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A Mile is Not a Mile is Not a Mile

Training yourself to walk 10 miles a day is great. It doesn’t, however, mean that you’ll be able to easily walk 10 miles a day in an entirely different environment. Which is fine! But it’s something to consider when you’re planning a trip…

Ever since becoming a follower of Katy Bowman, I have worked on increasing my daily walking. I’ve always been a walker, as I come from a long line of walkers… My grandfather famously refused to subscribe to the daily newspaper, choosing instead to walk, every morning, to the newsstand to buy one. My mother routinely walks her errands downtown, used to walk to work, and (now, in retirement) has several “walking dates” per week with different friends. I used to be told I walked fast, and my theory was that it came from trying to keep up with my mom in my childhood!

(I don’t walk quite so quickly any more, partly due to my change in style- from a leaning-forward-actually-falling-and-catching-myself-power-walk to a more upright, more aligned, more mindful stroll. But my form is not actually what this post is about.)

Dawn under Whitney

I happen to live, at the moment, in a place where walking is not exactly encouraged. I live in a rural residential area, where there are no sidewalks, cars speed by AND there are no destinations within a few hours walking distance worth walking towards.  Also, it’s hot. The fact that most people drive everywhere here is evidenced by the plethora of drive-throughs for any and every type of business. So, I have absolutely come to terms with walking just for the sake of walking, for those reasons. And I do, around my neighborhood. Walking as transportation to get somewhere just isn’t much of an option here.

So, since I’m walking just for the sake of getting my 5 miles per day, I tend to pay attention to the lengths of my walks. This, of course, is made so easy by the little pocket computer I keep with me called my smartphone. There are plenty of apps out there that will tell me how far (and how fast) I’ve just walked (or run or biked, etc.). There are also plenty of non-phone devices that will give you a good idea of distance, as well, such as step monitors or GPS units or super fancy disguised-as-a-bracelet things like this one.

Now those are some switchbacks.

Now those are some switchbacks.

Because I’ve been tracking my walks for some time now, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on estimating distances when walking. Partly it’s how much time it takes, partly it’s visual, and some of it isn’t really quantifiable but I’d consider an educated guess.


All of this recent experience judging distance has been in completely flat territory. Rockless territory (unless you count the crushed concrete roads). Also, most of my walking is with essentially no burden to carry. (My kids are big enough to walk entirely unassisted! Hooray!)

So during the planning stages of my (sort of) recent backpack trip, I was aware of the mileage for each day, and it all seemed very reasonable… even taking into account that I’m 15 years older than the last time I did a trip of this scope. 8 to 11 miles per day isn’t bad. I mean, a 10-mile walk around home can take me three hours. All day seemed like plenty of time.

We came through that tiny notch.

We came through that low point wayyyyyy back there. Actually only about three miles back there…   seriously??

What we all learned (and of course we all knew this already, on some level) is that a mile is not a mile. A mile, at sea level, on flat ground, with no pack, is nothing like a mile at elevation, going steeply uphill, wearing 40 pounds. That’s obvious. But I was truly shocked, considering my recent practice at estimating mileage, at how UNable I was to have any idea how far we had been hiking most days. And at how LONG it took us to go 10 miles! (All day. It took us all of a very long day, although there were some pauses… and swimming breaks…)

Which just goes to show that 15 years is a long time to be away from a favorite pastime. And that just because it was no big deal when you were 25 doesn’t mean it’s still no big deal…. even if you don’t *feel* that much older. 

It also helps illustrate how differently our bodies have to move when there’s different terrain around. Walking on a trail isn’t the same as walking on a paved road, and hunting around for a campsite where there is no trail isn’t the same as walking on the trail. Different muscles are being used, different foot angles, even different brain cells- because you pay a lot more attention to where your feet are placed when there isn’t a path for them.

Our environment is so uniform most of the time. We talk about how sitting is killing us, because we’re holding ourselves in the same position all the time everywhere: at our desk, in our car, at the table, on the couch. So the solution is to stand up more, walk more, move more. But if our movement is always always always the same, we could do better. Most of the time,  it’s up to us to create the variables.


So if you don’t have hills where you live, you’re missing out on a whole bunch of walking variables.  *I* am missing out on those variables, because it’s flatflatflat where I live right now. But there’s one park where I can go climb up some man-made hills, and I do go there now and then, just for the opportunity to climb and descend.  Do you live where it’s very steep everywhere? Do you long for flat stretches of walking?

But even taking the ascent and descent out of it, can you vary the terrain you’re walking upon? Find some sand, or rocks, or even just un-manicured grassy areas, to challenge your ankles and feet and brain a little bit? When you visit a park or a recreation area, can you stray off the trail and wander for a while? Any amount of challenge you can give your body is helpful. Carrying stuff? Change up the way you carry. Always throwing a backpack on is easy and allows for better arm swing, but try carrying your items in arms now and then. Carrying your kids? Make them walk! (If they can.) You might not get as far as fast, but they’ll be getting more movement and you can practice your carefully aligned walk. When they’re done, pick them up and go further. (I am well aware this isn’t as easy as I’m making it sound. I’ve been there and done that. But it’s worth doing!)

Walking daily is great. Walking five miles is fantastic. But walking in all kinds of ways and weathers and challenging yourself is even better. Mix it up whenever you can!




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