speed walking

We pass them on the booty-loop and greenway, and up and down every tree lined Charlotte street. The briskly striding, arms pumping, 13-minute milers. Speed walking is often promoted as the perfect compromise between walking and running, a “safer-than-running” way to burn calories and gain cardio vascular benefits. But we learned recently on a visit to a PT at OrthoCarolina that speed-walking could actually cause long-term problems.

We spoke to OrthoCarolina Physical Therapist Chris Dollar, who told us how the popular pastime could hurt your spine.

Speed walking, or walking faster than about 4.5 miles per hour, is more strenuous on your spine than traditional walking or even running. Chris said the faster you walk, the greater and faster your spine will “oscillate” in a front-to-back direction. That’s not a good thing, since front-to-back movements are the most provocative for your spine, especially in people who are susceptible to intervertebral disc injuries.

Chris said slower walking and running both allow the spine to move in “mid-ranges” without stressing the extremes of front-to-back movement.

“I would rather people jog than speed walk. The more you speed walk, the more likely you’ll develop injures,” Chris said.

In running there are three stages of moving: one leg/foot strikes the ground (impact one), the second leg moves forward and for a brief period of time when transitioning from one foot to the other both feet are in the air and there’s no impact until the second foot strikes the ground (impact two). Chris said essentially one-third of the time you’re running, the body is “floating through space” and having “no impact,” which is safer for the spine.

It’s not just for weight loss either. Research show people who run recreationally — 3 to 5 miles about 3 days a week — have a lower rate of hip and knee arthritis than non-runners.

Chris recommends having runners shorten their stride so their foot strikes the ground at mid-foot (leaving the knee and hip in a more bent and springy position) rather than heel-first. This will reduce impact on the leg and spine, diminishing the chance for injury. Keep the rest of your body in check as well, with your arms softly swinging, your hands softly closed and your body bent forward slightly: about 10 degrees or so.

Walking slower is a good alternative too.

“Americans typically associate that faster and harder is better, but that’s not always true,” Chris said. “It’s more healthy to walk slower and go longer. In the end, you’ll burn roughly the same amount of calories speed walking versus slow walking, but the difference is the amount of time … 15 mins speed walking would be 30 to 35 slow walking.”

Shoes matter too, for both walkers and runners.

Current research tends to advocate for more minimal padding in the shoes. So even though the memory gel-lined cross trainers may feel cushy, they won’t do much for your technique (or your spine).

If you’re addicted to speed walking, you can tweak your technique to avoid injury. Chris suggests shortening your steps so that you’re stepping mid-foot rather than at the heel to minimize impact and the potential for lower leg injury.

More food for thought: The people who live to be  the oldest in the world are known for slow walking every day.
“None of them speed walk,” Chris said.

Have more questions about your speed walking or whether you might be able to switch to a running program? Contact a PT at OrthoCarolina.


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Chris Dollar is a residency and fellowship trained orthopedic manual physical therapist with 34 years experience. Chris’ focus in practice is in medical exercise therapy and manual/manipulative therapy approaches to examination and treatment of musculoskeletal conditions. He serves as a Clinical Specialist III, Coordinator of Clinical Education and Executive Coordinator of the Therapy Residency Program for OrthoCarolina. He’s based at OrthoCarolina’s Eastover physical therapy center.