Do You Know How to Walk? (or how walking is different from running)

By Jae Gruenke | Natural Running Form

Feb 08
woman carrying a basket on her head

Once my clients feel happy with their running it sometimes dawns on them that they don’t know how to walk. Trying to apply what they’ve learned about running to walking just confuses them as what felt so right in running ends up feeling strange and wrong for walking.

That’s because there are some significant differences between running and walking. They stem from the fundamental difference that running involves going from one foot on the ground to being entirely in the air, then back to having just one foot on the ground. By contrast, in walking you go from one foot to two feet, then back to one foot. This figure from Bramble and Lieberman’s paper Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo is worth a look to understand this better.

So when you toe off in running you go up into the air and when you toe off in walking you fall downwards. When your foot hits the ground in running it’s cushioning your landing and when it hits the ground in walking it’s levering you up into the air. In short, in running your leg is a spring and in walking it’s a pole vaulter’s pole. So you need to organize the rest of your body accordingly for each function.

To help you do this, here are the Balanced Runner Keys (in blue), which are the fundamental elements of good running technique, and the variants for walking:

1. Lean forward from the ankles.

In walking stand tall, as if you were carrying a basket on your head

2. Land with a supple leg.

In walking the leg should also be somewhat supple though after briefly yielding to your weight it will become straighter until you’re atop a straight leg at midstance (as opposed to midstance in running, in which the hip, knee, and ankle joints are all bent).

3. Align your foot below your hip in midstance.

This is exactly the same, except that as noted above, the leg will be straight instead of bent.

4. Feel your core in action.

This is also the same! However the timing is a little different: according to this study by Hodges et. al. the pelvis achieves its maximal rotation in flight when you run and at footstrike when you walk. Don’t obsess about that, your nervous system will take care of it. I guarantee you’re already getting this one right as long as you are indeed allowing your pelvis and upper body to move.

5. Bring your hands close to your heart.

This is quite different in walking: the arms are relatively straight but flexible, and whether you bend them depends on your speed. At normal walking speeds your legs aren’t moving so fast that there’s any problem with relatively straight swinging arms slowing down your stride rate. If you’re racewalking then you will want to bend your elbows to make the pendulums of your arms shorter so you can swing them faster and thus move your legs faster with less effort.

6. Move your face forward.

Just as you don’t lean forward when you walk, you also don’t move your face forward. This is the correct situation for the oft-heard injunction not to stick your chin out. As I said above, organize yourself as if to carry something on your head. That’s one of those old ideas about posture that was actually right on the money. Here’s a striking version:

(I confess I can’t recall who this is — I thought it was Robert Schleip but it doesn’t look like him. If you recognize him please let me know so I can write a proper caption.)

If you’d like to see what these differences look like and how to switch between running and walking, take a look at my free lesson on How to Do a Run/Walk Program on www.curious.com.

Now as you know, I spend a lot time scrounging around in YouTube to find videos which, intentionally or accidentally, illustrate the things I’m writing about. Sometimes the things I find are real gems, sometimes they’re somewhat odd, and sometimes on rare and special occasions they’re both. This is one of those occasions.

Below is a YouTube video with a demonstration of good walking vs. bad walking that rivals John Cleese in the Ministry of Silly Walks. The jumping-off point for the demo is a study describing the types of walking that project vulnerability and raise the risk of the walker getting mugged. The demos are of, ahem, questionable usefulness but the descriptions very accurately reflect a healthy, reasonably fit person vs. one whose strength, alertness, and/or nervous system function is indeed compromised. The central issue in nearly all the examples is that in “vulnerable” walking the core is not moving properly and in the “safe” walking it is.

If you have nothing pressing to do with the next 10 minutes of your life, enjoy the video. If you have just a couple of minutes to squander, skip to the walking section at 2:20. If you really didn’t even have time to read this blog post but just wanted the info as efficiently as possible, you can skim the abstract of the study I think they’re talking about or this article about it instead. And if you have a whole lot of time on your hands, make me your own video demonstrating the two types of walking they describe, informed by my descriptions above.

Please share your videos, walking experiments, questions, and your opinions on whether the guy in the video really is better or worse than John Cleese by leaving a reply.

Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter filled with analysis, information, insights, and tips you can apply to your own running!

Follow

About the Author

Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.

Leave a Comment:

(5) comments

scott February 13, 2015

Nice post Jae! I especially like your succinct comparison — spring vs. pole vault. I had a wonderful surprise when I clicked the youtube link and Rhet and Link appeared! My 11 year old (who also enjoys running BTW) LOVES them and has their t-shirts and sneakers. I think they are very funny as well.

Reply
    Jae Gruenke February 14, 2015

    Thanks very much, Scott! I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the video too; through various channels I’ve found that opinion about it is pretty strong both pro and con. Any chance your son would like to make his own video reply for this blog?

    Reply
      Scott February 17, 2015

      What a great idea…I’ll ask him! We’re in Savannah till Friday, but will get back to you.
      best…

      Reply
David September 17, 2018

Nice article. I would like to be able to run (better) but walking is my thing so the comparisons were great.i like the idea of the polevault and I had never thought about it before but Moshe said something about walking being controlled falling. I will think about carrying a basket on my head when walking today. Prefer the John Cleese silly walks but this was still quite good.
I love this 100 ways to walk video https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=HEoUhlesN9E
On the topic of ‘safe’ walks, we were in Paris on an Aikido seminar and a group of us were visiting the sites. At the steps of the St Suplice we observed every woman walking up the stairs being harassed by street vendors etc,which sometimes looked quite threatening and intimate. Our ladies wanted to see what happened with them so they climbed the stairs but they were left alone. One of them was a bit upset that she could not practice her self defence techniques on the would be offenders. We reflected that the way they carried themselves made them look less vulnerable but perhaps it was just a coincidence. Off for a walk, thanks

Reply
    Jae Gruenke September 19, 2018

    That’s a great video, David! As for street vendors (or anyone else who would harass someone walking down the street), it’s no surprise they’re very tuned in to body language, whether consciously or not.

    Reply
Add Your Reply

Leave a Comment: