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To Go the Distance, You Need Technique


"Everybody, stand up, close your eyes, feel your feet. Is the majority of your weight on your heels or the balls of your feet?"

It's a sunny Saturday morning in a meeting room in Santa Monica's Lincoln Park. Outside are the shouts of a basketball game. Inside Sherry Brourman, wearing khaki shorts and a red T-shirt, is leading a peppy walking clinic for a roomful of women and a few men. All are paying attention, hoping to get through the upcoming 3-Day Avon Walk without injury.

Brourman, a Los Angeles physical therapist, has 25 years of experience teaching people how to walk. Although walking looks easy, she said, three days of walking is something else--and this is an inexperienced group.

"Anything with this kind of distance and hours per day is insanely hard," Brourman says.

It's her theory that an incorrect gait causes or worsens pain of the hip, back, neck and elsewhere in the body. Her formula for breaking bad habits is detailed in her new book, with Randy Rodman, titled "Walk Yourself Well" (Hyperion).

But the book is 280 pages, and now Brourman is trying to give participants a short course on proper walking technique, explaining that a person's primary movement pattern, developed over a lifetime, can be changed.

"You will be able to make this walk because passion drove you to sign up and drove you here," she tells her students, "but it will be much easier if you aren't compressing your spine and jamming your knees with every step."

She illustrates the classic bad posture pattern: Leaning back slightly with the center of gravity behind the main support (hips, legs and feet) rather than in front.

"This often starts on the floor when a heel is put down too far to the outside or inside," she says. "Anybody notice the outside of your [shoe's] heel wearing faster than the inside?

To compensate for the heel's position, the foot rolls in, the knees lock, you collapse down into your hips, compressing the spine. Ultimately you want to be lifting away from gravity, not sinking into it, she explains.

Although leaning back is the most common posture-related problem, there are others. Brourman enumerates:

* Raising the rib cage upward and out in breathing (pulling your shoulders back) and lifting the chest, which causes your center of gravity to move back.

* Locking the knees (which should be very slightly soft), to support the body, which allows the muscles you should be using (stomach and back) to weaken.

* Stepping back with an outside heel strike instead of a center heel strike, which throws you entirely off-balance.

By the end of the session, each participant has walked across the room and been briefly analyzed.

"Remember, if nothing else, I want you to learn how to read your body," Brourman says. "Tune in, so that when something starts to ache, you make a mechanical change. If one thing gets out of balance, everything starts to break down."

This is the eighth clinic for Brourman, who volunteered her time.

"The first day I expected to walk into a room full of athletes. Instead, there was probably one out of 60. The rest were, relatively speaking, out of shape. My reaction was horror."

Dr. Marilyn Pink, director of the Centinela Hospital Biomechanics Laboratory, which studies human motion, agrees that the repetition on joints of a three-day walk is an uncommon challenge.

"The friction is cumulative when you do the same thing over and over and over," she said.

She advises a good stretch before and after each day's walk ("and do it immediately upon stopping, as waste products will build up in muscles") and frequent stretch breaks along the way.

"Walking taxes both your muscular-skeletal and cardiovascular systems," she said. "At every break, stretch your back, your legs, your arms, your neck: They will have been in that same posture, doing that same thing for hours."

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