Power walking falls between the ramble and the race
Chen Ding and Zhen Wang of China and Erick Barraondo Guatemala lead during the Race Walk Athletics on Day 8 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 4, 2012 in London, England. (Jeff J. Mitchell, Getty Images)
Whatever your fitness level, experts say, there will be perks.
"Landing on the heel, rolling to the toes ... using short but fast strides are characteristic of both power and race walking," said Dr. Dixie Thompson, head of the department of kinesiology, recreation and sport studies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Race walking has been an Olympic event since 1906.
"Race walking as a competition is very specific," Thompson said. "I would define power walking as a type of walking that is purposely brisk, as a way to enhance fitness and increase caloric expenditure while walking."
Thompson, who has written about walking for fitness for the American College of Sports Medicine, said almost anyone who walks for physical activity could increase his or her pace without getting specific coaching.
"Increasing the pace, even if your technique isn't exactly right, still has a positive outcome," said Thompson, who has been interested in walking for physical activity since the 1990s.
Power walking or speed walking occurs at the upper end of the natural range for the walking gait. But unlike jogging or running, at least one foot is in contact with the ground at all times.
"There's less force placed on the joints compared to running," Thompson said. "You're not lifting yourself off the ground and landing. You're never completely airborne, so you don't have that jarring force."
But she cautions that overdoing any activity could lead to injury.
"If you're 250 pounds and have never walked, knees may be sore, back may be sore, ankles may be sore," she said.
Thompson said power walking could certainly be used as a way to meet American College of Sports Medicine guidelines, which call for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week.
"Most people would be in moderate intensity with power walking," she said. "Some people can get to vigorous intensity, but you have to walk very, very fast."
San Diego-based fitness expert Tamilee Webb walks for fitness: on the beach, on mountain trails, and with her dog.
"You want to keep moving, but you want to make changes that are right for your body as you age," said Webb, 53.
Older runners who switch to power walking often add hand weights to increase the intensity of their workouts, Webb said.
"Always have a balance of cardiovascular (walking), muscle conditioning, and flexibility," she advises. "Your upper body is not getting a lot of muscle tone with walking."
And invest in good walking shoes.
"Do you have a high arch, a flat foot? Do you pronate?" she said. "My rule of thumb is: If it hurts, don't do it."
Dr. Dan Solomon, the San Francisco-based spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, has seen a few 50-to-60-year-old runners switch to walking.
These are usually people who realize their knees would not hold up for distances, he said, adding that it is difficult to convince a runner not to run.
Wear and tear is not inevitable, Solomon said.
"I've seen marathon runners who've done tens of marathons, and their joints are pristine," he said. "It comes down to technique, along with some genetic predisposition to good cartilage."
Some people are unstable even when walking slowly, Solomon said, while others can be high-impact walkers without knowing it.
"Typically I watch them, and I ask them about their history and if they have pain," he said, adding that a gait analysis, usually conducted in a laboratory setting, is another option.
Thompson urges people who walk for fitness to watch their pace.
"A lot of people who go out for a walk are actually going out for a stroll," she said.
(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Lisa Von Ahn)