPF to match your walking workout time and don't skimp on putting it on. I take special care with my ears and nose. Lips will appreciate lip gloss or ChapStick with sunblock. And don't forget your bald spot if you aren't wearing a hat!
Do you wander around aimlessly or just stick with one boring route? Will there be water, restrooms, shade, and sidewalks where you are planning to walk? Will there be other people out walking there, for safety? You can plan it out ahead of time with an online mapping app. Those of you with smart phones can use them effectively while walking with their map functions. Through various apps such as MapMyWalk, you can even download routes to follow with your phone. With these advances in technology, there is little excuse for getting lost so long as you are in cell range. Oh, yes, there are still printed maps!
Accidents happen. Emergencies happen. If they find you unconscious in ditch, your loved ones will appreciate that you have your identification with you, including any important health information. If you carry a cell phone, that can also help identify you and give quick access to people you may want to contact. I also carry a few dollars (or equivalent in other countries) to buy a drink or snack if I find myself needing it. And I curse designers who don't put secure pockets into pants and jackets to carry these true essentials.
Is there anything more annoying than shutting the door and realizing you left your keys in the house or car? Locked doors are a fact of life, and you need to find a convenient way to carry keys as you walk, or a secure place to stash them so they are ready to use when you return. Again, curses on designers who don't include a secure zipped pocket in their workout clothes!
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