The Rest Step: A Tip for Varying Your Walking Technique

Howard E. Friedman, DPM
Trail Walker


Walking is a two-step process. First, lose your balance. Then, regain your balance, moving in the direction you wish to travel. Continue moving one foot in front of the other.

Walking is inherently efficient and smooth. Walking allows one to continue long after the distance runner has run out of energy, albeit at a slower pace. A walker can go places a cyclist cannot. Skiers and swimmers can cover long distances in shorter times, but the walker needs neither snow nor water.

Walking does not naturally allow for any respite without completely stopping, breaking the rhythm and cadence of the gait cycle. The fluidity of walking could prevent the hiker from taking in all of the sights on the trail.

Enter the rest step. This modification of walking is popular with mountaineers ascending steep snowy grades. It allows them, often carrying heavy gear and breathing oxygen-poor air at a high altitude, a moment to recoup strength before continuing higher. With the rest step, body weight is borne more by the skeletal structure of the leg and less by the quadriceps and other muscles. It’s a technique can be adopted by hikers in Harriman State Park, the Catskills, or even on a moderately graded uphill carriageway in Westchester County.

The modification to your walk is simple. In normal walking one foot swings forward while the other is on the ground, the back heel beginning to lift. As the back foot is almost completely off the ground the front foot has contacted the ground and the cycle repeats. To perform the rest step lock the knee of the back leg when that foot is on the ground. Place all your weight on the back leg for a second or so before continuing on. The back leg in essence becomes a temporary walking stick or trekking pole.

Maximize the rest benefit by using two hand-held hiking poles. Together with the locked back leg, these create a temporary three-legged stool allowing for a brief respite.

The rest step is best appreciated going uphill, but it can be utilized on moderately sloped or even flat terrain. And while the primary goal of the rest step is to rest the leg muscles, the rest step may even allow the hiker an extra moment to take in the scenery otherwise missed during the otherwise steady pace of hiking.

Howard E. Friedman, DPM, is a podiatrist and frequent contributor to Trail Walker.