Learning to Walk Unobtrusively

The very design of much modern footwear forces us to move unnaturally, clumsily and noisily. Try walking normally in your ordinary shoes on a smooth hard surface at a quiet time of day.

Listen carefully to your footsteps. You'll probably be surprised at the variety of sounds you hear - a click or thud as your heel hits the ground, a slight slap as the flat of your foot comes down, and maybe a shuffle or scuffing sound if your foot twists a little as you push off for the next step. Your shoes themselves may creak slightly as they flex, and if they're lace-ups, the laces may jump and strike the uppers with a click as your foot lands.

The loudest of these sounds is the heel strike. It's extremely difficult to avoid if your shoes have heels, as they literally get in the way of natural walking. Your shoe heel hits the ground sooner and harder than your bare heel would - while the leg is further forward than it should ideally be when your weight is transferred to it - so you lurch forwards, landing faster than you otherwise would. Your weight is thus transferred quite suddenly to the ground via a rigid leg. As the loudness of the heel strike is roughly proportional to the energy of impact, and that increases as the square of the speed, it's very difficult (and also very tiring) to walk quietly in heeled shoes. At worst, if you're wearing heavy boots with thick, rigid soles, you may feel a jarring up your spine as your heel strikes the ground, and your body will come to a sudden, muscle-straining stop at the end of each forward lurch.

Suitable footwear

Heel-less, flat soled shoes are the first and most important contribution to walking quietly. Flexible soles are the second requirement. A rigid sole cannot avoid scuffing the surface you're walking on as your foot rolls forwards. It prevents the smooth transfer of power to your toes at the end of the step, frequently resulting in a slight backward or rotational skid. The third requirement is to avoid "arch supports". These are a really dumb invention, and it's beginning to be accepted at last that they can actually contribute to sports injuries. But even for normal walking, they're the equivalent of stuffing blocks of wood under the springs of your car. The arch of the foot is a natural shock absorber, so it pays to let it do its job.

So having repeated the listening exercise often and attentively enough to become attuned to the sounds of your walking in ordinary shoes, repeat the experiment in old-fashioned rubber-soled tennis shoes ("plimsolls") or soft-soled heel-less boat shoes. You'll probably hear less thumps and more skid noises than when you practiced in ordinary shoes, and rubber soles may squeak until you eliminate the scuffing in your step. But you'll still most likely be lurching forwards onto your leading heel while it's still too far from the ground. This is the first thing that needs to be addressed.

The quiet walk

To start with, aim to shorten your normal stride by about a third. That should make the forward lurch substantially smaller. Then slow down - roughly halve your pace. Now practice walking (otherwise as normal) with this stride and pace until it becomes automatic at will. Once you can do this you'll find you're walking much more smoothly than before, with less of a lurch.

Now for the quiet walking technique. Start from a relaxed standing position with both feet side by side. Keeping your body vertical and stationary, swing your chosen leg forwards, at the same time slightly bending the knee to increase the clearance between your sole and the ground. Then, instead of landing on your forward heel with your foot canted upwards (the position conditioned by heeled shoes), point your foot slightly downwards, and swing your leg down until your toes contact the ground while keeping the whole of your weight over your rearward foot. Let your toes flex and then progressively roll your foot backwards into full contact with the ground. At this point, practically none of your weight is yet borne by your forward foot.

Wait until your forward foot is flat on the ground before drawing your body forwards and rising onto the toes of your rearward foot. Your step should finish up with you standing simultaneously on the flat of your forward foot and the bent toes of your rearward foot with all your weight over your forward foot. If you get it right your upper body should not rise and fall as you walk. If you have to stop suddenly, the optimum point on the cycle is with both feet flat on the ground - after the forward foot has landed flat and before the rearward foot starts rolling forwards, with all your weight still over your rearward foot. If you get caught by surprise (attention, remember!) with the rearward foot on its toes, you can usually gently roll it flat again without much hazard of the small movement being noticed.

This may sound a bit complicated or reminiscent of the Ministry of Silly Walks, but I originally got the idea from watching dogs stalking - they move in much this way instinctively. It does take practice, but it does help to make your walk much quieter by ensuring a gradual transfer of your weight onto your leading foot via a sophisticated shock absorber instead of landing noisily with a sudden heel impact.

Once you've mastered the movements, practice carrying them out as slowly and smoothly as possible while maintaining balance. You should easily be able to reduce your pace a lot while maintaining an uninterrupted flow of motion. Having accomplished this, try taking single smooth steps, stopping at the end of every step and remaining as still as you can for five or ten seconds. It's actually quite a stable position to pause in. Although your lateral balance may seem poor at first it will improve with practice. Then practice taking steps at random intervals, pausing completely still in between. However good you get at the technique, it's impossible to remain totally silent, and nothing gives you away so much as a regular tread.

Sensing the surface

The next learning process is the cultivation of the foot's sense of touch while wearing your thin-soled flat footwear. To start with it's useful to practice on strongly textured surfaces. The bumpy paving strips provided for blind people at road crossings and on railway platforms are useful, as are patterned iron manhole covers, white and yellow lines in car parks, coarse asphalt and various textures of concrete. The aim is to learn to distinguish what you're standing on without looking down. Once you can do this on these coarse textured surfaces, you're ready to progress to the wild.