The next time you’re at the beach, take a look at the footprints in the sand. You’ll probably notice that most of them form a V-pattern. Do yours?
Though it may feel natural, walking with your feet turned out (instead of parallel) is not the way our bodies were designed to walk and can cause stress to bones, joints and muscles over time. “Think about it: Your feet bear all your weight. If they’re out of alignment, your whole body is,” says Todd Sinett, MD, a Manhattan-based chiropractor and author of the soon-to-be-released 3 Weeks to a Better Back (October 2015). “When your feet are open like a duck, you alter the normal walking mechanism and put pressure on the knees, hips and lower back.”
You may also end up with an imbalance of muscle development. People who have a habitual turnout (like ballet dancers standing in first position) tend to have weak inner thighs and strong outer thighs, says Jonathan Fitzgordon, a New York–based yoga instructor and creator of the Core Walking Program. Tight, shortened muscles are another repercussion of too much turnout. Runners and power walkers who log many miles with a splayed gait often complain of chronic soreness in the piriformis, the deep buttock muscle that helps rotate the hip to turn the leg out. When the piriformis is overused, it can go into spasm and irritate the nearby sciatic nerve, causing pain along the back of the leg.
To undo turnout takes time. The patterns are deeply ingrained. According to Fitzgordon, most of us are duck-walkers from an early age. “As toddlers, we walk perfectly—at first. Then we imitate our parents and the way they walk, and it all falls apart,” he explains. “No one really teaches us to walk properly.”
The first step to getting your gait back on track is awareness. Assess your stance facing a mirror: Are your feet angled out a little or a lot? Is the angle the same degree or is one foot turned out more than the other? Are your knees facing forward (they should be) or glancing off sideways? Is your weight resting on your heels so you can lift your toes without shifting?
Then take a walk. Notice where you feel the weight pass through your foot, says Barbara Loomis, a Portland, Ore.-based specialist in alignment therapy, who suggests having someone videotape you walking. Weight should feel evenly distributed as you roll from the heel to ball of your foot. If weight passes over a turned-out foot, she says, it lands on the inner side of the big toe—a strain that may lead to bunions.
"You want to land on your inner heel, which is designed to take the weight," says Fitzgordon. Check the soles of your shoes: If they’re more worn down on the outside edge, you’re landing on the outer edge of your heel, also known as pronating.
Simply turning your toes in is not the solution, says Fitzgordon. Do that and your knees will likely cave inward. You need to bring your legs directly under your hips (not pushed forward or hyperextended backward), rotate your thigh bones out (which brings knees into alignment) and keep toes straight ahead. Fitzgordon also suggests taking shorter steps. “Long strides tend to force people onto the outside of the foot,” he explains.
Practice is key to breaking old patterns. At first, it may feel like you’re pigeon-toed (though if you look down you’ll see you aren’t), but that sensation will eventually feel normal—and good. “When we walk with our feet and legs aligned it allows our joints, ligaments and muscles to be aligned as well," says Loomis. "This reduces stress on the joints and improves blood flow to the tissues. But how you get into neutral feet is important. You don’t want to force yourself into a position after years and perhaps decades of walking with feet splayed out. It's best to make shifts gradually to give the tissues time to adapt."
Now that’s incentive to get your feet moving in the right direction.